Fear and Guts

Fear is a subject I know something about – I have enjoyed walking on the edge of terror many times in my life. As for guts, I have been accused of being an adrenaline junkie many, many times. I wasn’t born this way; in fact; until 1972, I was a book worm, eschewing most physical activities, mostly spending my time roaming the inner recesses of my mind.

But then, I changed. I couldn’t get enough of living on the edge, running from one high risk adventure to another. Hang-gliding, rock-climbing, white water kayaking, parachuting, flying airplanes, motorcycle racing, high speed downhill skiing, flying gliders in thunderstorms, racing mountain bikes downhill, driving like a maniac on back roads are just a few of the many adrenaline sports I have (and still do) entertain myself with at different times in my life.

The reason for this addiction is simple; I became hooked on adrenaline, flying helicopters during my time in SE Asia. This experience resulted in feeling like the only time I was really alive is when I was close to really dying.  And, with all of the many high risk activities that are easily accessible in America to the upper middle class person, it is easy to see how I became an adrenaline junkie.

I have also paid for this, too; in terms of bodily harm and injuries, but never in any permanent way. My guardian angels have always steered me away from the final cliff with kindness, but they have left me with some lingering aches and pains – in essence – physical reminders that I am not 18 anymore.

As a result, I feel qualified to talk about and fear and guts. In short, I see more of the former than the latter in my day-to-day life. Why is that? I see fear as one of the “easy” emotions; those states that are easy to fall into like anger; built into our physiology as a means of protection.  After all, we have all evolved over millions of years that has left all of us with some vestige of the early lizard brain that comes to the forefront when we are under duress.

Fear is a great motivator, too; initially, anyway; a strong force that propels us away from the object of fear, but really doesn’t move us in a specific direction or toward something like a goal. Think about fire – if we are threatened by a hot burning object or situation, we are quick to move away from it. But, where to?  Nowhere in particular, really, just away from the source of the heat.

Conversely, a state like courage takes; well, “guts.” It is contrary to our evolution and means taking risks. It takes guts to have a goal and move toward it, especially if your job is bring others along, too. It takes guts to disagree with a colleague, peer, subordinate, or a supervisor in the workplace. It takes guts to potentially appear the fool in front of people; it even takes guts to take a strong position in something in which you believe.

To bring this out of the theoretical into today’s headlines, I would like to turn to the recent debacle at General Motors. For the want of replacing a defective$5.00 switch in some of their vehicles, over a dozen people needlessly died. And, where did that decision to not recall those vehicles come from? Like all other decisions it came from the top of the corporate ladder. Why did it happen? Quite simply - fear (think fire). The fear of disappointing shareholders with lower earnings from the loss, due to the recall, meant that the executive ranks at GM joined together in fear and ran away from what would have taken some amount of courage by owning the mistake.

Think about 2008 and the great crash on Wall Street. In hindsight, it could have been avoided if the people at the top of the ladder at the U.S. Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve and the big investment banking houses had set a goal to not only avoid the crash, but to proactively work together on a solution to fix the problem permanently.

The list of “fear failures” goes on and on, and I firmly believe that fear, or lack of guts, are at the root of most of our ills in today’s world. On the other hand, since it is so rare, people with guts and willing to take true risks stand out from the crowd. Think of Elon Musk, who just released (this past week) all of his patents for hisTesla electric cars to the public domain. He believes so strongly in the advent of global warming that he wants to encourage more car makers to invest in electric automotive technology and manufacture. There are others, too, but there are far fewer in the risk ranks than those signed up for the fear squads.

To close this epistle, I will leave you with the following piece, author unknown, written as a eulogy to the Challenger astronauts after their deaths in 1986.


To laugh is to risk appearing the fool,

To weep is to risk being called sentimental.

To reach out to another is to risk involvement.

To expose feelings is to risk showing your true self.

To place your ideas and dreams before the crowd is to risk being called naïve.

To live is to risk dying,

To hope is to risk despair,

To try is to risk failure.

But risks must be taken, because the greatest risk in life is to risk nothing.

The people who risk nothing, do nothing, are nothing, and become nothing.

They may avoid suffering and sorrow, but they simply cannot learn to feel, and change, and grow, and love, or live.

Chained by their servitude, they are slaves; they’ve forfeited their freedom.

Only the people who risk are truly free.