Let Nothing You Dismay

Posted By on December 16, 2009

Fear is a useful thing. In an article in the New York Times Magazine a couple of months ago, Robin Marantz Henig described current research exploring the complex links between temperament and the brain. It was a fascinating article, but what struck me is that the more we learn about the psychology of fear, it seems like we become less able to predict how it will affect any given individual. Henig quotes Susan Engel, a developmental psychologist at Williams College, who has learned to cope with anxiety in a positive way: “The way we deal with it is that we both get everything done in lots of time. We can’t stand the anxiety of a looming deadline; we’re so worried about being late that we do it five days early.” In one sense, fear is a strength, one that can provide foresight and drive. Anticipating problems in advance can help you prepare for them, and fear of failure is a strong motivator that can push you to execute strongly and keep your eye on the details. But fear can also be crippling if you let it stop you from taking risks. One thing I learned in researching The Richest Man in Town is that most of the RMITs are no strangers to failure. In fact, just about all of them would tell you what they told me—if you’ve never failed at anything, you’re just not trying hard enough.

“Hope that you fail, and hope that you fail early” is how David Rubenstein, Washington’s RMIT, who founded and runs the Carlyle Group, put it to me. “Nobody has uninterrupted success. Everybody has failures, and those who have too charmed a life early in the first third of their life, more likely than not will not be stars in the next third of their life, or certainly the final third of life. The folks who end up being on the Forbes 400 list or winning Nobel prizes are people who did not have all the awards and all the success in the early part of their lives.” This jibes with what Anchorage, Alaska’s RMIT, Bob Gillam, told me: “Success is not so much about winning as it is repairing damage when you lose.” In other words, those who fail early learn how to adapt that much sooner, and have more time to get back on their feet and start moving forward again, wiser for the experience.

The Chinese use the same character for “crisis” and “opportunity.” Seeing failure as a positive part of life can be tricky for us Americans, who grow up steeped in a business culture that tends to divide people into winners and losers. The trick is to take the long view. J. K. Rowling famously had to go on the dole while she finished her children’s book about a student wizard, only to have it rejected by dozens of publishers. Steve Jobs couldn’t get arrested in Silicon Valley when he first tried to launch his computer company. Failure, like any change, is inevitable; the winners are those who can turn the proverbial lemons into lemonade—or turn lemons into Apple. Something to think about as you wrap those Harry Potter DVDs and iPods this holiday season.

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About The Author

W. Randall Jones is the author of The Richest Man in Town. Visit the About W. Randall Jones and About The Richest Man in Town pages to learn more.