Fear vs. Danger

One of my favorite podcasts I like to listen to recently is How I Built This by NPR which has weekly episodes that showcases innovators, entrepreneurs, idealists, and the stories behind the movements they built. Each episode is a narrative journey marked by triumphs, failures, serendipity and insight — told by the founders of some of the world’s best known companies and brands (copied straight from their podcast description). This week’s episode was on Jim Koch, the founder of the famous beer company Samuel Adams. Every episode is extremely inspiring since the founders of these major companies are very transparent with the struggles during the early days of their companies. In this episode, Jim Koch had a great lesson in which he talked about why he left his prestigious job as a managing consultant at the Boston Consulting Group to start a beer company.

According to Jim, the reason he left his job might sound contradictory to popular belief:

I left my job because staying there was very risky. Leaving it was not risky. And it’s the difference in life between the things that are scary and things that are dangerous. And there are plenty of things in life that are scary but not dangerous. And there are things that are dangerous but not scary. And those are the things that get you.

I can give you a climbing analogy – one of the things we taught people how to do was repel off a cliff. It’s a very scary thing, but you’re also held by a belay rope and that rope will hold a car. So walking off a cliff backwards is scary but not dangerous. Walking across a 35-degree angle snow field on a beautiful, late-May afternoon with a bright blue sky is not scary at all but it’s very dangerous because snow is melting, eventually it’s going to find a layer of ice, it’s going to lubricate that, and now you have an avalanche. That is dangerous but not scary.

And in my situation, staying at BCG was dangerous but not scary. And the danger there, the risk of it, was continuing to do something that didn’t make me happy and getting to 65 and looking back and go, “Oh my god..I wasted my life.” That is risk. That is danger.

Jim explained this point so beautifully and simply, and I think having this awareness of understanding what things in life are scary vs. dangerous will help us make the critical decisions when they matter most. Fear holds back a lot of our decisions, but is the fear just an illusion or is it actual risk/danger? Most of the time it’s probably just an illusion, and not many people realize that fear is almost never correlated with real danger.

Another great quote Jim said was:

You don’t climb a mountain to get to the middle. You climb it to get to the top.

And that’s absolutely right. If you have a hunch that you’re onto something, you don’t start “climbing a mountain” to just get to the middle and say, “Well, that was great” and climb back down. You climb a mountain to get to the top and it’s no different in life. If you start something and make a commitment to yourselfyou go all way. And the “top” is not necessarily victory/success – it’s knowing you gave it everything you had and at the end, you’ll either have success or a valuable lesson/s even if it didn’t work out the way you wanted. But that was a great quote that I’d like to keep in mind from now on.