If they gave merit badges for anxiety, accidental entrepreneurs would have a bunch of them. The quintessential anxiety-provoking circumstance is a gap between how things are and how you want them to be coupled with uncertainty about how to close that gap. That just about perfectly describes self-employment (or any learning situation, for that matter).
There is so much uncertainty involved in working for ourselves that we can become habituated to anxiety. We assume that there will always be situations that require gritting our teeth and sucking up. If the rewards of self-employment outweigh the emotional cost, we keep going; otherwise, we get “real” jobs.
So far, it might seem that finding ways to reduce anxiety should be a high priority. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here’s why.
Anxiety Isn’t the Problem
To begin with, looking for ways to reduce anxiety presupposes that anxiety is inevitable, and it’s not. Yes, self-employment is full of situations that commonly produce anxiety, but it’s not the situations themselves that make us so uncomfortable. It’s our presumption that uncertainty is a problem.
Tell that to an inventor, and he’ll cry, “Nonsense.” Tell it to an artist, and you’ll get the same response. To the creative mind, caps and uncertainties are not problems to be solved but opportunities, possibilities, invitations to be explored. When we lives as creators, the very situations that might cause us to shudder with anxiety evoke excitement and curiosity.
Reducing Anxiety Inhibits Progress
The second reason that reducing anxiety doesn’t help grow a business is that it works too well. What I mean is that reducing anxiety causes us to feel better, at which point we stop doing whatever we were doing to reduce anxiety. In time, the underlying problem re-appears, and we get anxious again and take action.
A classic example is how the accidental entrepreneur approaches marketing and sales. When business is good, who thinks about marketing? When business slows down, anxiety goes up and we use it to spur ourselves on in search of work. As soon as we have enough work, we stop doing whatever we were doing to get it.
How do we break the cycle?
First, let’s let acknowledge that anxiety can arise in spite of our best efforts to be creative and go with the flow. I don’t want any of us to beat ourselves up for being anxious – as if that would help. (Hey, if that worked, I’d be on cloud nine all the time.) Rather than mustering our resources to break the cycle, we would do well to make space for anxiety when it arises.
Thinking about the causes of anxiety does not create space. Bringing awareness to how anxiety feels in our bodies does. As you turn your attention to your body, notice where you might be contracting or resisting the way you feel. See how it might be to open up instead. Make room for the feelings just for the sake of seeing what happens.
Making space in and of itself evokes a different way of being. When we make space for anxiety, we become its witnesses rather than its puppets. As witnesses, we can also observe the anxiety-provoking gap without turning it into a problem. If what lies on the other side of the gap is truly meaningful for us, anxiety will give way to inventiveness.
Making space is anxiety transformation, not anxiety reduction. The cycle becomes anxiety–> awareness–>space–> inventiveness–> action. When we know how to transform anxiety, we no longer need to avoid it.