The Cure for Terror

Below is a section taken out of Wilson Harrell’s book, For Entrepreneur’s Only.  It’s a must read.

But, before you read this amazing description of what it feels like to be an entrepreneur, I’d like to offer my thoughts on the cure for this entrepreneurial terror.

I believe the terror is unavoidable, but the best cure of the terror is work, the right work.  Certainly not “busy work”.  99% of the worlds population keeps themselves busy in order to avoid failure.

Think about it.  How often do you sit down, make a list of all the things you need to do, and then you start with the easiest first?  You end up doing all the things on the list except the most important.  Why?  Why would we behave so irrationally?  Because we don’t want to fail.

Fear of failure is the drive that keeps us doing all the unimportant things first.  It causes us to make excuses for why we can’t get the important stuff done.  We’ll procrastinate the important things until its too late.  But at least we didn’t fail.

Fear of failure is not the terror that Harrell talks about below.  No, it’s different.  But, conquering the fear of failure by tackling the important items first puts us to work in a way that reduces the terror.  Try it.  Make your list.  Sort it by order of importance, in other words, by order of what will make you the most money.  Do the things that will make you the most money first.  You’ll feel a lot better.  The terror will be momentarily at bay.

Now, enjoy Harrell’s amazing description of entrepreneurship:


Starting a company? Get ready for the most terrifying experience of your life.

I would like to address a few words to a particular group of readers, to those of you, young and not so young, who are starting your first company. By that act, you have joined a very special organization. Admission is automatic; permission is neither needed nor sought; tenure is indefinite. Welcome to the Club of Terror.

I myself have been a member of this club, and have known this terror, for close to 35 years. I can assure you that it is unlike anything you have ever experienced before. No longer do you have to be bothered with such ordinary feelings as concern, or frustration, or even fear. Those gentle things are the least of your troubles now. You can put them away as a child puts away toys. From now on, you will be in the grip of a human emotion that the good Lord, or more likely his nemesis, created just for entrepreneurs.

Now, I realize that you didn’t bargain on this when you started your company. Terror is something that entrepreneurs don’t expect, can’t escape, and have no way of preparing for. You won’t find any college course on the subject — Handling Terror 101 and 102, or whatever. Nor are there any on-the-job training programs. To my knowledge, nothing has ever been written about it, either, and few people even talk about it. The truth is that those of us who have experienced entrepreneurial terror seldom admit to it. As a result, it remains a deep, dark secret.

The terror is so secret, in fact, that each of us thinks he or she is the only one who’s ever felt it. That’s understandable. After all, an entrepreneur is, by definition, a risk-taker who “ain’t afraid of nothin’,” right? Phooey. Terror is our constant companion, and it scares the hell out of every one of us. If you don’t believe me, try something. The next time you meet a fellow entrepreneur — young or old, big or small, male or female — just ask, “So, how are you coping with terror?” You’ll probably get a look of surprise or even shock. But if you gaze deep into the other person’s eyes, you’ll also see a warm expression of recognition. He may smile, or grin, or laugh out loud, if he’s got the monster corralled for the time being. Then again, he may cry, depending on the status of his current venture. One thing is for sure, though: he’ll know from whence you came.

Let me be clear that by terror I do not mean simply an intense kind of fear. The two are quite different. Fear is the sudden rush of adrenaline let loose when her boyfriend walks in, or when you almost get hit by a drunk driver. It’s usually accidental, unexpected, and short-lived. Entrepreneurial terror, on the other hand, is self-inflicted. It occurs when an otherwise normal person makes a conscious decision that carries him over the threshold of fear into a private world filled with monsters sucking at every morsel of his being. There can be no sleep in this world, just wide-awake nightmares. The terror you feel has its own taste (bile), its own smell (putrid), and its own gut-wrenching pain. And it doesn’t go away as long as you remain an entrepreneur.

I have often tried to figure out what causes this terror, what breathes life into these monsters in the first place. It’s not the money. As any successful entrepreneur will tell you, money is just a by-product of accomplishment, and its loss is, well, one of the risks you take, usually with your eyes open. “Fear of failure” is a better explanation, although the phrase seems awfully inadequate to anyone who has ever felt entrepreneurial terror, like saying you hate a guy because he wears white socks. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that the terror comes from the same thing that leads us to start companies in the first place — some basic, semiconscious need to make our mark in the world, to leave our footprints in the sands of time. What we really fear, I suspect, is that we might become another member of the herd and pass into oblivion.

