Grit, sacrifice, hard work, vision…There’s no shortage of advice on developing any of these attributes crucial to entrepreneurship. Yet, little is said about these specific needs that all entrepreneurs must have if they’re going to succeed:
As a four-time CEO of public and private companies, the founder of one of the first post-Soviet era joint ventures, and the first American since Charles Lindbergh to pilot an aircraft into the Russian Kamchatka peninsula (1992), I’ve seen that courage is the one thing that matters most in success as an entrepreneur, or any other endeavor in life for that matter.
What every hero, explorer, adventurer, warrior, first responder, pilot, athlete, and entrepreneur all have in common is the extraordinary ability to push through the uncertainties of their situations to achieve success. This is what courage truly is. In some cases, it even extends to sacrificing one’s life along the way.
Where does the courage to take these actions come from? How can entrepreneurs use it to achieve great things?
The truth is that most entrepreneurs fail, and for very good reasons; lack of preparation, confusing an opportunity with a mirage, an idea that couldn’t hold up to competitive market pressures, poor macroeconomic conditions leading to undercapitalization or excessive costs, or just bad timing. Merely facing this reality takes courage. Yet, even if all of these factors work in your favor, you still have to summon the courage to make the commitments needed to push through the uncertainties inherent in entrepreneurship. You certainly won’t have all the answers. You’ll have every reason to be afraid because everything will be on the line. Without courage, you won’t be able to push the button and make the right decisions at the right time.
Courage is not just about accepting risk. Risk is measurable with the ways and means of determining if they are acceptable or can be mitigated. It’s the uncertainty of situations that can be terrifying. Most people simply can’t tolerate uncertainty. Tony Robbins observed that most people would prefer to live in mediocrity than take the actions they could take to significantly improve their lives, even if the better outcome was virtually certain. Their fear paralyzes them. They are pessimists. And it is highly contagious. Conversely, people with courage are invariably optimists. They find a way to push through their fears, their doubts, and the uncertainties of their situations to accomplish what they must to be great entrepreneurs.
Acknowledge your fears
We all have fears. Make a list of what you are afraid of. This might require some soul-searching: maybe you’ve never really thought about what frightens you before. It could be roller coasters, tall heights, airplanes, caves, snakes, spiders, failing, etc. Whatever you’re afraid of, write it down. Prioritize a top ten list.
Confront your fears
Create a plan to confront your fears and anxieties for each. If you’re afraid of airplanes, arrange a private flight where you can sit in the copilot seat. If it’s roller-coaster rides, head to an amusement park and climb aboard.
By confronting your feelings of fear and discomfort, you may come to realize that a normal response to fear is to create the illusion of control. Your mind pretends that you’re able to make the world small enough for you to feel safe.
Taking prudent precautions is always a practical way to reduce risk. But, thinking that one seat on an airplane is somehow safer than any other is an excellent example of fear masquerading as control.
Ask yourself why you’re afraid
This requires some introspection. Start to notice when your choices are being shaped by fear, and pause to ask yourself what, exactly, you’re afraid of. Ridicule? Discomfort? Physical harm? Failure? Imagine the worst-possible scenario in each case and consider how likely that really is.
Practice venturing beyond your comfort zone
Look for opportunities to get out of your comfort zone and experience the things that trigger fear. Start small and keep at it. Courage is like a muscle: the more you challenge yourself to do things that frighten you and let go of the illusion of control, the more courage you’ll build.
A famous Churchill saying goes that the pessimist sees the difficulty in every situation while the optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. Most people know who they are. Some people characterize themselves as “realists.” I think of them as pessimists with positive attitudes. Successful entrepreneurs are pathologically optimistic. If you’re not an optimist, maybe think about not being an entrepreneur and, instead working with one. Perhaps as the CFO or the COO. Successful entrepreneurs need pessimists and realists to work with to keep us from running off a cliff. I’ll be forever grateful to my COO and CFO for the positive impact their natures made on me.
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Steven Myers is a successful four-time CEO and serial entrepreneur, director of public and private company boards, public speaker, accomplished aviator, two-time Air Force veteran, and the author of Cross Winds: Adventure and Entrepreneurship in the Russian Far East. He is the founder of SM&A, Inc., which grew into a NASDAQ-listed $110 million annual revenue international management consulting firm serving aerospace & defense, aviation, telecommunications, and other high-tech industry clients. After a very successful IPO in 1998, he served as Chairman and CEO for ten years before the company was sold to private equity in 2008. His private equity investment company, Dolphin Capital Holdings, Inc., has interests in a broad array of enterprises.
Myers was the first American since Charles Lindbergh to pilot an aircraft into the Russian Kamchatka peninsula, where he formed one of the first post-Soviet era joint ventures. An Ernst & Young “Entrepreneur of the Year” for Software and Information Services, and a graduate of Stanford University with a BS in Mathematics, he served three terms on the US Department of State Advisory Committee on International Economic Policy under two Secretaries of State—Hillary Clinton and John Kerry—as well as on the Department of Homeland Security Advisory Council Task Force on Cyber Resources.