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Why our fear of death is (metaphorically speaking) killing us!

August 1, 2016

Hello Friends,

How’s the increased sense of fear out there in the world right now?!?

We kinda pondered a similar question a few weeks ago, when we asked, ‘What the f@ck is going on?’. In some ways, this piece is a natural follow-on from that.

And of course, since then, a whole lot more gnarly, unpredictable stuff has gone down.

A sniper ambushing police at a rally in Dallas. A deranged loner plowing a refrigerator truck through the crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice. An attempted military overthrow in Turkey, complete with the president bizarrely resorting to Facetime to spread his message of resistance to the people. Yahoo, an internet media business being acquired for one tenth the amount that Microsoft offered for it only a few years ago. Donald Trump winning the Republican nomination, polling even with Hillary Clinton and calling on Russia to hack Clinton’s emails. Daily occurrences of gnarliness and complete unpredictability.

Welcome to the new normal*.

*It’s called VUCA, remember?

What on earth’s gonna happen next? Hopefully not this.

*Cause if it does we’re all farcked. Sadly, it probably will, at some point.

So it’s not really that surprising that we’re just a little bit consumed by fear at the moment.

During times of massive uncertainty, when we don’t know what’s gonna happen next, our initial response is to become fearful. Humans, after all, don’t trust what they don’t know.

A bubbling cocktail of extreme uncertainty, mistrust and knowledge deficit manifesting as fear.

It’s a potent mix.

Right now, the manifestation of this uncertainty, mistrust and knowledge deficit is reachingsemi-epic proportions. (The only reason I say semi-epic, and not full-blown epic, is cause I reckon it’s gonna get a whole lot crazier yet).

Oh, how we yearn for days gone by, when life was so much simpler, and easier, and more predictable!

Yeah, remember those days? Those days are what some economists refer to as the Great Moderation: the period of relative economic and social stability which began in the aftermath of the oil shocks of the 1970s and 80s and the demise of the Cold War, and ended with the GFC in 2008.

But it seems that we are now only really beginning to awaken to this new reality, to this new normal.

And we don’t like what we see.

Because what we see does not meet our expectations of how the world is meant to be.

We expected that the sunny days of the pre-GFC era would return once the dust had settled from the GFC. Remember in mid 2009 after the world’s share markets reached their March nadir? Financial commentators the world over were excitedly talking about the ‘green shoots’ of recovery that they were seeing in the US.

“Ah, excellent”, we all thought as we breathed a sigh of relief, “the storm has passed and soon we’ll be back to the good old days”.*

*”And hopefully our share market/superannuation/401 k portfolios will return to annual double digit growth”.

But of course, that hasn’t exactly been the case. There are still green shoots (and indeed strong healthy saplings, when you consider the phenomenal growth in the tech industry since the GFC), but there’s also a whole lotta yellow and prickly weeds still in the mix.

So in short, we aren’t seeing what we were expecting to see, and the prolonged nature of this uncertainty is really starting to test our limits. This in turn means that our tolerance for chronic* fear is also being tested.

*As in the medical meaning of the word, which means to be ongoing and persistent.

And do you know what? Chronic, persistent fear is seriously bad for us.

It’s bad for us in sooooo many ways.

It’s bad for our physiological health (it leads to excessive release of stress hormone cortisol, too much of which kills us), and it’s bad for our mental health (we’re more prone to a mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety).  It’s bad for our self-identity and character (we’ll always show up as a much smaller versions of ourselves when we’re doused in persistent fear), and it’s bad for our relationships (we’ll be a constant drain on those around us).

In the organisational context, chronic fear is likewise super bad. It leads to default* and short-term thinking. It leads to risk aversion and it leads to woeful attempts to over complicate bureaucratic process in the mistaken belief that if the external world can be controlled, then it can be reduced, conquered and mastered, and hence, less feared. It leads to opportunities lost and unnecessary organisational baggage gained. And it leads to blandness. It certainly doesn’t lead to agility and innovation.

*Wanna read a very, very good book on this? Check out this one.

Prolonged fear sucks.

And trust me, I know a bit about fear. I know of all too well the ravage of persistent, chronic, debilitating fear – a lifetime spent climbing mountains has seen to that.

You see, I have a confession to make.

I am, well, TERRIFIED of heights. Yep, seriously.

The overwhelming theme of my time in the mountains, especially in the early days when I was learning my craft, has been one of CHRONIC FEAR.

In this pic below, taken on a mountaineering course in 2001 in New Zealand, I might look like I’m brave and gung ho, but I’m actually just plain terrified.

***Just plain terrified.
Although I might be trying to flash a grin of false bravado for the camera at 20,000 feet here on the Mushroom Ridge of Ama Dablam in Nepal, I’m afraid. ***Just plain ol’ shitscared.

On all of these occasions, there were two things that were driving my fear, one of which was nested within the other.

The FIRST fear was of the unknown.

In the early days, when I was unable to differentiate the difference between things such as solid and weak snow bridges across crevasses, or work out whether an anchor point was bomber or not, I saw danger everywhere. I hadn’t yet learned how to make sense of the alien landscape around me.  It was all too uncertain, and too unknown.

The SECOND fear, and ultimately the one which was nesting my fear of the unknown, was of death.

