June 02, 2009

Fear of Status Quo? - By Sanjay Anandaram

I came across this interesting question in an in-flight magazine: What would your life be like if you lived it without any fear?

It started me thinking about fear and how the primal emotion impacted us humans.
To be sure, fear has helped us survive as a species. Early man feared wild animals, for example, and that helped him stay away from them. Fear also played a role in early man’s migration as fear of a place or surroundings forced him to seek out more comfortable environs.

Fear of death or harm also forces radical and unnatural behaviours (fight versus flight) that help ensure survival. Fear also forces our imagination to work overtime in fanciful ways. All of us, at one point or the other, have been afraid to enter dark, silent and secluded areas because of the fear of the unknown. It is the anticipation of a terrible act that causes us to react. Charles Darwin concluded that fear is an ancient instinct that helped propagate the human species.

Fear of the unknown, of rejection and failure also makes us remain with the known, the familiar and within our zones of comfort. The comfort of the known makes us feel secure in our status quos. A known devil being ostensibly better than an unknown one. However, nature has taught us that a species that doesn’t evolve perishes over time. Status quo situations therefore are only temporary zones of comfort.

Mankind’s progress has occurred because the desire for adventure, exploration, knowledge and learning, challenging, inventing, discovering and conquering has trumped fear of the unknown and the contentment with status quo. Continents, oceans and space have been, are and will continue to be the domains for man’s indomitable quests to know what’s on the other side. While these quests were initiated by the most intrepid of dreamers, they were followed by many others to chart new worlds.

The European exploration and conquest of the Americas started off in the 15th century thanks to the efforts of a man who went against the traditional wisdom of his day. In the late 15th century, Ferdinand and Isabella, monarchs of Spain, funded Christopher Columbus’ wild idea of an expedition westwards across the seas to India. Columbus was to keep about 10% of the profits made on the trip. Perhaps the first known example of a venture capitalist and entrepreneur!

Most of the fears of our ancestors have been today conquered by knowledge, reason, courage, conviction, wisdom and experience. Fear is slowly conquered by knowing more and more about any matter. The only way to know more and more is to jump into inquiry or the activity whole-heartedly. After all, while theory has its value, the only way one learns swimming is by being in the water, choking, trying and then finally mastering the art.

Intrepid men have challenged dogma, battled socio-cultural mores, traveled where others didn’t and even taken on and defeated extremely powerful empires. Think Mahatma Gandhi, for example. He walked a path that was uniquely his, challenged the mighty British empire by mobilizing millions, talked of and walked his talk on social emancipation of the downtrodden, displayed exemplary personal conviction, courage and shrewdness in dealing with nay-sayers and dissuaders of whom there was no shortage. He believed that fear was not a disease of the body but of the soul. That while fear had its uses, cowardice had none.

In the darkest days of The Great Depression in America in 1933, Franklin Roosevelt in his inaugural address as President said “…first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Yet, why is it that most of us tend to be afraid? To take decisions, to go against an established orthodoxy, to challenge status quos in our daily lives? Government bureaucracies (especially ours!) have for long been known to not just favour but to positively revel in maintaining a status quo. Executives in companies are happy pushing paper confusing activity for progressive movement leading to new outcomes.

Are we then simply afraid of the socio-cultural-economic consequences of trying something new? Is the system designed to protect status quo and punish those who challenge it? Or are we just too content, lack motivation and curiosity? Do we lack courage, conviction and confidence, the desire to learn and explore? If we are, then we should be really afraid for our future is bleak!

An entrepreneurial mindset is one that challenges the status quo.

What do you think?

Sanjay Anandaram is a passionate advocate of entrepreneurship in India; He brings two decades of experience as an entrepreneur, corporate executive, venture investor, faculty member, advisor and mentor. He’s involved with Nasscom, TiE, IIM-Bangalore, and INSEAD business school in driving entrepreneurship. He can be reached at sanjay@jumpstartup.net. The views expressed here are his own.