Stress, fear, and other demons of a CEO

At the end of 2019, I decided to retire as an architect, which had been my professional focus for the last few years. Being an architect meant living with stress, being available 24 hours a day, normalizing little sleep, and having terrible eating habits, as if my quality as a professional depended on all of this.

A few months later, the pandemic would arrive and with it a breakup.  As a result, I decided to enter a process of reconstruction. I took up again a persistent idea of experimenting with painting. This process was accompanied by a lot of fear and uncertainty, but it would initiate a period that would become a transitional period in my life. 

However, along with the pandemic, a hard blow that structurally affected the project I co-founded with some friends: Fuckup Inc. came. This time of crisis led us to change the executive director. After considering many options, I was offered the position.

I was not ready for that offer, just a few months before my professional and personal life had changed entirely. Despite my surprise and all the doubts, I accepted. Again, I had a lot of fear and uncertainty. But this time, there was a group of people in my charge and an ongoing global crisis. 

In November 2020, I assumed the position of CEO of Fuckup Inc.

Is it fear, or is it stress?

Nowadays, stress is a kind of medal. One that we earn every day with sweat on our brows.

When someone asks us: “How are you?” we tend to reply: “Very stressed, with tons of work”. And then, the other person’s answer is “Me too”, as if in that state of stress, both people recognize themselves as proud and worthy of belonging to the hyper-productive society in which we live.

I never related stress with fear, even though I noticed some similarities between them before. That was until I listened to a podcast by Mary Poffenroth, an author, and researcher at the University of San Jose.

Poffenroth specializes in fear and discusses its close relationship with stress. In fact, she defines stress as a form of fear; with very similar symptoms: tension, fatigue, adrenaline, etc.  What we call “stress” puts us in the same state we reach when we are afraid. 

To talk about fear, Mary describes two types:

Factual fear: It is the one that really attempts against your physical integrity; in situations of real danger. In an accident or a natural disaster, for example.

Fictitious fear: When fear of failure (like many other fears), our brain creates hypothetical situations that cause us real sensations. Our daily life is full of them.

For instance, if you are a person who lives in a big city and you have all your needs covered, a large percentage of your fears are fictitious. If you live in a war zone, probably most of yours are factual.

Whenever I go through a moment that I initially identify as stress and feel overwhelmed, paralyzed, nervous, etc., I try to call it instead “fear”.

Many of the most innovative and brilliant people of our time use the word fear to refer to moments that the rest of us would call stress. Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar, says:

 “If we’re not scared, we’re not doing our jobs because we’re not pushing our limits, which is key to innovating and creating.”

Approaching fears from creativity helps me to face them, to know the monster and make it familiar: What is that fear, what is its origin, and is it something that can be solved? By replacing stress with fear, we are giving more value to the concept and thus more attention to work on them and consequently continue.

Recognition and creativity

One of the things that helped me decide on the management of Fuckup Inc. was a thought I had, paradoxically, while painting. Since one of my biggest fears was that there was a team of people depending on me, I thought :

“So what if those people don’t depend solely on me, and we all depend on each other?”

It was a very crazy moment, I hadn’t even started yet, and I already had a huge emotional load on my back. At that moment, it disappeared. Everything made sense to me and started what is now the way we work. At first, it was nothing more than a personal decision, so I could keep my inner peace to operate with sanity and mental health, but then it gradually became a statement that made more and more sense to me. 

How could we all get to that state where we depend on each other? The first step was to grant as much freedom as possible, freedom of decision, action, and creativity.

To make it clear and demonstrate every day, under the premise that everyone knows more than I do in each of their areas. But this freedom came with an equivalent percentage of responsibility, so the team received, in my opinion, one of the best working tools: freedom and responsibility.

From that moment on, my job was to listen 80% of the time and intervene another 20%. That is to make some recommendations or direct orders depending on the context and my experience. Sometimes I give myself the freedom to reject ideas or projects far from our objectives. Every day I make mistakes to a greater or lesser extent; that is part of the job. I have learned to live with that fear of being wrong.

By understanding the relationship between fear and stress, I learned that having a more accurate understanding of reality adds significant value to my creative process. And when I talk about creativity, I am not solely referring to the one applied to the so-called creative industries, such as architecture or painting, but also in positions such as the one I have now. Where every strategic decision is an exercise of creativity and critical thinking.

In short, fears exist to overcome them, especially if they are imaginary. And if we eliminate them through a deep and informed analysis of our reality, our life will not only be more pleasant but more creative.

Little by little, this philosophy permeates more in the Fuckup Inc. team to establish itself as a value and contribute to a work culture that can result in greater individual happiness and group productivity in pursuit of changing the paradigm of failure in the world.

Edited by Ricardo Guerrero

Carlos Zimbrón

Carlos Zimbrón

Fuckup Nights CEO

Fuckup Inc Co-Founder & CEO, architect, Necaxa fan, his second name is Manuel. Hates writing short bios for blog posts.