I am scared to my bones to… become an entrepreneur

Jump or hold tight? Filippo Ruffini/Unsplash

What is the number-one response when you ask someone who comes to you, with a head full of ideas and entrepreneurial motivations, about why does he or she doesn’t move forward? Because they are scared – they feel fear.

But what does academic studies, psychology and life tell us about facing these fears? From an academic perspective, an entrepreneur is by no means a risk-taker whose ambitions and desires know no limits. In fact, he or she is someone who can acknowledge that entrepreneurship is not a life or death choice. Entrepreneurs understand and integrate within their choices a concept that we define as an affordable loss.

Take the example of Lina, a Brazilian woman that I met on an airplane. When I mentioned I was a professor of entrepreneurship, she told me that she was a lawyer but that her dream was to run a store where she could sell clothes, because she loved fashion and considered herself to be very good at choosing garments. I asked, why wouldn’t she try it? She said she was scared that she might fail.

Sources of fear

An April 2018 article in the Harvard Business Review finds that entrepreneurial fear can have seven different sources:

  • financial security
  • ability to fund the venture
  • personal ability/self-esteem
  • potential of the idea
  • threats to social esteem
  • the venture’s ability to execute
  • opportunity costs.

However, building on the notion of affordable loss – the amount of all of these resources that we are willing to lose – it is easier to motivate ourselves to find a viable business model that can allow us to launch and test an entrepreneurial venture.

In the case of Lina, she could analyse these seven elements and decide to invest an amount of money she feels comfortable with losing. She could buy some inventories and sell her articles on a pop-up store during a weekend, open an e-commerce site or just sell to friends and family. In this way, she can quickly learn a lot about the viability of the idea, the market potential and her own ability to put it to work. If we know what we are ready to lose, we immediately know as well the resources that we are ready to invest, which constitute in themselves the resources available to the idea and the firm.

From a psychological perspective, there is an important fear that needs more work to be addressed; the fear of independence. As the psychoanalyst Moussa Nabati explains in his book Réussir la separation (“Overcoming Separation”) that life is a continuous flow of separations that cause suffering, are demanding, that test us, reveal our shortcomings and also our strengths.

Becoming an entrepreneur requires a separation; a separation from a rhythm of life, from a known profession, from the comfort of a regular job, or even from the comfort of just staying the same. This separation, and the feelings that we associate to it, have as a common origin, according to Nabati, the rupture of the natural separation of a mother and her child.

The stress and anguish that many feel when thinking about becoming entrepreneurs is actually related to the natural fear of leaving something known, something that gives us assurance and tranquillity. For those more prone to become entrepreneurs, dealing with such separation is easier. Recent research shows that entrepreneurs who have faced difficult life changes tend to be more at ease with launching themselves than those who have not. This is because in dealing regularly with separation, they become better at finding the internal peace and strength to deal with the unknown, with the independence that is so crucial to become an entrepreneur.

Facing up to the fear

A final element of reflection is what fear itself constitutes. The TV show Brain Games produced a special edition dedicated to the question of fear. They discuss how fear is actually necessary because it is a natural protection against danger, but one that we develop over time – a 1-year old is not capable of understanding that if he jumps off the window of a building he is in great danger; a 4-year old is quite aware of this.

The fear that we build over our life and because of our experiences is therefore self- and experience-based; we learn to feel fear. However, once we’ve built fear, it is not as easy to detach ourselves from it. As a good friend of mine was fighting cancer, he said that the question that he was asked most often was whether or not he was afraid. His answer was simple yet profound: He knew fear was an awful creature that, if your tried to hide or run away from it, would chase you in many forms and ways. Therefore, the best way to combat fear was to face it. Yes, when you see fear coming your way you have to stand strong and say “Fear, here I am”

More importantly, he realised that fear, in reality, is us. There is no fear outside of our brains. Fear is a construction that we have built within us in order to protect us. And this protection can actually be helpful for the future entrepreneur if he or she learns how to address it. Because this fear can, based on our past experiences, protect us from eventual dangers. Therefore, if we address fear appropriately, what we might end up finding is either self-doubts that we need to address, resources that we are missing (for example, acknowledging that we might not have enough time), anticipating certain constraints or obstacles and even pushing us to create value and a competitive advantages that give our ideas more potential.