Fearing Fear Itself

In this election year, I've been on fear watch. Folks are fearful of everything from 2012 theories to GMOs to student loans taking over as the number one source of pain for college grads everywhere. A few years ago, I talked at length about the cult of anger our country and world were fostering -- and just like that, we were occupied and furious and up in arms on message boards from Kansas to Kabul. When that many people are angry, the logical next step is fear.

If you do a Google news search on any given day and type in the word "fear," you'll be amazed at how many things we're afraid of (or the media has us thinking we're afraid of). On one recent morning it turned out we were fearful of the following:

In other news, French Jews are fearful of the upcoming French elections, the Palestinians fear Israel's new settlements, and Generation Y has a fear of commitment and the economy when it comes to shopping patterns. Is fear changing the makeup of our once less-fearful brains? In Daniel Gardner's The Science of Fear: How the Culture of Fear Manipulates Your Brain, an argument is made that all the fear mongering surrounding us is wreaking havoc on our hunter-and-gatherer brains. Even though we evolved from our prehistoric ancestors, we are still hardwired much the same way, and our interpretation of this "risk" is causing us to fear just about everything and make some irrational decisions.

Fear has many long tentacles. In the business world, and particularly in advertising and PR, the culture of fear permeates everything we do. As someone who recalls a time in advertising when risks were taken and consumers were challenged, it's hard to swallow this risk-averse world where great ideas are often halted from ever reaching the mainstream because big decision makers are fearful of anything that feels overly provocative, challenging or risky. When did the business world become such a hot-bed of fear and paranoia? Sure, we can point to major events that changed everything: 9/11, the subprime crisis, the loss of consumer confidence in the wake of Bernie Madoff and the loss of way too many jobs. Maybe that's why so many brands are celebrating their "heritage" (Chevy, Chrysler and Hermès, to name a few). Talking about the tried and true placates a public fearful of anything they don't know or trust.

If you're following the rhetoric coming from the right and the left as we inch closer to the election here in the States, the fear mongering is at an all-time high. It's nothing new to play into the fears of an entire nation, but fear has seeped into our consciousness and replaced Obama's platform of hope. I worry from time to time that all this fearfulness can lead to evil, much like Germany in the Second World War. I think what's needed now, what so many of us are looking for, is not fearfulness but fearlessness.

Fearless is what great business leaders are, fearless is what great athletes are, and fearless is the attitude that's needed from a future president, prime minister or other major leader. I know so many people who lost jobs in the recession but because of their fearlessness ended up in entrepreneurial endeavors that made them happier than they ever were in the supposedly stable 9-to-whenever.

It has been said that fear is a great motivator, but I'm finding our fearful frenzy today to be debilitating. If we all stopped being a little less afraid (and believe me, I know there's plenty to fear), maybe we could make real change and enjoy the risky business of life once again. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "We must build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear." Amid all this fear overload, we'd better get to building a stronger and less fearful world. Now more than ever, the greatest thing to fear is fear itself.