2011 A Year of Yes
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Power and freedom where fear used to be
By Nancy Zapolski, PhD
The Harvard Business Review might not be where you’d expect to read about fear’s pervasive presence, but an article there referred to a great passage from a Joseph Heller novel. The novel’s hero and narrator, Bob Slocum, a middling executive at an unnamed company, is driven nearly mad thinking that decisions might be made behind his back that could ruin his career and his life. He’s not alone in these thoughts. Slocum says, “In the office in which I work there are five people of whom I am afraid. Each of these five people is afraid of four people (excluding overlaps), for a total of twenty, and each of these twenty people is afraid of six people, making a total of one hundred and twenty people who are feared by at least one person.” The company, in other words, is a pyramid of potential panic, ready to topple when someone whispers, “Jig’s up.” *
Perhaps even more than sadness, anger, or disappointment, we find it difficult to deal with fear. Fear often keeps us from participating, from doing what we’re capable of—from experiencing and expressing the full range of possibility available in being human. This is not so much a function of the fear being operative, but rather of decisions made unwittingly long ago, and the automatic way we pull in our past experience. Old circumstances have the power, not us.
We don’t have to push down, work on top of, accommodate, or adapt to these old fears. We survived the first time, the second, third, and so on…. Completing a past fear includes recognizing that we would survive if the past repeated itself. There’s a big difference between being realistic about what happened once, and being resigned or stuck that things have to continue to be some way now, or that they just are some way, or they’ll be that way again. We have the freedom to choose our relationship to whatever it was back then, and that’s the beginning of building power. It takes enormous courage to try out new ways of being in the space where fear used to be.
* Thomas A. Stewart, “Seeing Things,” Harvard Business Review, February 2008.
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