Fear Not

May 1998
Picture the great composer Beethoven struggling to write a perfect Fifth Symphony that will stand the test of time. He starts with a simple theme. Discards it. Starts again. Revises it. Finally settles upon the famous "fate motive" (Da Da Da Dommmmm!). Inverts it. Extends it. Rends, amends, and dissects it. All in the context of a primal thematic struggle: that of light versus dark, hope versus despair, major versus minor. With great discipline he holds back the trombones, the piccolo, and the contrabassoon until their triumphal entry on the downbeat of movement four, when the forces of life and hope blast forth to obliterate the forces of angst and despair once and for all. As Robert Greenberg says in his fabulous audiotaped lecture series The Symphonies of Beethoven (The Teaching Co., Springfield, Va., 1996), "If you can remain composed [at] the beginning of the fourth movement . . . then I would check my respiration to make sure I am still alive. The Fifth Symphony … speaks to us as powerfully today, near the end of the 20th century, as it did to Beethoven at the turn of the 19th."

Now imagine asking Beethoven during his toil to perfect the Fifth Symphony, "Ludwig, why are you working so hard? Your First Symphony has established you as one of the most popular and successful composers of the day. Your Third Symphony, Eroica, will stand as one of the great cutting-edge creations of all time, having shattered the constraints of the classical style. You've already earned your place in the history books. Why do you continue to push yourself?"

Can you picture Beethoven responding, "Why push myself? Because if I don't write a better symphony, then someone else will. The competition is fierce, and if I don't improve, I'll be pummeled by those feisty foreign upstarts. Change or die. Innovate or self-destruct. Eat lunch or be lunch. It's not that I really want to reinvent and perfect my work; it's just that in this world, only the paranoid survive."

I frequently use that analogy to poke serious fun at the fear mongering that pervades modern management thinking and writing. You can hardly pick up a business magazine, visit a bookstore, or listen to a management guru without being assaulted by admonitions designed to frighten you into action: "You'd better hop to it and [insert favorite word: change, innovate, improve, reinvent, renew, revitalize, revolutionize, whatever], or else!"

Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating that you stick with the status quo. Nor do I deny the importance of continual reinvention and self-renewal in a changing world. Yes, the competition will blow you away if you refuse to improve. And, yes, you will pay a hefty—perhaps even fatal—price if you operate in denial of external realities.

But that is not the primary reason you should change, improve, create, and renew. I've never seen anything great and lasting created solely because "otherwise something bad will happen." As I reflect back on the research I did for Built to Last, I'm struck by how those who built enduring, great companies were driven first and foremost by an inner creative urge. They would have continued to challenge themselves and push forward even if they didn't have to. That is not only why they reached the top but also why they stayed there for so long.

The epidemic of fear mongering is ultimately debilitating (not to mention insulting), for it presumes that we are all basically lazy and have little intrinsic drive to create and improve. Given the choice, would you sit there and vegetate, feeling no urge to achieve goals, create, or make things better? I doubt it. Yet this absurdly patronizing belief that fear is our primary motivator has nonetheless infected too many of us.

I recently met with a CEO to discuss his upcoming speech about the need for corporate change. His draft for the speech sounded the "We've got to change, or else!" theme. After listening for awhile, I interrupted him: "Why do you personally work so hard on changing this company?"

He responded similarly to the way I imagine Beethoven would have responded: "Because we can be so much better. Because I really want us to be a great company, and I believe we can be—if we're willing to do what it takes to transform ourselves."

"Do you find your original speech inspiring?" I asked. "Would it inspire you?"

"Well—no. But it would probably scare me into action. I need to give people a reason to change."

"So, then, let me ask you this: How do you plan to measure progress against the goal of survival, and how will you know when you've achieved the goal? Do you plan to pause each day and say, 'Well, we've survived another day—hurrah!'?"

To his great credit, the CEO altered his tune to be more in line with his own personal motivations. Instead of focusing entirely on a "change or else" theme, he shifted to a "progress toward something greater" theme. His people found it inspiring. But even more important, I believe they will continue to feel motivated even after the company reaches a comfortable level of success—and that is the critical point. Because what's needed is motivation that's sustainable.

I had a personal experience that helped me understand that dynamic. Shortly after receiving a teaching award at Stanford, I began to dread my course. I worried that I could not repeat the performance and that the quality of other courses would exceed mine. I felt motivated, to be sure, but it was a kind of motivation that sapped away the sheer joy I normally felt in teaching. Around the same time, I was reading about John Wooden, the UCLA men's basketball coach who led his team to 10 NCAA championships in 12 years during the 1960s and 1970s. It dawned on me that Wooden had never made it a goal to repeat the previous year's performance—not even if it had been an undefeated season. He focused his attention entirely on how to improve on the previous year. Wooden highlighted for me a supreme truth: that excellence is the residual result of continual creation and improvement for its own sake. Whereas the fear mongers concentrate on the demoralizing effect of failure, Wooden capitalized on the inspiring payoff of achievement—the pure, reenergizing glee that comes from simply creating something new and doing something better.

It was an epiphany that changed my approach. Instead of obsessing about not losing what I had, I shifted to focusing on making the course better, even if just by a little bit. It was a liberating shift that restored the joy of preparation that had formerly guided me. I had fun again! And, most important, the course did in fact improve.

I certainly acknowledge fear as a powerful motivator for all of us. I'm as subject to it as anyone. But the dark side of motivation by fear is that it is like a powerful stimulant: it can jolt you for a while, but it also inevitably leaves you more drained than before. Wanting to survive—to merely avoid losing what we have—is not a goal that can motivate over the long haul. It offers no promise of forward motion, of accomplishment. (You can't ever finish "not losing" something—until, that is, you're not alive to "not lose" it anymore.) Indeed, had Beethoven focused primarily on not losing his stature after the Third Symphony, rather than pushing further, I suspect we would not have the Fifth or the Ninth symphonies. And Beethoven would not have become Beethoven.

So the next time you encounter a "Change or die!" lecture, in print or in person, remember the words of Royal Robbins, the great rock climber who pioneered ascents of Yosemite's big walls: The point is not to avoid death - if you want to do that, simply stay on the ground. The point is to reach the top, and then keep on climbing.

Copyright © 1998 Jim Collins, All rights reserved.