How ‘bout we this article off with some onomatopoeias? Kaboom. Vroom. Crash. Pow. Blam. Squish!
Is there a better way to describe what the advancing army of Amazon must sound like to today’s retailers? How else to portray the clamor of marauding hordes of small, fleet, web-based companies as they move to obliterate stalwart professions like law, health care, insurance, and asset wealth management? Intellectual property owners, and content creators, what do you think? Is this not the simplest way to illustrate the emotional impact of disruption on your industry, disruption that was once on the distant horizon, but is now at your doorstep? Bear with me as I introduce a somewhat strange metaphor, one that addresses both the psychological effects of increasingly rapid change, and ways to reclaim your creativity in spite of it.
Human beings are hardwired for stress. We are genetically programmed to be on the lookout for threats and dangers of all kinds. In fact, neuroscientists have discovered that a state of mental emergency isn’t something that happens to us occasionally; it's our default. Too many of our waking moments are spent using our creative capacities, not to imagine a brighter future, or to create fresh opportunities, but to defend ourselves from things we mistakenly believe will kill us. While it’s true we are constantly standing guard, for most of us, actual threats to our lives are extremely rare. But even when we only feel attacked, our focus narrows, bringing our entire attention to the source of the threat. That makes sense. If a deadly black mamba snake were rearing it’s head and about to strike, it would behoove you to refrain from thinking about that new business plan or that tricky last verse to the song you’d been agonizing over. You would want to focus on ways to save your life and nothing else. Unfortunately, this myopic focus is a real impediment to creative thinking.
Here’s how we need to think about this: The black mamba is deadly; Amazon (name your latest disruptive threat) is not. Though your anxiety around disruption can seem life threatening, it is something else altogether. It is, in a word, just—anxiety. While anxiety feels very much like a mortal threat to the amygdala, the primitive part of our brains in charge of releasing adrenalin among other things, nonetheless, there is nothing deadly about it. The onus then, is on us to utilize a higher faculty of our brains, our intellect, to inform our highly excited amygdala that this fearful, anxious situation is just a false alarm. I liken all this hyper-defensiveness, to a querulous, imaginary voice by the name of Marv. His name stands for: Majorly Afraid of Revealing Vulnerability.
Marv, quite simply, is the ornery little dude in our heads who keeps telling us why we’re not smart enough, not pretty enough, and not worthy enough. We have all experienced Marv. No amount of money or fame can get him to leave us alone. He’s so incredibly annoying that you might think that what follows next is a list of the best ways to kill Marv, to silence him, or to stuff a rag in his mouth and banish him to a dreary basement. Sorry to disappoint. I will do no such thing. We don’t want to harm Marv; we want to honor him and show our gratitude for his good intentions. Remember, Marv is a metaphor for the amygdala, which as I mentioned earlier, is constantly on guard against those aforementioned mortal threats.
But while it’s easy to understand why Marv perceives real danger in encountering a black mamba, why does he think change, that most constant of all things, will actually kill us? In other words, why can’t he differentiate between fear and anxiety?
Here’s how it looks from Marv’s POV.
In attempting to think and act more creatively, there is always the possibility that I will fail. Marv is not the least bit shy about reminding me of this. He makes a lot of sense too, I could fail. And so, as he speaks, I listen attentively. His next course of action is to remind me of the first consequence of failure, which is shame. (Cue the ominous sounding cellos) “And do you know what happens to shameful people?” Marv asks. We all know the answer to that. Shameful people are shunned and abandoned. Among the many things the human species cannot abide is abandonment. Abandonment is anathema to the human spirit. It is, arguably, the thing we fear most.
Now, I am in Marv’s thrall. My creativity and imagination is essentially paralyzed by the fearful construct Marv has set up. But it doesn’t end there. Marv has one last scare tactic and it’s a doozey; “Peter,” he says to me. “Do you remember what it was like when you were an infant, when you needed your parents to provide everything for you?” Of course I remember. Even though I’m balding, my goatee is gray, and I carry around an AMEX card (three sure signs of adulthood), I am still, if only subconsciously, very much connected to my child-self. After all, the me that peers out from behind my eyes hasn’t changed one iota in all these years. So, indeed I remember, and Marv goes in for the coup de grâce. “If your parents had abandoned you”, he says, almost breathlessly now, “You would have died!” And guess what. Marv is 100% correct on that point. Left alone as a young child, I would most certainly have died. It’s our subconscious fear of being left alone in the world that keeps Marv in business.
Indeed, anxiety’s tentacles reach back to our childhoods. Our anxious feelings almost always connect in some way to a fear of death-by-abandonment. So when Marv scares me in that hypothetical scenario, he isn’t trying to impede my creativity, not at all. He is simply trying to save my life. He does so by preventing me from taking action on anything other than saving my life. Marv is convinced he is fulfilling his neurobiological role of protecting me. “Don’t come up with solutions, don’t relax, don’t get creative,” he says. “Now is definitely not the time!”
Instead of becoming transfixed, by Marv’s protestations, as we so often do, we must learn to use our faculties of reason. We need to learn the super-productive skill of being mindful of the differences between real fear and anxiety —no matter how anxious we feel. There’s only a split second in which to accomplish this and so, the diligent practice of awareness becomes paramount. When we are overcome with anxiety, we must be attentive to our bodies. We must feel its sensations; the tightening of our muscles, the knots in our stomachs, our sweaty palms; all of it. In that split second when anxiety first hits, we must realize that it is only anxiety and then calmly explain to Marv that everything is alright, that there is no reason to for him to get involved. We may even suggest he go and get himself a latte and a newspaper.
Most importantly, we must learn to act on that which we fear. The actions I’m suggesting we take are never large, they require neither heroism, nor great strength, but they all involve first-steps. For example, if you know you need to write a strategic plan for your business, but Marv has paralyzed you from taking any action towards that goal, set the timer on your smart phone for ten—even five minutes—sit down at your desk, and start writing. The short time span will make it easier for you. If you think in terms of days or weeks, you're sunk. If there’s a phone call you know you need to make, but you’ve been putting it off because of Marv, then do the same thing. Set a timer, sit at your desk, dial the 10 digits, open your jaws and start talking. The idea here is that by taking these small, concrete actions, you change the mind's focus and intent. By asserting control and moving toward your goal you will find yourself going from paralytic stupor, to dynamic response.
What happens when you move forward and take these small but decisive actions is that Marv says to himself, “Hmm, looks like Nancy’s got this situation under control, I’m gonna kick back and let her do her thing.” And the good news is that when Marv relaxes, you relax. When you are relaxed, your focus widens, your worldview expands, and you will begin to regain access to your innate creativity.
For those of you who like a take-away, here it is:
Rapid change is bound to make anyone anxious. You're no different from everyone else in this regard.
Recognize the difference between real fear and anxiety, and immediately take the small, doable steps toward that which you fear.
When you take those small steps, you allow Marv to relax his grip on your mind. You will then be able to release your innate creativity. And through that release, you will be giving yourself the best possible chance to succeed, no matter what kind of storm you find yourself in.
This article originally appeared in Forbes and is brought to your by our friends at Big Muse.