Again in the early days, but even now on occasions when I am back in the mountains after a prolonged break, I spent much of my time so terrified by what I perceived to be my impending death that I was in a constant state of reactivity. I literally had entire days in the mountains when I would have bet the house that I would be dead by the end of the day. Although I took it for granted as normal at the time, upon reflection, how freaking crazy is that?!? To be living in that state of constant, unrelenting fear for such extended periods of time?!?

Chronic fear like that turns you into a hot mess of uncontrollable reactivity.

And being reactive* to an uncertain world around you, a world which for the most part you can’t control, doesn’t do you any favours.

*Want to test our beta version diagnostic to find out how reactive you are to uncertain situations? Send us an email here.

And here’s the thing: in our most of our organisations, our default response to conditions of uncertainty is, just like me in the early days in the mountains, one of reactivity.

Whatever happens in the external world, most organisations react to it.

Times are good? Awesome, let’s hire another 500 employees, and have Bon Jovi sing at our Christmas party! Sweet. Hold on, wait a moment. What’s that? Times are bad now? Oh OK, no worries, we’ll sack a third of our workforce by text message and never, ever, speak of Bon Jovi again.

At the heart of all this reactivity is, I reckon, our dual fear of uncertainty and death.

Think about it for a moment.

In our modern and secular Western society, we avoid pretty much any meaningful conversation to do with death.  Sure, our video games and movies (and increasingly, our media streams) are laden with it; but apart from that, we shy away from it.

I reckon the reason we shy away from it is because we don’t understand it. Our modern society has a foundation upon Aristotlean reductionist thinking, and is based upon principles of knowledge and reason, always in search of one singular truth.

But the problem is that in death is the ONE thing in which none of us can know anything about.  We can guess and postulate and hypothesise about what happens when we die, but we can’t truly know what happens until it happens, by which point it’s too late. Hence, we fear it, like nothing else on Earth.

Over my career in the mountains, I eventually learned to no longer fear death.

Something beautiful happens in the mountains when you return there time and time again: it starts as something almost intangible and imperceptible, but gradually gains force and momentum.

What happens is this: you start accepting your fate.

You start understanding that the world is a wonderfully fluid, uncertain and paradoxical place, and that it’s not up to you to control every single aspect of it. Try and control every aspect of it and ironically enough you’ll end being contorted and overwhelmed by your reactivity*.

*But since I’ve become a dad I’ve started fearing death again, especially when in the mountains. This is of course a wonderful paradox to have, I guess, and further evidence that you can never reach complete, lifelong mastery of something: rather, you have to work at it constantly. No resting on your laurels.

The same thing goes for any organisation operating in today’s globalised, constantly changing tech-driven marketplace. In trying too hard to control the external environment and avoiding uncertainty and the unknown, you’ll end up in a mess.

So what are the solutions?

I’d like to suggest that there are three things here that you can do:

Firstly, make a commitment to favour responsiveness over reactivity. Responding to uncertainty gets you thinking and moving (but not in a rushed or frantic and haphazard way; responsiveness is way more considered than that). To begin with, being considered in your responsiveness might take some extra time, but once you get used to it it’ll become intuitive and second nature.

(This is why you’re starting to hear more about responsive organisations*, because they are, without one iota of doubt, the way of the future.)

*And don’t buy too much into the notion that organisations can go beyond responsiveness and actually lead the change. Very few are able to do this, and even those that do are still prone to disruption. Better to be ready to respond to a changing world, rather than spout false bravado about how you can change it.

Secondly, learn to like paradox.

But paradox is not something that we are naturally comfortable with. Organisations tend to hate it, too.

You’ve no doubt heard the famous F. Scott Fitzgerald quote where he reputedly said that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. That’s exactly what we need to be able to do in this new and uncertain and ambiguous world.

If we can maintain multiple, contradictory truths at the same time, and not seek to reduce them to one single truth, we’ll be much better for it.

Thirdly, detach yourself from the fear. Don’t try and ignore it, because just like the experiment where I tell you not to think about a white bear and then all you can then do is think about a white bear, you won’t be able to.

Rather, take the somewhat mindfulness/Buddhist approach where you observe the fear, but remain unattached from it as much as possible. Acknowledge it for what it is, know that it’s completely normal for it to be occurring, but don’t be tempted to follow it down the garden path.

And that’s it!

Well, actually, it’s not.

Here’s one more solution for you:

Remember, that in the end we’re all dead.

In the history of humanity, some 107 billion people have already died. 107 billion people! Holy cow. If they’ve been able to go through it, so will you, when your time comes.

How’s that for a bleak ending!?

Well, it doesn’t have to be. Instead, listen to this exceptionally good NPR TED Radio Hour podcast below on believers and doubters, and in particular a fascinating conversation between host Guy Raz and TED speaker Devdutt Pattanaik, where he talks about the difference between typical western and eastern approaches to life, the story of Alexander the Great and the gymnosophist, and how in Indian mythology they have a river that separates the land of the living from the land of the dead. As Pattanaik notes, “You don’t cross it once. You go to and fro endlessly. Because, you see, nothing lasts forever in India, not even death.”


***A beautiful podcast. In fact, my favourite of all time.

It also features an amazing discussion between Guy and Anne Graham Lotz, the daughter of preacher Billy Graham, an enthralling piece on the origins of Islam with Lesley Hazleton, a hilarious piece with comedian Julia Sweeney, and another wonderfully insightful discussion with author Alain de Botton.

Do yourself a favour, set aside an hour, and listen to it!

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