Alan Webber is the cofounding editor of Fast Company magazine and was the editorial director and managing editor of the Harvard Business Review. He has worked in federal, state, and local government, writing speeches and focusing on innovative policy initiatives, and is the author of Rules of Thumb: 52 Truth for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self.
Topic: Explain your rule, “When the going gets tough, the tough relax.”
Alan Webber: Well, it’s a reminder to myself and to anyone who reads the book that when you’re engaged in a difficult, challenging, or aspirational enterprise, your biggest enemy is fear. It’s not the exercise of the activity, it’s not the work itself, it’s a climate of fear and there’s an awful lot of it in the world of business for sure, that people could do so much more in their work life with their own dreams, their own hopes, if they weren’t afraid. If they weren’t afraid of failure or embarrassment or appearing to ask a stupid question, the particular anecdote that that rule comes from happen when I was competing to be the managing editor of the Harvard Business Review.
And my little personal scheme to do is to go interview world leaders with the gambit, the kind of management gambit of what’s it like to run a country not a company. So I had some relationships with the German Marshall Fund and wangled an interview with Helmut Schmidt and I got over to Germany ready to embark on this interview and just before he walked into the room, I realized that my mind was completely in the wrong place, that I wasn’t preparing for a positive interview, I was scared out of my mind about screwing up the interview and that I was letting my own personal fears and tape recording in my head and my insecurities about am I smart enough for this?
Will he laugh at me?
Will he put me down for asking stupid questions?
Because Helmut Schmidt had a bit of a reputation of a guy who was disdainful of the press and never thought that the questions were smart enough for him. Here I am a young guy competing for the top slot at the Harvard Business Review, what if I screw it up? What if I didn’t do a good job? What if the tape recorder malfunctions? And all of these demons in my head were playing with me sitting there waiting for Helmut Schmidt to walk in the room. And at that moment, I had a kind of an epiphany which was, wait a minute, this is a great opportunity, this is what I want to do, this is something I worked hard to get to, why am I so fearful? Why not relax? Why not enjoy the experience? If it fails and I don’t get the top job at the Harvard Business Review, at least I would have had a great experience.
At least, I’ll be happy the way I’ve conducted my self and I won’t be failing before I even try so; it was just a memo to myself that fear is the enemy, it’s true for people who aspire to be entrepreneurs or who are simply worried about what’s going to happen in a down economy, will I find a job?
Will I be able to put food on the table?
I’m graduating from college or university, what would my future be?
Well, those can be either fearful questions or adventuresome questions and not to be too Pollyannaish about it, your attitude does determine how you perform. Fear has a way of defeating you before you even start so when the going gets tough, the tough relax is pretty much what I wrote at the top of my yellow tablet when I was going to interview Schmidt and it pretty much stayed with me since then.
Recorded on: April 23, 2009