Leadership / 06.24.21
Fear of the Unknown: Taming the Beast
Editor’s Note: This article is based on a session that was presented at the 2021 INTIX Live! Digital Conference. Aren is a longtime INTIX member and sits on the INTIX Board of Directors.
Most of us have experienced “the unknown” at various times in our lives. As a young child, I found the unknown exciting. Because of my father’s job, our family lived in a trailer and moved every few months. I loved the constant change and finding a new world each time. I was young. I was carefree. Then I became an adult with responsibilities and people counting on me to lead and know the answers.
My first ticketing position was at Texas A&M. After more than a decade, I was comfortable. I knew every answer, and I only had to face the unknown after I was thoroughly prepared, and only if I wanted to. Join a new committee? Tell me more about it. Oh, yeah, sure. That sounds like fun. You want to offer a new service? Yes, that’s what I want to do. Let me present to you what I have available.
Then in 2013, I was recruited for a job with the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. They had a building on paper. They obtained and renovated a historic building, but there weren’t even seats. They wanted someone to run their customer relationship management (CRM) system and be the director of their new concept in ticketing services. They wanted me to create things from nothing. Everything was unknown. I was going to be in a position where nothing was settled. We had a CRM system where everything was customizable. We had to transition resident company customers who wanted to sit in their usual and preferred row S seats, but that was in the old building! I had to work with their fear of the unknown as well as my fear of the unknown, board member’s fear of the unknown and co-worker’s fear of the unknown. What an opportunity!
I was at the Tobin for seven years. I had gotten comfortable again, and then COVID-19 hit. What does that mean? All those status quo plans out the window. Now, I am experiencing fear of the unknown all over again.
Do you know the feeling? Here are some skills that might help, both personally and in your professional journey.
Visions of the Unknown
First, let’s envision this fear of the unknown. I like to compare the unknown to the Beast from “Beauty and the Beast.” In this story, he is the epitome of the unknown. He was an unknown to himself. All of a sudden, he is no longer a prince. He is now this beast, and all his friends are no longer his friends. But is he to be feared, or is he to be celebrated? Is he something ugly and awful, or is he something good? His fear of the unknown caused him to be angry and act poorly toward others. Those who were fearful of the beast were arguing among themselves. What should they do with this beast, they wondered. By being fearful of the unknown, they became beasts themselves.
Cue Belle. She is afraid, but she is smart. And she is willing to investigate this beast. She wants to delve into the reality of that beast and find out who he is. Ultimately, she finds that there is good in him and, with that, there is hope for tomorrow.
Defining Fear of the Unknown
Our first step is to define that fear of the unknown so we can know it. Know the beast, because when we do not know our beast, we become the beast or the fear itself.
Fear is a feeling that triggers the perception of danger, whether it is real or imagined. The fear of the unknown is anxiety without the fight-or-flight response. There is a lack of immediate danger. It is a stop-and-listen reaction to something that does not currently exist. Does that mean the fear is irrational? Not really. Our survival instinct is to slow down and think.
The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard describes anxiety as the “dizziness of freedom.” Think of it as the dizzying effect of looking into the boundlessness of one’s own possibilities. That without anxiety there would be no possibility and, therefore, no capacity to grow and develop as a human being. In other words, anxiety only exists in the world where there are choices. For example, if you are standing on a cliff and have the opportunity to jump into the water, will you jump or stay where you are? You have the freedom to decide, and anxiety is believed to come from having a choice. To me, that feels exciting and reveals that the unknown is not necessarily something to fear. Instead, it offers opportunity.
The fear of the unknown is a useful tool that makes us slow down and consider our options. Here are some ways to take control of those scary opportunities.
Take Control of Your Responses Through:
- Journaling. When your mind is racing, take a moment to write down your thoughts. Your brain responds well to the act of journaling, and once a thought is on paper, it can reduce anxiety. If your mind is spinning with options, you need to sort it out and write them down. Your journal will become the place to find your “to do” lists, questions that need answering, the choices, the pros/cons and the thoughts you need to get out of your head.
