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The journey beyond fear, John Hagel III

Three tools to achieve your full potential.


We’re feeling the fear and the pressure. As a business strategist in Silicon Valley, working with successful people across all fields, Hagel has seen just how fearful many of us are. We’re often overwhelmed by the competition, and the pressure to perform.


Fear holds us back. It prevents us – and our organizations – from making the most of opportunities, and achieving our potential.


Through decades of experience, Hagel has identified three simple tools that can help us to move beyond fear, transforming our lives and careers. And it all starts with a story. Well, sort of . . .


In this post, you’ll learn

• why certain kinds of passion are so powerful;

• how a simple slogan can have a wide-reaching impact; and

• why businesses should take inspiration from World of Warcraft

The pressure is real, and so is the fear, but aim to move beyond.


If you feel like you’re under pressure, you’re not alone. All of us – individuals and organizations – are under increasing pressure. These are hard times.


During his 40-year career in Silicon Valley, the author has noticed the pressure rise and rise. You see, Hagel’s background is in management consultancy, specializing in tech and business opportunities. He’s seen the human impact of globalization and digital technology – the dark side of the revolution.


Years ago, he spotted a billboard by the highway, right in the heart of Silicon Valley. On the billboard was this simple question: “How does it feel, knowing there are at least 1 million people in the world who can do your job?”


It feels stressful, right? With globalization, people across the planet can compete for your job.


And now, with rapid advances in technology, machines are your competitors too. Today, the billboard might read, “How does it feel, knowing that there are 1 million robots who can do your job?”


No wonder so many of us feel under pressure. We may even feel afraid – afraid of the competition. Or we’re scared that we may not be able to achieve our goals. The fear is there when we go to work, and often when we come home, too.


Fear can be a powerful motivator. But is it a good motivator? Well, not really. Just look how a person acts when they’re under pressure, or feeling afraid. Their whole perspective changes. They focus on the short term and start to believe that rewards or resources are limited.


Once the person believes this, they worry about who’s going to “win.” They start thinking, “For me to win, someone else has to lose.” And as a result, rivalry increases, and pressure mounts. It’s a vicious circle, which has a profound emotional impact.


Also, emotions can be contagious. Fear spreads from one person to another, increasing in intensity. It affects whole communities and organizations.


But it doesn’t have to be this way. Fear isn’t the only motivator. Hope and excitement can motivate us too. Isn’t it better to be driven by a sense of excitement, rather than a fear of failure?


Let’s be clear, though – we’re not talking about living a life completely free from fear. It’s an emotion we all experience from time to time.


But we don’t have to be defined by our fears. And we can find motivation elsewhere.


Think of your life, or your career, as a journey – a voyage across the sea. You are the vessel, right in the midst of this journey. And the journey is worth making because there are so many exciting opportunities out there. It’s worth navigating stormy seas.


But in order to get to your destination, you’ll need motivation. And you’ll need some tools.


During his life journey, Hagel has experienced a difficult childhood, two divorces, and career challenges. Along the way, he’s identified three tools, which have helped him to keep going.


These are tools that anyone can use. They’ll motivate you, guide you, and get you safely to your destination. They’ll help you achieve your potential, no matter what.


Next, we’ll look at these three tools – what they are, and how to use them. That way, you’ll be ready to set off on the next part of your journey – a journey beyond fear, leading to a land of opportunities.



Find motivation in personal, opportunity-based narratives.


So, we’ve seen that fear isn’t such a great source of motivation. We need something else – a positive force that inspires us to set sail.


Hagel’s advice is to find a narrative. That’s the first tool you’ll need.


Keep in mind, that a narrative is not the same as a story. There are a couple of key differences.


First, unlike a story, a narrative is open-ended. There are opportunities, but no resolution yet. Also, a narrative is a personal call to action. It’s about us, and what we do. In a story, we’re a passive observer, while in a narrative, we’re active participants.


A narrative could be based on fear, or on an opportunity. Obviously, Hagel recommends the latter.


The best thing is to seek an opportunity-based narrative, which is focused on your ability to make a positive impact. That positive result could be business-related, like generating economic value. Or it could be social, like creating a supportive community.


Obviously, the possibilities are endless, but let’s start by focusing on personal narratives. This kind of narrative can be hugely motivational – a source of inspiration at any point in your life.


It took a while for Hagel to identify his personal narrative, but there were signs early on. In third grade he did an aptitude test, to see what kind of career he would be best suited to. He wasn’t convinced by the results, which suggested that he become a priest or a social worker.


