YOU Magazine - January 2012 - Fear Is Good for SuccessBy David Ackert, Founder, Practice Boomers
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Fear Is Good for Success
By David Ackert, Founder, Practice Boomers

Fear Is Good for SuccessBy David Ackert, Founder, Practice Boomers

Last month I attended an industry conference, the highlight of which was the keynote speaker. He was funny, likable, dynamic, and commanded our full engagement. We laughed at his jokes and nodded at his personal anecdotes. But when he challenged us with a poignant question, the air suddenly thickened and the room went silent.

The speaker knew what he was doing. He stood his ground, letting us stew in our paralysis. I glanced around the room. Brows were furrowed. Lips were pursed. Clearly, the audience was bursting with opinions, but no one was speaking. After several more uncomfortable moments, a woman dared to raise her hand with an answer. The speaker responded, the rest of us relaxed, a few more hands went up, and the discussion picked up momentum.

What struck me most about that moment was the silence. There was no logical reason for it. If the speaker and I had been sitting down over coffee and he had asked his question, I would have said something. But instead, I waited for someone else–anyone else–to go first. The rest of the audience seemed to be experiencing the same anxiety. The last thing any of us wanted was to raise our hand and sound like an idiot. So we all let the woman take that risk (she sounded fine, of course).

I was reminded of David McRainey's book, You Are Not So Smart, in which he described a 1970 experiment that explored this behavioral phenomenon. Psychologists Bibb Latane and John Darley invited people into their office to fill out a questionnaire. After a few minutes, smoke would start to seep into the room from one of the air vents. In the first version of the experiment, the subject was alone. In the second version, there were two other people in the room filling out questionnaires.

When alone, the subject would get up after a few seconds, inspect the smoke, and leave the room to tell the experimenter about the problem. But when the same experiment included a small group, everyone just sat there, looking at each other, waiting for someone else to get up and do something. On average, it took six minutes for someone to leave the room, by which point they could barely make their way to the door from all the smoke.

Latane and Darley's experiment proved that, in a group dynamic, fear of embarrassment can be far more debilitating than our fear of death. Whether we like to admit it or not, we are much more interested in what other people think of us than we are in being leaders.

Like pack animals, human beings are hard-wired to stick with the group. After all, there is safety in numbers. But our conformist instinct presents an opportunity if you have the courage to step forward, because the moment you do, you'll have everyone else's full attention. It's worth the risk. It's your moment to shine.

So the next time you're in a group, dare to be the one who stands up and says, "I smell smoke. I'm going to investigate." Be the first one to raise your hand at a conference and answer the speaker's question. Let your voice be the one that leads a discussion in a new direction. Your courage will bring you the attention, respect, and admiration of those who hesitated. And ultimately you'll find that their fear is good for your success.

David AckertDavid Ackert is a business development consultant to service professionals. He is the founder of Practice Boomers, the e-learning program for lawyers, CPAs, and other advisors. You can follow his blog at

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