Are you afraid of the wrong things?

When I was living in Japan, my primary goal was to learn to speak Japanese. And I became fluent. I worked in a Japanese-speaking environment, I interviewed CEOs in Japanese, I wrote articles in Japanese for a business newspaper. 

But there was one word that always tripped me up. 

I’d be in a conversation with a group of Japanese, following along until it seemed like we were heading towards some kind of conclusion and the person speaking would say, “Dakara…”  (“and so…”) and end right there. All the Japanese in the group would nod knowingly in apparent agreement and I’d be, like, “Wait, what? What did we just agree on?”

The same thing happens here in France at the end of a meeting when someone says “Eh, voila!” (“and there it is”) and the French people in the room all seem to understand exactly what happens next, and everyone else is “Voila what???”

Erin Meyer, a professor at INSEAD and author of the Culture Map, says you can have this kind of implicit understanding in a “high context” homogeneous culture where there is a body of shared references and knowledge.

I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon — the “dakara” and “eh voila” effect — in another context: When someone says, “I’m afraid of failure,” or “I’m afraid of success,” and people nod knowingly in apparent agreement.

Except in this case, we don’t have a body of shared references, we’re just projecting our own interpretation onto the word.

Here’s the thing: Failure doesn’t exist. Neither does success. Rejection doesn’t really either. These are concepts that we made up, a kind of shorthand for the vague monolithic fears we have so we can justify not taking action or making a change.

In reality, there are only discrete events — somebody said “no” to your proposal, you didn’t have enough money to make payroll on Thursday, your company went public — and we decide what they mean and how we want to feel about them.

So, here’s the antidote: Spell it out. Make it explicit and precise.

“I’m afraid of starting a company and convincing people I respect to join and asking 100 VCs for funding and they say no and I decide not to continue and when people ask how my company is doing I have to say that I shut it down.”

“I’m afraid of making a mistake in the proposal and getting fired (after 11 years of being a prized employee) and becoming a homeless bag lady. On 67th street.”

Or, like Will in Good Will Hunting, spelling out an elaborate worst case scenario if he takes a job at the NSA:

“Say I’m working at the NSA and somebody puts a code on my desk, something no one else can break. Maybe I take a shot at it, maybe I break it. I’m real happy with myself because I did my job well. But maybe that code was the location of some rebel army in North Africa or the Middle East and once they had that location they bombed the village where the rebels are hiding and 1,500 people that I never met, never had no problem with, get killed.

Now the politicians are saying, ‘Send in the Marines to secure the area,’ cuz they don’t give a shit, it won’t be their kid over there getting shot just like it wasn’t them when their number got called pulling a tour in the National Guard. It’ll be some kid from Southie over there taking shrapnel in the ass.
He comes back to find that the plant he used to work at just got exported to the country he just got back from and the guy who put the shrapnel in his ass got his old job because he’ll work for 15 cents a day and no bathroom breaks.” 

When you spell it out, either you will hear how ridiculous it sounds. Or, you will be able to see that you have more control than you thought.  That there’s action you can take between taking the first action and that monolithic success or failure. 

It’s okay to be afraid. Just be precise about it.

Eh, voila.