But the test was right about something – Hagel had a strong drive to help others. In college, he got involved in political movements, such as protests against the Vietnam War. Later, he started working as a management consultant, helping executives to deal with significant challenges.


Helping others – this was Hagel’s narrative and his source of motivation. It’s remained a constant theme throughout his life and career.


Now, as a business strategist, Hagel often helps clients to identify the narratives that are shaping their lives.


You can do it too. Here’s how to find your personal narrative, in relation to your career, or your life more generally.


Start by asking yourself some questions. How do you see the future? Do you see it more in terms of fear and threat, or excitement and opportunity?


Next, think about your expectations of others. What kind of collaboration do you want from the people in your life? Consider their motivations, too. Is there a good reason for them to collaborate with you?


Then, reflect on the choices and actions that you’re facing in the near future. Think about what you’re likely to do, and what that says about your motivations.


And finally, work out what support you need. Not just collaboration, but actual help from others. It doesn’t matter how self-sufficient you think you are. You’ll have a better chance of succeeding if you ask for the right help from the right people.


This kind of self-reflection will help you to better understand your narrative. As you dig deeper, you might discover some interesting truths. Maybe your career choices have been driven by fear more than opportunity. Perhaps something’s been holding you back for years.


But it’s never too late to change. And you can expect your narrative to evolve throughout your life. It’s an ongoing process, so keep reflecting on your motivations.


That’s the first step to achieving your potential and finding fulfillment.



Institutional narratives matter too.


Narratives aren’t just for the individual. Institutions use them too.


Take Apple, for example. One of the company’s early slogans was “Think Different.” But it wasn’t just a slogan – it was a powerful narrative that spoke to so many people.


The concepts of individuality and creative expression resonate deeply. “Think Different” goes beyond buying a product. You could think of it as an invitation or a call to action.


Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs both knew how to “think different,” and they knew that this narrative would have appeal. Not just with customers, but with the kinds of people they wanted to work with at Apple, such as application developers.


This is why narratives matter. A strong institutional narrative can draw people to the company, and become a source of both loyalty and learning.


Through its inspiring narrative, Apple created a diverse network of developers, who created a range of innovative applications. And as a result, everyone benefited – the company, the collaborators, and the customers.


So, to sum up, a good institutional narrative attracts people, and it’s a call to action. As well as Apple’s “Think Different”, it’s Nike’s “Just Do It.” Or Airbnb’s “Belong Anywhere.”


But before you go off to brainstorm slogans. There’s a bit more to it than that.


As we’ve seen already, working with narratives requires a lot of introspection. That’s the same whether you’re identifying your personal narrative, or crafting one for your organization. It all starts with asking yourself a series of questions.


In this case, obviously, your focus should be on your company and its customers. Start with the following question:


“In the next decade, who will be our most important customers and stakeholders?”


And then, consider the opportunities out there. Ask yourself, “What opportunities can we help customers and stakeholders address?”


Finally, reflect on the actions that they’ll need to take to pursue these opportunities, as well as any challenges they may face. How will your organization inspire them to overcome difficulties?


If you’re still not completely sure what your institutional narrative should look like, here’s an example.


For a healthcare provider, the narrative might go something like this:


“We’ve always focused on treating disease. But now, with advances in medical technology, we have greater insight into our health. There’s an increasing range of digital devices that allow us to closely monitor physical health conditions.


That means we can be more proactive, and look after ourselves. So, instead of illness, let’s focus on wellness.”


That’s a meaningful institutional narrative. And it’s focused on opportunity, rather than fear.


Think about that when you’re developing your own narrative. Make sure the narrative is clear, powerful, and inspiring, so it really resonates with the people you’re trying to reach.



Find your passion, and integrate it with your working life.


So, your journey has begun. You’ve set sail, motivated by your narrative. But as you journey on, you’ll need something to sustain you. Food, fuel, or . . . passion.


Passion can be the fuel that keeps you going.


Of course, “passion” is a pretty broad term. Let’s narrow it down, and look at the most useful kind of passion. Hagel calls it “the passion of the explorer.”


One of the defining qualities of this kind of passion is the commitment to a domain. The domain could be an area of knowledge, like astronomy, or an industry, like manufacturing. Whatever it is, an explorer is excited to be involved in the domain, making an impact.


Another key characteristic of passionate explorers is their attitude toward unexpected challenges. When a challenge arises, explorers get excited, because they see them as opportunities. Challenges are a chance to do something new, something better.


Also, explorers don’t travel solo. When they’re faced with a problem, they reach out to others – people who might share their passion, or have expertise. Passionate explorers connect with others.