- Quiet time. Take a moment to concentrate on absolutely nothing. Take in the silence that silences the thoughts from your head, and sit in the peace that you can get from meditating, or yoga or prayer. Just listen to the world around you. One of the simplest ways to be quiet is to concentrate on breathing. Breathe out, breathe in the good that’s around you. Then breathe out any fears or negative self-talk in your mind.
Encourage Yourself Through:
- Gratitude Lists. Write down at least five things you are grateful for each day. Read them regularly to help focus on the good in your life.
- Envision there is no chance of failure. Just as an athlete envisions running through a new skill, or a baseball player points to the back stands before hitting a home run or that magical mirror in “Harry Potter,” envision yourself succeeding.
- Write down past successes. You know you have succeeded and made great choices before. Put those success stories on paper to encourage yourself.
- Visitor talk with trusted friends. Trusted and positive friends will enhance your own positivity. They will point out your strengths, give you feedback, tell you the truth and remind you that you are an amazing human being.
- Be of service to others. Whether it is going big by throwing a celebration party, something in service of others like handing out food at a food pantry, or writing a quick note or text to lift up a family member or friend, you will clear negativity in yourself by recognizing or helping others.
- Absorb motivational articles, books and TED Talks. Take in things that are going to encourage you to move forward. Look up experts that can share what you need to know. Just do not use these things to distract you from taking necessary steps toward that unknown.
- Take a first step, celebrate it, then take another. To move forward, you cannot stay in one place. Despite the fear, one step leads to another, then each step becomes that next step you need to take.
- Schedule goal check-ins. Do routine checkups and check-ins with yourself to keep yourself accountable and moving forward.
Conquer the Quest for Knowledge Through:
- Curiosity. Be like Belle with the Beast. Be interested and investigate things. Start looking at the unlimited ideas in your “unknown” world. What is available to you that you have not previously explored? Do not approach uncertain, upcoming events believing a terrible outcome as a foregone conclusion. Rather, accept that it could be a great opportunity. Here are a couple of tools for exploration:
- “I wonder …” Use statements that start with “I wonder …” As examples, “I wonder what that looks like,” “I wonder what you are envisioning with your request,” “I wonder how that could happen,” or “I wonder what your goals are.” This comes across much better than a “no” or merely replacing “but” with “and” instead. By stating “I wonder …” out loud, you open up the room (or the Zoom call) to discuss concepts and ideas. This can be of help both personally and professionally.
- Green light/red light thinking. First brainstorm ideas using green light thinking where you can say anything and nothing is too outlandish. Then review the ideas with your red light thinking. Analyze how to make them reality and what is the most productive solution. Again, you will find personal and professional value in leveraging this tool.
- Expert advice. To help conquer professional “unknowns,” reach out to people you know and people you do not know. Be fearless and ask experts for their opinions and advice. Call, text, email, join social media groups, ask questions when you think you know the answer to reaffirm your thinking, and ask questions when you need to learn, too. There are always many points of view. You can even consider asking your customers. Be open to analyzing all advice with an open mind. You never know what you can learn and how that will help you grow in your career. There are also of course situations where expert advice can help you achieve personal goals.
Analysis and Goals
Now that you have gathered concepts, opened your mind and developed ideas for an unknown future, the next step is to analyze your ideas using fact-driven planning. Creating a blueprint focused on reaching professional objectives will help you move forward. Here are some steps to consider as you do:
- Conduct a SWOT analysis. This is a type of study you can undertake to collect details and plan your best outcomes. Once you have a concept you would like to move forward with, put pen to paper and list:
- Strengths – What works well that you already have in place?
- Weaknesses – Are there areas you need to shore up or resources you do not currently have but may need to succeed?
- Opportunities – What things are exterior to your current scope that could enhance the idea?
- Threats – Are there things exterior to your current scope that could endanger or compete with your idea?
Once you have collected these details, you can put together a business plan that shows you have considered the way forward from all angles.
- Create SMART goals. When creating goals for your business plan, using the “SMART” guideline will ensure that your plans are thoroughly formatted. A SMART goal is:
- Specific – Create a clear and concise statement of your goal.
