The Zen way of overcoming fear and doubt in business

Have you ever wished there was a gentle and effective way of overcoming fear and doubt when you are getting ready to launch your small business? Certainly when you are getting to the point of taking action it is easy to become overwhelmed, in fact many small businesses never get started because of fear of failure. Which is somewhat crazy isn’t it because not starting is the easiest way to ensure your small business will fail? But every year people put off starting their small business (or buying an existing one) when they are consumed by doubts or fears.

What if you could overcome these negative thoughts and calmly take those first steps knowing you are finally heading in the direction you have wanted to take for a long time? What if you could interpret success and failure in completely new ways which would allow you to have the quiet confidence to start your journey to a successful small business?

In this article I am going to share the thoughts of many successful business owners and business researchers to show you how making changes to your thinking can give you a way of overcoming fear and doubt and allowing you the freedom to get your business started.

Let’s begin by focusing on the idea of failure.

You didn’t use to be so scared of failure. Remember when you were learning to walk? Well maybe you can’t remember your own experience but it won’t have been any different to every other child learning to walk. You learnt to stand – holding on to things until you got your balance. Then you took those first steps. Guess what happened then? Yes, you fell over. You failed. But you didn’t let it stop you – you tried again and again and failed again and again until at last you were able to do it.

Over time though you became less willing to fail – and you were actively discouraged to fail by teachers, parents and employers. Now the thought of failure is like a monster under the bed waiting to jump out at you anytime you consider trying something outside of your comfort zone.

“Failure is highly underrated. We discourage failure and by doing so we subtly discourage success.” Janna Levin

This brings us to the link between failure and success and how important failure is to achieving a successful outcome.

Failure is always a part of the process of success.

If we don’t give ourselves the chance to fail then we are also preventing ourselves from succeeding. Only a tiny percentage of small business start-ups are successful immediately. The rest are trying out new ideas, developing their markets gradually and having regular failures. These failures are not disasters but experiments in what doesn’t work so they can become better tuned to what does work.

This might sound like I am sugar-coating failure so let’s stop right now and look your fears right in the face by asking what exactly does a failure in your business look like.

In your head it is probably total financial disaster or the condemnation of family and friends which destroys your entire reputation. Of course, in reality it is nothing like this unless you have been completely dishonest.

Actually, failure looks like one of two things; either a collection of simple mistakes which you didn’t spot or didn’t correct along the way or a deliberate experiment to see if you get the results you want.

“I failed my way to success” Thomas Edison

Edison believed that the experimental version of failure was a wonderful way to move closer to what does work and used this thinking as a way of overcoming fear and doubt which even he experienced.

I, on the other hand, failed in my first business because of a collection of simple mistakes which I didn’t recognise or correct. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t lose much money or my reputation and it didn’t stop me trying again.

The collection of simple mistakes which lead to failure

Why do small businesses fail? Making mistakes with your financial resources and your precious time are the most common errors that I see in small businesses. And they usually happen when you haven’t researched or tested well enough or you lose focus because of the sheer number of actions you are trying to take.

How are you spending your money?

Financial mistakes include such things as buying or making stock before you know what your customers want, advertising regardless of whether your customers are likely to read it and not knowing what the flow of cash through your business is likely to be.

Most importantly, you need to be totally realistic about your financial situation at all times and be as miserly as possible until you can honestly afford to be otherwise. You might need equipment to set up your business but could you make do with second-hand? You will need to spend money on marketing but can you spend it wisely by focusing on the true results you are getting from it?

Have you completed a cash-flow forecast yet? This is a budget for your business which shows the estimated amounts of money which are likely to flow in and out of your business bank account. If you have a written personal budget then this will be easy for you but if you have never lived to a budget in your personal life then what are you waiting for. Start with a personal cash-flow forecast and start comparing forecast to actual on a monthly basis. You can then use this template to prepare a forecast for the business.

Combining these simple financial mistakes is a recipe for disaster but putting plans into place in a realistic way means the chances of financial disaster are much less likely.

How are you using your time?

Making mistakes with time include spending hours on perfecting things you are interested in and leaving the jobs you don’t enjoy until the last minute, procrastinating instead of using your time in the most productive way and thinking you have to do everything yourself because no-one else could do it well enough.

We all have the same number of hours every week but how we choose to use them is totally under our control. You need to know what your core values are and ensure you are using your time wisely to give them the priority that will give your life meaning.

When you need to spend time on business activities you need to make considered decisions about what you will give up to achieve them. You cannot do everything you want to do but you can make sure that what you do is the best use of your time according to your values and goals.

“If you really want to do something, you’ll find a way. If you don’t, you’ll find an excuse.” Jim Rohn.

I can hear some of you grumbling right now that it’s not your fault you’re a perfectionist – it’s just the way you are. Actually, you learnt to be a perfectionist (possibly because of the praise you received for it) and you can unlearn it too. Starting is more important than perfecting. Let’s go back to your attempts to walk. You didn’t sit down and work out how to do it perfectly before you gave it a go. No, you got started and worked out how to do it properly as you went along.

I am not suggesting that you deliver rubbish services or products to your customers but I am asking you if you are using the need to perfect it as a reason for not getting started.

Stop procrastinating and start selling

“Focus on progress not perfection and reward yourself accordingly. Great ideas, great goals and great intentions are meaningless without great actions. People achieve success in life not just because they take charge of their thinking, but because their thinking propels them into taking action. Start where you are, with what you have and never lose sight of your dream.” Paul McGee in his book SUMO – Shut Up, Move On. (Recommended reading)

And then there is the huge issue that we all face of procrastination. There are many techniques you can use to overcome procrastination but it is a battle that most of us have to wage regularly because it can sneak up again and again if we let our defences down.