This kind of passion is so powerful. When you’re dealing with a challenge, isn’t collective action better than isolated passivity? Fueled by your passion, you can make change happen while working with others. And crucially, you’re acting not out of fear, but out of hope and excitement.


All of us can become passionate explorers, and achieve our full potential. But of course, you have to know what your passion is first, and then cultivate it.


Maybe you’ve already found it – you know what excites you in life. And if you’re not sure yet, that’s okay. You can find your passion at any point in your life.


Narratives can be a great tool for identifying passion. They’re a catalyst for self-discovery. So keep reflecting on your personal narrative, using the questions we looked at earlier. Think about other kinds of narratives, too, and work out which ones excite and inspire you.


You might be inspired by a company’s call to action. Remember Apple’s narrative about the unique identity and creative expression? Or you could take inspiration from Nike’s “Just do it” – an invitation to become an active participant.


There are all kinds of exciting narratives, and not just in the world of business. Religions and political movements have narratives too, and so do nations – just think of the American Dream.


So find a narrative that resonates with you, and use it to find your passion.


Then, all that’s left to do is integrate your passion with your profession. Hagel recommends taking small steps. Find elements that excite you in your existing job, and then look for opportunities to build on those elements.


For instance, one of Hagel’s clients was a salesperson at a car company. She was good at her job, but she wasn’t finding it that fulfilling. Sales were too transactional.


As the woman thought about her passion, she realized that she was more interested in addressing people’s unmet needs. On reflection, designing marketing programs was a much more exciting opportunity.


So she grabbed that opportunity. She didn’t even have to quit her job. Instead, she talked to a marketing executive in her company. He was so intrigued by her ideas and her passion that he moved her into his department.


Now, Hagel’s client is excited to go to work every day. That’s what happens when you identify your passion and integrate it with your job.



By working together on learning platforms, we can unleash limitless potential.


So far we’ve looked at two of the three tools that will help you overcome fear, and achieve your potential – narrative and passion. Both of these things are crucial.


But as you continue your journey, they’ll only get you so far. To reach your destination, and your full potential, you’ll also need something else – help from others.


This is why the third tool that Hagel recommends is learning platforms. He’s such a passionate advocate for learning platforms, that he’s even in the process of creating his own.


But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take a moment to define the word “platform”. It probably sounds a bit vague.


We’re talking about platforms as governance structures. These structures have certain protocols for interaction, which make it easier for members to connect and collaborate. LinkedIn is a platform. It’s a structure with guidelines that allow people to interact in groups.


But what we’re interested in is something more specific – learning platforms. These kinds of platforms help users to learn together, through action. Sometimes, the best way to learn, and solve problems, is through crowdsourcing.


This probably isn’t the example you were expecting, but the online video game World of Warcraft is all about learning. As you enter this amazing virtual world and take part in interplanetary battles, you’re actually using a learning platform. It’s an environment where you learn through active participation. And, as it’s a multiplayer game, the learning is accelerated by interactions with others.


Strangely, there aren’t that many learning platforms in the business. But a good example is the online forum created by the software developer SAP many years ago.


This online forum was a place for application developers to get help from each other. Whenever a developer had a problem, they could post on the forum, hoping that someone else had the solution. The platform soon became incredibly popular, attracting more than two million members. Everyone learned from each other, and SAP application developers became much more productive.


The bottom line is that learning platforms help us to harness network effects. As people learn together, they learn faster. And that leads to significant improvements, both for the individual and the organization. Using these platforms is the ideal way to achieve your potential, and, ultimately, make a difference in people’s lives.


That’s why Hagel has been inspired to develop his own learning platform. At the moment, it’s still a work-in-progress. But one day, the platform will bring people together through workshops and impact groups. The aim is to help people to develop their narratives, cultivate their passions, and make a real impact.


In Hagel’s words, it’s the “journey beyond fear.” With the right tools and support, it’s a journey that all of us can make.



Final summary


You’ll get so much more out of life if you can overcome your fear. To do this, find motivation in your personal narrative, and identify what really excites you. Then find ways to collaborate with others, ideally through learning platforms. That way, whatever your calling in life, you can achieve your true potential.


And here’s some more actionable advice:


Use cellular organization.


When people are working and learning together, small groups are often the most effective. Hagel recommends creating “cells” of around 3 to 15 people who meet regularly. It’s easier for small groups of people to form trust-based relationships, supporting each other and learning from each other. You can see this kind of structure everywhere – in churches, political movements, and even Alcoholics Anonymous. If you want to make more of an impact, try adopting cellular organization in your workplace or community.