BY Richard Branson
Editor’s Note: Entrepreneur Richard Branson regularly shares his business experience and advice with readers. What follows is the latest edited round of insightful responses. Ask him a question and your query might be the inspiration for a future column.
Entrepreneurship requires a special kind of courage — you must face a great deal of uncertainty as you launch and maintain your business. The ability to recognize your fears, assess the causes and then make decisions about how to proceed can mean the difference between success and failure for a new company.
But we all know that fear can be absolutely crippling, especially phobias. Learning to overcome one’s phobias can also be useful in the business world, helping you to learn to tell the difference between less-than-rational fear and very reasonable alarm. So let’s face our fears together!
Everyone has his own personal demons, but experts seem to agree that two of the most common phobias are fear of flying and of public speaking. I am lucky: Flying has never bothered me, but on the other hand, several of my hot-air balloon trips ended in some pretty terrifying landings, so I can certainly relate.
In Virgin Atlantic’s early days, many people prefaced their comments about our airline with an introductory line like, “For someone who’s absolutely terrified of flying, I must confess I enjoyed the trip.”
One passenger told me that the in-flight seatback videos had helped take her mind off the fact that she was “sitting inside a metal tube, hurtling blindly through the sky at 500 miles per hour.” We soon discovered there were quite a few more things that could be done to help reduce people’s fears.
Some passengers became much more cheerful flyers after we let them sit in the cockpit during takeoff and landing. Their fears vanished as they watched the pilots follow the many required safety checklists with their calm, businesslike demeanor, and being able to see out the front of the aircraft was a great relief to many. After 9/11, passengers were no longer allowed in the cockpit, so we looked for other solutions.
We found that simulated flight programs, along with lessons about how airplanes fly and about modern aviation’s incredible safety record, worked very well. Virgin Atlantic’s “Flying Without Fear” courses currently boast a 98 percent success rate, and there are many other programs out there like it. Whoopi Goldberg was one of several celebrities among the more than 2,000 nervous flyers we help every year. If Whoopi can do it, so can you!
Then there are fears that can only be overcome with practice — for me, public speaking. This used to really torment me, but it has become better.
I first realized that I would have to face my fears when the late Sir Freddie Laker coached me to make myself the public face of our new airline. I remember thinking, “That’s easy for you to say,” because I was utterly terrified.
Probably the best advice I was ever given about appearing on TV or public speaking was, “Just try to imagine you’re in a living room having a chat with someone.” This approach helped me a great deal, though an apology may still be in order for those who sat through my earlier efforts.
Whenever possible I now try to arrange for less structured question-and-answer sessions rather than traditional 25-minute speeches. It’s not only less nerve-racking for me, but I also find that audiences get a lot more out of a session when they can jump in with questions rather than sitting there thinking, “I wish he’d talk about XYZ.”
Helping others to overcome their fears can be very rewarding and enlightening as you come up with solutions together. I have always been comfortable around water, and I love to help friends, guests and employees on Necker Island to confront and conquer a phobia that is sometimes embarrassing for adults: fear of water and swimming. Most people who have this phobia don’t know how to swim.
A friend’s 5-year-old son once dubbed our daily lessons in the pool, “Uncle Richard’s drowning classes,” but I have never lost a student. Last week I helped three adults learn to swim. First you help your students to overcome their fear of putting their mouths and noses underwater. Once they get past this obstacle, you next coax them to hold their breath underwater for a little while. When your students are joyously blowing bubbles, they’re on their way.
My little swimming school’s most illustrious alumnus is Desmond Tutu. Initially the archbishop was a less than willing student, but he was a lot of fun to teach and soon caught on. I have learned from students like him that overcoming fears is often just a matter of practice, of being willing to try new things, and of facing uncertainty — whether at the podium or in a pool.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was right on target about phobias when he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Hiding from fear only makes it stronger. So enlist allies if necessary and face your fears with a battle cry of, “Screw it. Let’s do it!” You will be amazed at what you can accomplish — both at work and at play.