“The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.” Walt Disney

Yes, taking those first few steps is the most exciting and wonderful thing you can do to overcome any potential time wasting problems or doubts.

Finally, there is another pitfall that many of you will face when it comes to getting your business underway – the disastrous belief that to get anything done properly you have to do it yourself. Wow, that’s really going to cause you problems. That’s because it isn’t possible to do everything yourself and retain your sanity or life outside of your business. So you need to accept that just because you do something one way doesn’t mean that is the best or only way to do it. Letting go and allowing others to do things their way is one of the most important lessons you will learn to allow you to manage your doubts and feel more relaxed and happy.

The Experimental method of failure

So now let’s focus on the experimental version of failure. These are the deliberate experiments you might make to try new marketing tactics or to offer new services or products. These experiments are planned and resourced even though a number of them are extremely likely to fail.

To be comfortable in this area you need to be able to disconnect failure from outcomes. Outcomes will show you how to make better and better decisions which match the wants of your customers. This is the reason you need to experiment and try new ideas while you understand that not every idea will be successful.

“I learnt to disconnect failure from outcomes. Losing didn’t mean I failed and winning didn’t mean I succeeded – not when you define success and failure around making good decisions that will win in the long run. What matters are the decisions I made along the way.” Annie Duke

I am sure that Thomas Edison didn’t ever imagine it would take so many failures to finally be successful in inventing a working light bulb but he wasn’t afraid of trying and failing and he certainly didn’t give up. He kept making decisions and kept measuring his results which allowed him to make more decisions. That’s how the experiment method works.

Once you can give up on the idea that everything you do has to be successful and start experimenting and failing in an organised way you will find that this is a way of overcoming fear and doubt and intensifying your energy.

Now you need to be honest with yourself

What are you most afraid of when it comes to business failure? For many of you it will be the loss of money. You may be putting savings into your business or have got a loan which you will be paying off. For others it will be the loss of dignity or having to endure those “we told you so” comments from your detractors. For some of you it will just be an unidentified dread of not being successful and maybe having to retreat back to a job which you don’t really enjoy.

So let’s focus on what you can do to ensure the likelihood of complete business failure is minimised and the likelihood of complete business success is maximised.

It doesn’t matter how far down the path to having your own successful business you are – stop right now because it’s time to make sure you have this next part nailed.

To be successful in business involves just 4 basic factors.

These are non-negotiable and widely recognised.

  • Enough people who want to buy what you’re selling
  • A product or service with a competitive quality and price or uniqueness so those people want to buy it
  • A way to communicate your offering to the customers
  • Something that makes the initial purchase so compelling that they come back

You need to be focused on these factors and these factors alone if you want to ensure success. Successful businesses are about a big enough market being introduced to an offering that fulfils some kind of desire and is linked to a unique way of branding which keeps them coming back.

Now that’s all well and good but what exactly are you supposed to do?

First you need to revisit your personal and business goals which must be written down. They need to align with each other and with your core values so you know that you will be utterly comfortable with your business success. They also need to have a time frame so you can build an action plan and make this happen.  

Don’t overburden yourself with a huge number of goals. Remember – the most important element of goal setting is to achieve them – not to outdo yourself with the biggest, craziest list anyone has ever written. A small number of well thought-out goals will be much easier to focus on and to achieve.  

Start with your customers first. Do you need to learn more about them? Don’t move on to any product or service goals until you are sure you know who they are exactly and that there are enough of them to ensure your business success.

Communicating with your potential customers is essential. Do you know the most effective way to do this? It would be pointless to spend money on Facebook if they prefer Instagram. Decide now what your marketing budget will be (yes you will need this) and how you will test that you are spending it wisely.

You also need to consider how you will make the purchase of your offering compelling and enjoyable so you can get repeat business and word-of-mouth referrals. How will you stand out in your customer’s minds?

“Whatever you do, be different – that was the advice my mother gave me, and I can’t think of better advice for an entrepreneur. If you’re different you will stand out.” Anita Roddick

Take action now

Now you need to write down the action steps you need to take to achieve the goals. Not sure what all the steps are yet – don’t worry – just start by writing the first one (or the first few) for each goal and get on with doing them. Once you take a step the next one will become more obvious.

“I never dreamed about success, I worked for it.” Estee Lauder

Never let the thought of not knowing exactly what to do hold you back from experimenting and working it out. Don’t be afraid of asking others for ideas too. Search engines were invented to give you access to most knowledge – use them and find out what other successful businesses are doing.

The next step is to put in place the processes for checking your spending of both time and money and ensuring you are making the most of whatever resources you have. At the same time you need to have a process for checking for mistakes and finding great ways to fix them. Remember that failure is often a collection of simple mistakes which you haven’t identified or corrected. What can you do to make them easier to identify and correct before they become a bigger problem?

This may all sound a bit tedious and not as Zen as you imagined they should be but trust me, if you follow the steps then you will strengthen your business and beat back those fears that are holding you back from achieving the success you are capable of. I think Henry Ford put it very well “whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re usually right”. And the best way I know to change negative thoughts is to take positive action to overcome what you are worrying about.

I think it is important to understand that everyone is fearful at times, failure is uncomfortable and can be unpleasant but failures in your business aren’t life threatening. Take the Zen approach and focus on the way of overcoming fear and doubt by recognising your thoughts and changing them and then concentrate on the actions you can take to truly be successful.

“That’s what a leader has to do: take ownership of the problems, the mistakes, and the shortfalls, and take ownership of creating and implementing solutions to get those problems solved.” Jocko Willink

Let me know what actions you are taking to ensure that your small business doesn’t fail.

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