- Measurable – Use numbers and data to define the change that is expected.
- Achievable – Ensure your goal is reasonable to attain.
- Relevant – Align the goal with your mission or long-term purpose.
- Timely – Define the expected completion date and consider check-ins along the way.
The ability to present SMART goals is a way to show yourself and your key influencers that you have resolved any unknowns you are facing with business acumen and intelligence.
It is also important to face fears by challenging and analyzing the situation. Ask yourself, your team and your experts the following questions:
- What is the worst thing that could happen?
- If the worst happened, how could you recover?
- What could happen if you are even remotely successful?
- What step do you fear the most?
- What is the cost to this fear and the delay?
Conquering the Fear of the Unknown in Co-Workers and Customers
Now that you are addressing your own fears of the unknown professionally as well as personally, it is important to remember that people around you may be having similar feelings. Here are suggestions to address this with colleagues and clients:
- Create planning teams. Remember to ensure they are diverse and varied, both in terms of expertise and even geography. Show your co-workers the problems you are solving and ask for their input. Show them your goals and ideas, then ask them to assist with your SWOT analysis. This will create that allusive “buy-in” to the final concept. Listen and show them how you are making your final decisions, and they will be your champions.
- Show customers the plan. Have customer focus groups review your plan. They will ask questions and give you the feedback that you will need to prepare for rolling out your solution.
- Be concise and clear. Now that you have feedback from peers and consumers, create concise and clear marketing messages as well as materials using these messages. Consider a PR campaign, emailing current customers, inform the board, and advise staff of any changes or plans that could in any way affect them. It is amazing what the maintenance staff needs to know.
Most of all, ensure your messages are easy to understand at a glance or stakeholders may be as lost as you were when facing the untamed beast.
Be Ready to Answer Questions
You had questions when the process started, so it is likely that your professional stakeholders will have questions. Allow them to ask for information, and have answers ready. The best people in your life are the ones who care enough to ask instead of walking away.
And one more thing on questions: Realize that even though you have heard the same question a hundred times, this is that person’s first time to ask it. Be kind and smile because you have the answer.
Consider these suggestions for helping customers overcome their fears:
- Conduct demonstrations, building/venue tours or ticket text tours.
- Try free/sample/discounted items to familiarize them with changes.
- Showcase proven track record/testimonials.
- Partner with a service they trust and are already familiar with.
After following these steps, have you noticed how the unknown can turn into an opportunity?
In the past year, we’ve seen amazing growth, change and inspiration due to struggle, anxiety and a fear of the unknown we have had to face through no fault of our own. We are still in the midst of the unknown, and it will continue. It is still a beast. But what kind of beast is he? The trick is to leave the anxiety behind, face it, tell it who is boss and use it as inspiration instead of allowing it to chain you down. Anxiety, or the fear of the unknown, is not an unconquerable beast. It is a tool that highlights choices and opportunity.
Anxiety has great value. It is a source of creativity. Always. You don’t create great art by sitting on the couch, having an afternoon nap. You don’t become an amazing athlete by sitting on the sidelines because you’re afraid of going out there and showing what you can do. You create because of the struggle. Without the anxiety, we would not have success. So, embrace that. Face it.
In the future, hold onto the knowledge that if you face the unknown and use a few fabulous tools, you could rise to a beautiful horizon!
Be Honest and Get Help
Please know that I have provided the advice in this article through personal experience, research and professional trainings because I have had to learn how to deal with the topic of facing professional adversity and changing times. I am not a professional counselor. If you are experiencing personal crisis, please be honest with yourself and reach out for professional assistance. It never hurts to talk to a trusted counselor. One place to consider starting is the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI. They are a nonprofit that can connect you with resources.
Editor’s Note: This presentation discusses basic coping skills for a basic concern for the unknown and is not intended to replace professional assistance. Please seek professional help if you experience feelings that make you feel out of control such as phobias, panic attacks, PTSD, or desire to harm yourself or others.
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Tags: Leadership , INTIX 2021