Losing the fear can be liberating – and dangerous

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Surprised / shocked face expression of woman. Surprise and shock

Surprised / shocked face expression of woman. Surprise and shock

In the past few months I’ve realised something odd about myself. I’m not frightened any more. All my working life I’ve been scared. Scared of failing. Scared of looking a fool. Terrified of talking in public. Frightened of not being good enough. And above all, petrified of being found out.

If I draw a graph that plots fear against age, my level started out pretty high. When I joined the workforce at 21 I was terrified because I realised I knew nothing; although knowing nothing also protected me from grasping just how frightening work was going to be.

As time passed I got a lot more scared as I noticed that almost everyone else seemed to know what they were doing. Whenever I started to get less afraid, I moved on to a new job and the fear cranked up again. Promotion didn’t make it better – it made it worse.

To some extent having children helped as some of the anxiety was channelled into them instead of work, but it didn’t change the underlying problem. Then, about 10 years ago, my fear stabilised and slowly started to subside.

The repeated daily experience of doing things at least adequately helped a bit. What helped more was failing at the odd thing and realising that you don’t actually die. But then, at some point a year or two ago, the momentum suddenly shifted and the graph started to move sharply downwards.

Since then the slide into fearlessness has been extraordinarily swift. At this rate, I will soon have gone post-fear entirely.

Now if I am asked to do things that I used to find terrifying, I do them without a thought. Last week I spoke at a dinner where there were lots of important people and as I got up on stage I had the odd feeling that I’d forgotten something. And then I realised that what I’d left behind was my fear.

To find out if others feel the same way, I’ve spent the last couple of days prowling around with a pen and inviting people of roughly my age to draw their own terror charts.

My tentative conclusion is that I am bog standard. Everyone’s chart looks a bit different, but there are common features. Many people between 50 and 55 seem to have experienced the same propitious decline in their levels of fear about work.

The two or three journalists in their 50s I talked to who said they were just as scared as ever were holding down such frightening jobs that they would be idiots not to be perpetually anxious. When I asked the editor of the Financial Times if he had gone post-fear, he gave me an emphatic answer: definitely not.

But for the rest of us there are lots of reasons why we lose our fears at around this time.

Some of them are the same reasons people tend to get happier when they are in their mid-fifties. Most of your career is behind you, you are less ambitious and have less far to fall. You are more financially secure, so the ultimate terror of being fired moves you very little. You have made your peace with what you are good at – and what you are not. And you’ve finally noticed that lots of other people are nothing like as good as you always feared they might be.

In a way being post-fear has absolutely everything to recommend it. It means that you glide through the working week without a knot in your stomach. You sleep better and are generally more cheerful.

Yet as an employee, being fearless is not obviously an advantage. It means the usual levers don’t work on you any more.

One of the men who sat with me at last week’s dinner was a former chief executive who said that managing the fifty-something post-fear set was very difficult since they are both the best employees – and the worst ones. The great thing about them is they nearly always can be relied upon to tell the truth – and every organisation needs a few fearless people who do that.

But otherwise being post-fear can be a disaster, because it makes you both complacent and overconfident. These traits are more of a liability the higher up the ladder you go; if you are running a business and are scared of nothing, you are dangerous and should be removed from office at once before something bad happens.

Fear is the vital thing that keeps organisations vibrant. Not the fear whipped up by an autocrat, but the natural fear of not being quite good enough. This is the best motivator I have ever come across, and the only thing that reliably makes me slog my guts out. It is the fear of being rubbish that saves one from actually being rubbish.

So if I go post-fear, my worst former fear may be about to come true: I am going to become no good at my job. Which gives me something new to be frightened of. The only thing to fear is fearlessness itself.

lucy.kellaway@ft.com Twitter: @lucykellaway

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014

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