Sunday, March 17, 2019

My chicken ranch story

Read Time: 4 minutes

Sometimes, we are so scared of failure that we inevitably invite it into our lives. Here’s how to stop that from happening.

The time was tight, the date near. I had an upcoming meeting for a much-needed new business for my design firm, and I knew that I needed to prepare.

The thing is, we didn’t have enough business, and like many small businesses, we had serious issues when it came to cash flow. We didn’t have debt, but every dollar that came in went out the same day. However, I was so afraid of failing that I avoided thinking about the upcoming meeting because the very act of considering it opened the gates to the horrible fear of failure. I hid from the fear and the opportunity by doing nothing to prepare, and by not thinking about it.

I was so afraid of failure, and I let my flight-or-fight tendency take over. And rather than confronting my fear head-on, I chose to push it away and told myself that I could nail the meeting with a smile and a few smart comments. Deep down inside, I knew that this wasn’t the case–but it took me several rejections to admit that I was engaging in self-sabotaging behavior.

A client of mine had recommended me to the new marketing director at a large chicken ranch. Her company wanted to expand beyond their commodity base with a line of high-end, branded chicken. They’d asked my team to come in to talk about package design.

Naturally, as was my method at the time, I’d done nothing to prepare other than gather samples of our current work. I could have done a news search on the state of chicken marketing; studied issues around packaging fresh meat; searched for coverage of senior management at the ranch. I did nothing because I was afraid to discover what I didn’t know, and the prospect of competing with major-league East Coast design firms terrified me.

I could have overcome those fears, but I didn’t. I just bought an airplane ticket. I flew to D.C. and caught a local plane to somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains. When I arrived in the small community, I realized that the chicken ranch was the biggest employer in town. You could hear, and smell, the chickens from the small main street. I stepped into a drugstore, bought a large newsprint tablet and settled into the diner next door to list my packaging bullet points. It was late. I was the last customer. The wait staff must have been bored because they got interested in my little production and gathered around to help, first with spelling and later with tips on the chicken ranch. “Wow,” I thought, “these guys know their stuff. This is cool; maybe I can pull this off.” I spent a couple of hours working and reworking my thoughts, with the wait staff coaching and egging me on.

The next morning I presented myself at the ranch early, eager to show off my new wisdom. Right away, I could tell that the meeting was a disaster. The CEO pointed out a spelling error—I’d spelled his name wrong on the first page of the flip chart.

When I pulled out our wine and candy packaging, a couple of executives got up and left. My contact, the head of marketing, refused to look me in the eye. With my worst fears dancing in plain sight and tears forming, I packed my samples as quickly as I could and left.

That wasn’t the only instance where my lack of preparation resulted in a less than desirable outcome, but for some reason, this particular experience was the one that forced me to change my approach. It was my memory of the wait staff that gave me the first push into preparation. Clearly, by that time, it was too late. But it reminded me that it could be fun. I enjoyed hashing out possibilities with them, and since they’d all worked at the ranch at one time or another, they had all kinds of valuable insights. Had I made an effort to do something like this several weeks earlier, my meeting might have ended differently.

It was then that I realized the simple solution to changing my thought patterns. You see, I hid from my fear because it left me weak and anxious, and made me feel depleted. And while my reactions had been to push it away, I realized that I could move past it by not thinking about myself. I can choose to direct my focus to my clients–their needs, issues, and concerns. I can start to identify where my expertise could be of value, giving me just that boost of confidence that I needed. The more I thought about how I can help, the more confident I get. I can then start to plan and find myself enjoying the challenge of solving the puzzle. Before I know it, I’m in a state of creative flow.

Fear can lead us to act in self-defeating ways. But that doesn’t mean you have to succumb to those actions. You can choose to tell yourself a different story, one that gets you to take positive steps, rather than remain paralyzed with fear.

It took many failures to realize it, but I learned to overcome my fear by reframing how I thought about preparation. It wasn’t a “tryout” where I can fail, but a pleasurable process to search for insights that others might not have. In other words, I needed to see it as a fun challenge, rather than an inevitable win/lose situation. And I’ve won more times than not since then.


  • Willow says:

    I really enjoyed this article. I love the way the diner staff got involved and egged you on (haha). It’s a good reminder that people want to see us succeed, even when they don’t know us.

    I think about the intersection of fear and creativity a lot, and when people simplify the situation by saying ‘You have to be fearless and pursue your dreams,” I think that lacks nuance.

    Everyone experiences fear. Fear can compel us to hide, as it did you. And I think a lot of people can relate, definitely, I can.

    Fear can also make us aware that something is worth doing. And I am working to make my brain approach fear as a challenge to do things that are uncomfortable more often. Not to say that I’m bungee jumping or crossing busy streets without looking, but more like taking calculated creative risks that I hope will pan out.

    When it comes to work opportunities, I guess we can only do our best to prepare. Whether we are better or worse than our competitors might be subjective, but at least if we’ve put the work into preparation, we will be unique are bound to connect with some of those potential clients.

    • Ted says:

      Thanks for your comment Willow. Someone years ago suggested that I think of fear as a “signal to self.” A signal meaning “this is important, pay attention.” It must have been my first therapist. I’ve found that fear, if not attended to, limits access to my cognitive abilities. To counter this tendency I learned that listing my credentials reduced my fear. Twenty-thirty minutes prior to a fear producing encounter I’d go to the men’s room and in the privacy of a stall carefully list my credentials with pen and paper. I made the same list probably hundreds of times. It always worked.

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