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Making better decisions in a crisis with help from the ancient Greeks

In our pandemic-wracked world, stoicism can help us quiet the fears in our heads and lead with more courage and heart.

Making better decisions in a crisis with help from the ancient Greeks
[Photo: Mike Gorrell/Unsplash]

I recently spoke with an entrepreneur who was feeling panicked about his finances despite closing a successful round of funding a few months ago. He said: “Consuelo, I really need to fundraise. I don’t know how long this pandemic is going to last. What if it lasts two years?” I immediately recognized the fear that was prompting him toward a particular course of action.

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Fear and anxiety are a fact of life. But one of the things that’s different right now is that we’re all experiencing it collectively, as a species, at the same time. The COVID-19 crisis, political and racial tensions and unrest around the world, and the potential for a prolonged economic downturn have made living with fear our daily reality. Unfortunately, when we let our fears and emotions run wild, it can make even simple decision-making quite difficult.

Being fearful of something can change our future as well as what we aspire to create. Fears can paralyze us or trigger action in the wrong direction. The good news is, there are steps you can take to tame your emotions and avoid making fear-based decisions during times of crisis. One process I like to use is an exercise called “fear-setting,” which is rooted in the ancient Greek philosophy of stoicism.

In brief, stoicism teaches us that through self-restraint, people can develop clear judgment and inner calm. It emphasizes the fact that the path to happiness is accepting the present moment as it is. Throughout history, stoicism has influenced kings, presidents, artists, writers, and entrepreneurs, from Marcus Aurelius to Theodore Roosevelt to General James Mattis.

Explore what you’re really afraid of and why

According to Psychology Today, our brains are hardwired with a negativity bias. As Christopher Dwyer, PhD, writes: “When we make a decision, we generally think in terms of outcomes—either positive or negative. The bias comes into play when we irrationally weigh the potential for a negative outcome as more important than that of the positive outcome.”

The first step in addressing your fears during a decision-making process is to become aware of where the fear is really coming from. Many times we can’t overcome our fears because our emotions have run away with us. The simple act of labeling your thoughts and feelings can help you define and begin to diffuse them.

The current pandemic has triggered many common worries for entrepreneurs and business leaders, such as: How long is the pandemic going to last? Will we have enough money to survive it? What if my customers don’t come back? Will I still be able to attract investors? Will I have to lay off staff or shut my doors completely?

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Whatever fears and anxieties you may be struggling with, start by writing them all down on a piece of paper.

Work through the worst-case scenarios

Now make a list of all the potential worst-case scenarios for each of the concerns you have identified. The point of this step is not to dwell in that place, but to identify and explore all the possible outcomes. Then, if the worst actually happens, it won’t catch you by surprise. And if something bad does happen, then it’s not the end of the world, because you know you can pivot in another direction. Remember: You always have options.

Take time to play out each scenario so you become comfortable. What are the realities of each situation, and what don’t you control? Make an action plan for each using strategic questions such as: If the worst happened, how would you fix it and who could you ask for help? Will you be the first person to ever confront that problem, or has someone solved that issue before?

Write all of this down and you’ll see new possibilities and all the potential options you have. This step is important because it will help you focus on all the things that are within your control.

As you work through this exercise, it’s important to consider the price of doing nothing at all, because that also counts as a decision, and not necessarily a good one. Consider all options—even what you think you can’t do. Let yourself think beyond your limits and you might discover you are stronger and more capable than you knew. These simple strategies can remove the power of your fears over you. Even better, you may be inspired to turn a negative situation into a creative solution for your business.

Maintain a calm, focused, and resilient mind

In times of uncertainty, it’s easy for our minds to become bogged down by the constant barrage of bad news, social media, and other distracting clutter. In order to make our best decisions, we need to be calm and centered. Instead of wasting time and energy by doom-surfing the news, work on developing other daily habits that create the mental space you need to tune into your heart and make decisions with a calm, rational mind. For me, being out in nature and running trails energizes me and helps me clear the cobwebs. Giving yourself some space and a healthy pause can help you problem-solve more effectively, even in times of crisis.

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As Nelson Mandela once said: “Courage isn’t the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” My resilience and courage as a leader have been tested many times throughout my career—from starting my first business at 21, to leading Mexico’s first tech innovation center, to launching the second Latina-owned venture capital firm in Silicon Valley. If I had let my fears stop me from reaching for these dreams, I never would have achieved any of these things; nor would I be supporting the hopes and dreams of other entrepreneurs at many promising startups today.

One thing I’ve realized is that this pandemic resembles some of the key characteristics of my work in venture capital: There are a lot of unknowns and many things outside of your control. That is why it is so important to stay flexible and avoid becoming attached to any particular outcome, while at the same time having empathy for everyone in the process.

My best advice in this time of uncertainty is this: Instead of fighting the pandemic and its consequences in your business, embrace it. Be present, connect with yourself and others, and acknowledge our vulnerability and interdependence. This is our shared reality—for now, at least—so make the best of things. Let go of your fear of the unknown, and look for the unexpected and valuable opportunities that can propel you and your company forward instead.


Consuelo Valverde is the founder and managing partner of SV Latam Capital, a VC fund based in San Francisco that is bullish on startup founders who use science and technology to transform societies, the environment, and health on a global scale. 

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