Wherever the terror comes from, it is awfully hard to imagine unless you have been through it. I certainly had no idea what lay ahead when I started my first company in 1953, although I had had some experience with fear. That experience came as a fighter pilot during World War II, when I was shot down behind enemy lines. There, badly burned,I was picked up by members of the French Underground, who devised a unique and cynical way to hide me from the Germans: they buried me in a cornfield with a hose stuck in my mouth so I could breathe. The first time they buried me, I lay there for four hours — time enough to consider all the bleak possibilities. I figured the Germans would (1) stick a bayonet through the dirt and into me; (2) riddle the hole with bullets; (3) accidentally ick the hose; or, worst of all, (4) turn on the faucet. For eight days in succession, I was buried; for eight days, I lived with a new and unwanted friend — stark, raving fear.

But I also discovered something else during that period, a kind of exhilaration I had never experienced before. Each time the french partisans dug me up, I was amazed at how high I felt. I was elated. I had conquered fear, and I knew it. Of course, it helped quite a bit that I was still alive.

When I was repatriated, I believed that I had experienced the ultimate in fear — which was probably true. What I didn’t realize, and couldn’t possibly imagine, was that I was headed for a career filled with experiences every bit as grueling. In the future, moreover, I would put myself through this torture of my own free will.

The truth began to sink in shortly after I started my first company, a food brokerage representing companies that wanted to sell their products on military bases in Europe and the Near East. Kraft Foods Co. appointed me its representative, and almost immdiately sales went out of sight. Everything I did turned into more and more sales for Kraft. I was flying high and making money hand over fist.

Then one day, when I was visiting the company’s executive offices in Chicago, Kraft’s president, J. Clyde Loftis, invited me in for a chat. The meeting was great for about 10 minutes, as he heaped praise on me for my selling efforts. The next 2 minutes weren’t so great, as he calmly announced that Kraft was letting its own salespeople take over the military market in Germany — which happened to represent about half of my total commission from sales. He assured me that, naturally, I could continue representing Kraft in the other areas, countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Libya.

I sat there stunned. I felt like a fly on an elephant’s ass. My income was about to be cut by 50%, and my profit by 100%. Without Kraft, I was pretty near out of business. My mind was going 90 miles an hour. I could see exactly what had happened: I had sold myself out of a job. I had made it look so easy that some smart aleck had been able to convince Kraft’s management its own salespeople could do the work better and cheaper. But maybe Loftis himself had doubts. Taking a deep breath, I said, “Mr. Loftis, if you take over in Germany, I’m going to let you take over everywhere.”

He looked at me. I looked at him. Absolute silence. I had, of course, stopped breathing and was in desperate need of a pacemaker. Terror had just joined the meeting.

After what seemed an eternity, he said, “Are you sure?” Since I couldn’t speak, I just nodded. “We’ll let you know,” he said.

It took him a month to make up his mind. During every moment of those 30 days and 30 nights, I lived with a terror as vivid and as horrifying as anything I had experienced in the French cornfield. When the letter arrived from Kraft, my hands were shaking so badly I couldn’t open it. My secretary read it — and let out a shout: “You did it! You did it!” Kraft had backed down. At that moment, my exhilaration was so overwhelming, the high so intense, that I almost passed out.

Was it worth it? You’re damn right it was — a hundred-thousandfold. Thirty years later, my old food-broker company still represents Kraft Inc., not only in Europe, but in the Far East and many other places. What’s more, that account became the cornerstone of what eventually grew into the largest military-representative organization in the business. Two years ago, I sold it for more than $4 million.

I suppose it was this episode that confirmed me as an entrepreneur and kept me coming back for more. Aside from the terror, the experience also taught me the second secret of entrepreneurship — its reward. I realized then that the elation you feel more than makes up for the pain you have suffered. That high, like the terror, is an emotion especially reserved for those of us who start companies. It is food for our spirit — the sustenance that keeps us going from one encounter to the next.

Some people might call this an addiction. I prefer to think of it as a roller-coaster ride. In the beginning, you pull yourself slowly up the first incline, making the tough decisions with a growing sense of excitement and foreboding. When you hit the top, there is a brief, frightening moment of anticipation before all hell breaks loose. Terror takes over as you go screaming into the unknown. For a while, you feel nothing but incredible fear, interrupted only by a few bumps along the way. Then, suddenly, the ride is over, and the terror is gone, and the exhilaration is all that remains. It’s time to buy another ticket. Somehow, though, you know that your first encounter was the worst. You have, to a degree, learned how to handle terror. Thereafter, the intensity diminishes a bit — unless you find a bigger roller coaster or take up, say, skydiving.

