Fear, a sculptor of personality

In the articles on self-control, we told the story of Robin Friday, an enormously talented soccer player who ended up ruining his career (and eventually his life) due to an evident lack of self-control and moderation: his life was about pushing the limits, always going to extreme, with an incredible affinity for intensity.

In our overview of his case, we suggested that it would be interesting to delve further into the deep fears and desires that led him to behave this way and make decisions that proved to be so dysfunctional for his own professional and personal interests. We saw that self-awareness is the basis of self-control, and few things are more helpful for exploring why we are how we are than getting to the bottom of our fears, the reasons that ultimately make us act one way or another. And that requires reflection, introspection and a willingness to examine what is going on in our head.

In the case we are focusing on, there was an interesting conversation with the coach of Reading FC, when Friday decided to hang up his cleats at the early age of 25. After his final game with Cardiff (his last team), a social movement began in Reading (where he rose to fame) to bring him back. Maurice Evans, the team’s coach at that time, tried to convince Friday to play for them again. Here is a direct quote from the key part of that conversation:

-Robin, if you would just settle down for three or four years, you could play for England.

-How old are you?

-41… Why?

-I’m half your age and I’ve lived twice your life.

-You may well be right.

Maurice offers him a way out, even success: he just has to “settle down” a little. He has more than enough talent; all he needs is a bit of stability and he’ll make the national team. But Friday had long since opted for an intense life of excess, without anything even resembling stability, or monotony.

When we study the behavior of historical figures, and want to delve into the “why” behind their personality, we generally need to understand the different stimuli they experienced during childhood: what their parents were like, the economic or cultural context they grew up in, who gave them affection and how much, the kind of difficulties they had to overcome, possible traumas, etc. The fact is, to a large extent, we are all products of the stimuli we receive, particularly in times in which our brain is most malleable. Some of these events leave an indelible mark on the brain.

In the last century, great advancements have been made in our knowledge of the personality and the different behavior patterns. Numerous models have been developed to explain (in a more or less detailed way) how we behave and why. This chapter is not intended to outline yet another theory. Instead, we delve into the idea that few things have a greater bearing on our personality, and on realizing our talent, than how we manage the deep fears that life brings to our doorstep.

One of the most popular models these days is based precisely on that idea, establishing a list of nine fears. Hence its name: Enneagram. The literature on the subject is vast after expanding exponentially in the last decade, as have the approaches to interpreting this system: some view it as almost mystical, while others see it as just another tool (albeit an interesting and thorough one) to help understand behavior. We would certainly fall into the latter group.

Next, let’s take a look at the most common fears existing in the world of business executives (and, in general, in today’s society), focusing particularly on the relationship between the fears and beliefs that are created, which end up determining many of our “instinctive” behaviors.

Revisiting the story of Robin Friday, there are quite a few lines in his biography about the fear of being hurt, feeling powerless, not being in control of his life. A rough childhood, being forced to survive on his own at a young age, probably led him to be a person who more than anything wanted to avoid ever having to bow down to anything or anyone. Friday’s strong personality, his untamed spirit, and his strength on the field of play (getting battered left and right) are a clear testament to that.

When a person unconsciously flees from a particular fear, they are locked into pursuing a desire and a need that are in opposition. In the case of our soccer player, the fear of being powerless, of not being in the driver’s seat, of being defeated, made him want to be the boss, to be in charge; and, to some extent, to be a free spirit, independent, rebellious, with no one telling him what to do.

This dichotomy of fear/desire usually goes hand in hand with an affinity for intensity, for the real thing, being over the top. Most likely, Robin Friday associated that independence, that freedom, with a life of intensity and excess, out of control. These are two aspects that tend to go together with this type of personality. Perhaps because since his childhood he perceived that life is tremendously fragile, because he had suffered a lot, and wanted to feel alive, now.

As we see, Friday’s difficulty with self-control was probably not just the tip of the iceberg. It was a mere consequence of something much deeper. But here comes the flip side: in Robin Friday, we see the devastating effects of a very pronounced fear that ends up dominating his conduct. Fortunately, not all those who identify themselves more with this fear are addicted to excessive or undisciplined behavior. Having a certain fear does not mean being completely determined by it. One can feel an aversion to being suppressed, yet overcome that fear and engage the positive features associated with that type of personality (strong character, leadership, decision making) to protect and help others. This is observed in people with this personality who have learned to manage that fear in a functional way: they develop into fair, protective individuals with great leadership skills.

So, ultimately, as we saw with the issue of self-control, the key lies in how conscious we are of our fears, how well we know them and, obviously, what we decide to do with them. Here it is essential to understand the beliefs that we have developed under the influence of our fear. In the case of Robin Friday, we saw how his desire to feel alive and independent probably led him to associate that desire with a life of excess.

Developing such beliefs (often irrational, they fail to hold up if we look at them critically) is the key to overcoming fears. That, and getting to the bottom of why we developed that fear. It’s not about blaming a person or a circumstance. Instead, by getting in touch with our greatest fear, we can decide if we want to allow it to keep conditioning us. Fears can become great allies for our talent if we make a habit of engaging in introspection.