The stifling quagmire of fear

Growing up in church pews, some kids would have questions or ideas concerning religion. We were usually told to pipe down, lest we might get something wrong. The whole system seemed built on the idea that it was better to be safe and within the bounds of legalism, where everything was in neat little boxes, than to be away from the herd. People were frankly terrified every time a young mind tried to break free. There would be all sorts of hellfire stories sent around to scare everybody into compliance.

The fear of the unknown—of being possibly incorrect in some small way—the fear of not being 100 percent absolutely sure about the stability of every step in life. It was suffocating.

In 2000, when I worked with some friends to start up a film business, pushing out in new territory, we were told to pipe down. We might get something wrong, they said. They were afraid for us all. They were looking out for us. We, being young and stupid, needed to learn the fear, they said through their attitudes. The fear would tell us when something wasn’t right, like how deer perk up and freeze in terror at every sound.

And it was this fear, programmed into us at instinctual and social levels, induced by the threat of something unknown, which kept us in line. By dragging each other down, we could stay together. Anyone who tried to leave was branded as some sort of traitor, putting the safety of the herd at risk. It is this fear that kills innovation.

In the mid-2000s, when many in the military advocated blogging as a way to communicate more freely with families while deployed, we were told to pipe down. We may have been out too far. People were afraid of being wrong—that someone somewhere might get called into an office. They would have to “appear before the man” or be called out “on the carpet.” In that office was a predator, usually wearing stars or the rank of a bird of prey. They said we should learn the fear—stay safe, not rock the boat.

In 2007, when advocating for curriculum changes at the Defense Information School, I ran across the same thing. In 2008, when pushing NATO SHAPE, same thing. In 2009 at various government agency meetings or workgroups, same thing. People were paralyzed with the fear. It was this fear that kept everyone safely munching on the meadow grass.

And even now in the new job, there are people advocating caution—not to try that change thing. There was an order to things after all, they say. I still had to learn how this place had rules and quaint little boxes of how and why things are done.

There is this fear that if someone strays outside of the self-imposed thought boundaries, he/she will immediately be snatched up and devoured by an angry boss.

This is BS too, by the way. More on that in a sec.

What’s with the skittishness? What opposition, clad in armor, pointy sticks or things that shoot, has ever been subdued by someone cowering in the shadows? What obstacle has ever been conquered through fear?

When I say, “Let’s try this,” it’s not out of recklessness. It’s not out of some effort to throw others to the wolves. There are no wolves, actually. And if there are, we too are wolves if we choose to be. I mean, I don’t see how the secret of success at my job—how those around me “in the know,” can be right by running and hiding whenever there’s a snag. Does that work in other areas of business? Hell no. Does that work in relationships?

So, why do people think it works in innovation? I don’t get this fear I’m supposed to learn.

I’ve been in trouble before. I’ve had my ass chewed by every rank from E-1 to O-6 (parents of high school athletes are a journalist’s bane). I’ve been in big trouble before, and guess what, the boss didn’t shoot me. He/she didn’t disembowel me.

At worst, in cases where I was wrong, I learned from my mistake and grew. At best, in cases where I was honestly trying to improve something, I was told to watch it. But, see? The thing was my bosses in those situations knew I was trying something new. They would applaud me for attempting to be innovative, believe it or not.

Hell, in some cases when working through government policy and best practices, my bosses told me and others that they would rather us swing for the fences and miss than constantly go for the bunt. I was personally told this by my assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, the Army chief of staff, and my chief of public affairs.

And I take those episodes to heart, those times when faced with that supposed ravenous, potentially angry boss, I didn’t get devoured. I’ve never been fired for attempting process improvement. I’ve never been fired for trying to improve the organization.

But what “if,” some say? I have people here too scared to read a blog at work. “They” are watching, these people say. “They” will crack down on anyone who goes to websites, even if it’s directly tied to work. “They” will get you fired.

“I know of a person who was let go because he was on a social media site at work,” someone told me the other day.

“Really?” I asked. “No other extenuating circumstances?”

“No! That’s why we can’t use social media at work. It’s a policy.”

“I’ve looked for this policy. I don’t see it.”

“Well, it’s true.”

“Saying it’s true doesn’t make it true.”

I had an instructor back in my Army training days who told a story, straight out of a forwarded email/chain letter. It was the one about the banana/cactus that had spider eggs inside it, which exploded and shot baby spiders everywhere. It’s bogus, look it up on an urban legend site. Yet, this instructor said it happened to her grandmother. As if saying so made it true.

It was supposed to be funny, but highlights an interesting phenomenon. We enable fear. We try to spread it to others. Not about spiders (scary, though!), but about questioning things.

Don’t do it! I know someone who went outside of the meadow and they were eaten!

Really? Eaten?

YES! I knew the person. It’s true! Swear to X!

Ah, since you swear, I’ll cease all thought on the subject. Since you’re sure we’re still herbivores, stuck in some meadow prison, I’ll never try to leave.

Now, I’m not trying to re-start some stupid “Be the ball, Danny!” or “I am a wolfpack” saying, but I sure as hell am tired of people trying to keep me as some frightened Bambi in the woods. Screw that. I’m also tired of people saying “no,” not because of any sort of reason, but because of The Fear! Yup. Screw that too.

I’ll make everybody a deal. If I ever get fired for diligently striving for process improvement or sincerely advocating for change to improve an organization, I’ll shut up and munch on some grass. Until then, I’ll keep howling at the moon or whatever pithy saying we can roll this post up with and get going.

Word.

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About salemonz

Born in San Diego, Calif. Raised as a Navy Brat, I jumped ship and crossed over to the Army. Served as an enlisted journalist for a bunch of years, then helped the DoD figure out what the hell to do with social media. After the Army, now I drift down the river of life, trying not to be a jerk.

2 responses to “The stifling quagmire of fear”

  1. Whetston says :

    Well said and very timely. I admire your candor (and the humor helps!). IT’S ON!

  2. Mom says :

    Really?

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