The important thing, obviously, is to get through that first encounter, as some of you are trying to do right now. Don’t be alarmed if it seems to be more than you can stand. Recognize the terror for what it is, and get used to it, because it could be yours for life. Learn to look it squarely in the eye and spit on it. If you don’t, you probably won’t make the club, at least not this time. Of course, there’s no limit to the number of times you can join.

Now, I realize that I haven’t said a damn thing to help you deal with the terror or make it go away. Unfortunately, I don’t have any practical tips to give you. The only technique that I’ve found useful is to get in my car, all alone, and ride around cursing with every four-letter word in my vocabulary. If, by chance, you don’t know many bad words, write me, and I’ll send you my list. Then set aside a day or so, because it will take you that long to say all of them.

But cursing aside, let me offer a couple of pieces of advice. First, never try to share your feelings of terror with a friend. You will only be passing along the stuff of which ulcers are made. The other person, after all, may never have been on the roller coaster and may not be a member of the club. The chances are that he or she won’t be able to deal with the feelings you describe. By sharing the terror, moreover, you are — in effect — asking the other person to share the blame in case something goes wrong. That’s against the rules of the club. It is conduct unbecoming an entrepreneur. Leave that to the big companies, which have a builtin structure for sharing terror (or whatever its Fortune 500 counterpart might be). They call it a “committee,” or sometimes “the office of the president.”

Above all, don’t take terror home with you. No matter how sorely tempted you are, do not under any circumstances share terror with people you love, unless they happen to be partners in your company. It will only make them despondent and maybe even sick. They put up with enough just living around an entrepreneur. Besides, you need the experience.

There is, however, something you can, and should, share with the people you love. I’m talking about the entrepreneurial high. By all means, take that home with you.

Back to my Kraft story for a moment. My wife will always remember that episode, not so much because I was such a miserable son of a bitch during the 30 days I was waiting for the reply, but because of what happened afterward. We were living in Frankfurt, Germany, at the time. As soon as I got my love letter from Kraft, I called her with the news and asked her for a date. She accepted. The day of our celebration, I took her to the Frankfurt airport and we boarded a plane to Paris, where I’d made reservations at the most exclusive and outrageously expensive restaurant in Europe. I started the dinner by ordering a 60-year-old bottle of wine, which cost about $500. The maitre d’ dimmed all the lights and served the wine with great ceremony. I’ve forgotten how the wine tasted, but I will never forget the way my wife looked at me. The dinner lasted three days. We shared the high.

You will have your own highs to share once you have conquered your terror. In the meantime, you should at least be aware that you are not alone — far from it. There is a whole gang of us out here living with the same monster. And you can take some comfort in knowing that terror is an integral and necessary part of every new business started by anyone, anywhere, at any time. Which means that, for every company in existence, there is, or was, some poor soul who bore the cross of terror for all of the people who have benefited. Whether the name was Mr. Kraft, Mr. Pillsbury, Mr. Ford, or Joe Blow, they all shook hands with the devil and joined the club.

My own belief is that the ability to handle terror, to live with it, is the single most important — and, yes, necessary — ingredient of entrepreneurial success. I also believe that it is the lonely entrepreneur living with his or her personal terror who breathes life and excitement into an otherwise dull and mundane world. From that perspective, the Club of Terror is a very exclusive one. Welcome.

4 thoughts on “The Cure for Terror”

  1. Tyler this is such perfect timing. I just went through about six months of absolute terror of trying to buy the building im renting. It all came down to a twenty minute showdown face to face with terror. And did we succeed! Yes we did, the high is amazing, exhilarating and even…terrifying!

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Nice find Tyler. Inspiration for us all. I’m addicted to the terror, but some days I wish I was delivering mail or some other no-risk job. For anyone needing a real escape from the daily grind, take a vacation at Whistler Resort and stay in a fine private vacation home http://www.ResortAc.com. If you want the insider’s tips just let me know.
    Cheers,
    Troy

  3. That was cool, I’ve got the book but haven’t got to it yet. From the very outset I have never shared the terror with people I know, I hear what he says, it just feels wrong. After all I took this on, I have to deal with it – besides, to whine about it would diminish the accomplishment when it comes. Thanks Tyler.

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