Why your most promising projects fail – or never get started in the first place

I recently had a serious surgery on my neck and spent a solid week in bed totally immobilized. That gives you a lot of time to think!

I had decided to use this down time to plan out some new projects for the next 24 months. One of the things I do during planning sessions like this is review my project file. I keep a list of all the promising projects I’d like to start in that file.

Some of those projects go back 10 or 15 years, while many are more recent. As I was reviewing this file, I began to get a very uncomfortable feeling. I wasn’t quite sure why I was feeling this way, but by letting it just sit and percolate instead of trying to get rid of this uncomfortable feeling, things began to come clear.

You see, I noticed a number of promising projects that I had planned to start many times, but I never got around to them. And a couple of them were based on some of the greatest successes I had in the past – but I still never started them.

Then there were a few others that I was sure would be successful, but I let them fade after putting considerable time into them at the start.

I knew this was what was making me uncomfortable. What I didn’t know was why I let these promising projects wither after a strong start. And why I didn’t even start other projects that I was really excited about.

The root cause of project failure

The next thing I did was examine what was  different about the projects I was excited  about but hadn’t started as well as those I started but didn’t follow through on. In every case, two things stood out about these projects.

FIRST – they were grand in scope, much bigger than any of my other projects.

SECOND – there were aspects of each  project that was different than any of  the other projects that  were previously successful for me.

So bottom line, they were outside of my comfort zone.

And any time you’re operating outside of your comfort zone, there’s one feeling that will always come up. And if you aren’t aware of when it comes up and how it pulls you away from your goal, your project can easily be derailed, just like mine were.

That feeling is Fear.

Fear is a clever enemy

The huge problem with fear is that while it is just a feeling, it seems so logical. Here are some of the  fears I have – and I’m sure most business owners and entrepreneurs have – when starting a project that’s well outside my comfort zone:

>> You’re afraid that you’ll be criticized

>> You’re afraid the market will reject your project and it will be a total flop

>> You’re afraid you aren’t really qualified for something this big, new, or bold

>> You’re afraid you’ll look like a fraud

>> You’re afraid people will laugh at you behind your back

>> You’re afraid you aren’t educated enough to do this

>> You’re afraid you’re overqualified and people will think it’s beneath you

>> You’re afraid that someone else is already doing this, probably better than you can

>> You’re afraid no one else is doing this, so the project has no merit

>> You’re afraid you’re too old, too young, the wrong nationality, the wrong gender, the wrong religion,  the wrong build, the wrong color eyes, the wrong color hair, and on and on

Why fear overrules logic nearly all the time

What I’ve just shown you is a short list of fears we’re all confronted with at some time. There are actually many more.

But the real question is: Why does fear gain a strangle hold on us, and usually in such a short time?

And it’s pretty simple, really. This fear that we feel so frequently is a result of our body’s primitive, automatic “fight or flight response” that signals us to flee from any perceived harm.

This automatic response does not like change, because change means something that can’t be quickly measured, so it always represents a threat. And this is true even for the most positive change.

This “fight or flight” response is a snap decision that occurs in an instant, faster than we have the ability to catch or avoid. So, instead, we fall prey to it and the litany of fears I listed above begin to present themselves.

And without ever knowing what hit us, that amazingly promising project is dead before it ever began.

Logic never stood a chance. Because as much as you think a project through, as detailed as your plan may be, logic wilts in the face of fear. Nearly every time.

Guts, courage, and bravery WON’T solve this problem

When I talked to a number of business owners and entrepreneurs who I respect while planning this post, I asked them, “How do you prevent these types of fears from derailing your projects?”

Most of them answered with some variation of, “You just have to get over it” or “You need to become fearless”.

When I then asked them how well those approaches have worked for them, the resounding answer was, “Not very well”.

That’s because those are logical approaches to solving an emotional problem. And because we all have a powerful “fight or flight” instinct a logical approach stands little chance of solving this problem.

So how do you solve this problem if guts, courage and bravery don’t work?

The answer is actually much simpler than you think. Instead of ignoring these fears or trying to bull your way to becoming fearless, what I’ve found works best is to simply accept your fears. To recognize which fears affect you the most, to understand in advance which situations cause them to hit you like a freight train, and then to make them part of your project – almost like you would add someone to your project team.

By recognizing that your fears will ALWAYS show up in some form or another, you will become more aware of when they are threatening an important project. And by letting them exist, by making them a part of your team but NOT reacting to them, you can move forward much more effectively without the majority of conflict and turmoil you would otherwise experience.

How this approach works in real life

As I was trapped in bed for the first week of my recovery and I was reviewing my projects list, one project was by far the most exciting. It kept popping into my brain even though my list of fears  sounded like perfectly rational reasons not to work on it.

This particular project is a new distribution method for Amazon.com. And let me tell you, thinking about approaching a company as large and successful as Amazon got my fears firing on all cylinders:

“Who am I to tell Amazon, the champion of distribution, about a new method of distribution they haven’t considered?”

“I’ll never be able to get through to the right high-level executive to talk to.”

“I’ll look like an idiot for even attempting this.”

And many more. Once you give fear a chance to speak out, the list of reasons to quit becomes quite long. And eventually it wears you down to the point where you surrender.

But this time, I knew what my fears would look like and sound like. And I knew exactly when they would appear, which for me is usually the day after I’ve had a great idea and done the research to validate it.

So instead of taking those fears seriously, I chose to recognize that they will inevitably appear for an important project and simply let them be. No trying to overcome them or ignore them. Just recognizing them, letting them be part of my team, and taking the steps to keep my project moving forward.

Try this approach for your own projects

So far, this approach is working much better for me than anything else I’ve tried. Fighting your fears can be time-consuming and draining. Acknowledging them and accepting that they will often be part of your team eliminates most of the power your fears hold over you.

Why not give this a try? Leave a comment below on which projects your fears have prevented you from starting or caused to fail and what you plan to do about it. You’ll be surprised how just this first step will get those projects back on track.

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3 Responses to Why your most promising projects fail – or never get started in the first place

  1. M says:

    This is by far one of the best articles I have read on attaining greatness despite the fear. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and providing a new-angled solution to a battle we all have every day. Well done.
    Please provide me with your contact details and I’ll Skype you and interview you for one of our many channels.

  2. Magnus Still says:

    Hi Bob,

    Thank you for a great post. I think you are on to something important here.

    I studied Gestalt therapy 10 years ago. They have a very similar approach to emotional problems that get in our way. Recognize your feelings. Accept them. Set them aside if they are not relevant. In Gestalt, there is a technique to put the feeling on a chair and talk to the feeling, later ask it to stay out of the way while you (as the adult, talking to the child) ask the fair to sit in the chair or go out and play in the garden while you are doing the work. You of course don’t need to do such an elaborate process if it feels awkward, but the main process is the same as you describe: recognize, accept, evaluate and take action.

    Other psychotherapy lines have similar processes, because our feelings are from stone age and very often don’t correspond to the real 21st century world we live in.

    Thanks for a good post and for reminding me of these important dynamics!

    Magnus Still

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