Nearly every success story — every hero’s journey—involves overcoming some fear. In fact, read enough success stories, and you might just conclude that fear itself is the greatest inhibitor of success. Have the courage to face your fears, and continue on your path despite those fears, and you will undoubtedly know this to be true.
I became an entrepreneur in 2013, in the middle of divorce, with no money and no clients. I had wanted for some time to be my own boss, to escape the limitations of the environment that was financially supporting me, but there was always a reason to put it off. Those reasons all fell under the very vague umbrella of “it just wasn’t practical.” But why?
Everywhere I looked, it seemed that plenty of equally or less qualified people were living my dream, freely pursuing their passion and doing something they loved for a living. These were ordinary people with ordinary lives — school debt, mortgages, little league baseball games, etc. — they were not all Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. The only distinction between these entrepreneurs having their own business and me not having my own was that they got up the courage and took the initiative to actually start their own business. I, on the other hand, was paralyzed by fear and doubt.
Fear and doubt are not exactly the same thing. Fear is emotional, a feeling; doubt is uncertainty, or not knowing. It takes courage to overcome fear, while it takes faith to overcome doubt. To act out of courage is to act despite your fears. To act out of faith is to act knowingly despite having proof.
Define failure and success
What every person is ultimately afraid of when it comes to starting a business is that the business will “fail” (or not “succeed”) for one reason or another. This makes defining failure and success a necessary first step in the equation, and one I believe most overlook or do not fully understand.
If you had asked me at the time what my business succeeding meant, I probably would have said something about making a lot of money, being able to support myself and my family while experiencing some of life’s luxuries. Success meant doing what I love while making at least as much money as I would have been making if I stayed employed, while being much happier. My definition of failure, therefore, would have been not achieving these lofty goals. But the reality is that I was not afraid of failing to achieve my grand vision of success.
What I was afraid of, my real fear, was not being able to support myself or my children and ending up homeless and penniless in the street. I was afraid of the worst-case scenario. Given my education, experience, work ethic, etc., however, this worst-case scenario was the least likely to happen. I had no doubt that I was qualified and capable, but I was terrified of not surviving or making ends meet. My fear was driving my doubt. Once I realized that my fear was irrational because of how unlikely the worst-case scenario was to occur, my doubt miraculously went away.
In 2014, actor, author, comedian and painter Jim Carrey gave a commencement speech at Iowa’s Maharishi University of Management, in which he said: “So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality. What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect.” When you take a closer look, however, our fears are often not rooted in what is practical. Our fears are usually based on the unlikely worst-case scenario. Carrey goes on to say:
“My father could have been a great comedian, but he didn’t believe that that was possible for him. And so he made a conservative choice. Instead, he got a safe job as an accountant. And when I was 12 years old, he was let go from that safe job, and our family had to do whatever we could to survive. I learned many great lessons from my father, not the least of which was that you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.”
Truer words have never been spoken, and Carrey’s dad is not alone. According to one source, an astonishing 40% of Americans have been laid off or terminated from a job at least once. Comparatively, statistics published in 2019 by the Small Business Administration (SBA) reveal that 20% of business startups fail in the first year, while about half succumb to business failure within five years. Looking at those numbers, taking a chance on doing what you love may not be that much of a greater risk than getting what you consider a “safe” job.
The tragedy of Carrey’s father is not that he failed to take a chance at doing what he loved; it is that he was overcome by doubt in himself driven by an irrational fear of the least-likely scenario of poverty coming true. He underestimated his own abilities and the likelihood of succeeding at doing what he loved versus the likelihood of failing, or being laid off, at a “safe” job.
Jim Carrey is an exceptional, one-of-a-kind comedic success. If you want to become a comedian, you cannot define success as becoming the next Jim Carrey. That is an unreasonable and unnecessary benchmark to achieve. Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, and any other entrepreneur that has become a household name, are also all exceptions. Setting out to achieve their success when becoming an entrepreneur will almost definitely result in failure. You absolutely should not be afraid of failing to achieve such astronomical success, because you almost certainly will not. Setting out to make a living owning your own company, on the other hand, is a much more practical proposition.