Fear Is Good

Imagine that you are invited into a room prior to participating in an important event and told that you will be given one second to make a choice between two states of mind that you can adopt in preparation for the occasion. You wonder whether the two options will be optimism and pessimism but they turn out to be subtly different from these polar extremes.

After a brief period for composing yourself, following a countdown displayed in big red numbers on a digital clock, a red curtain is rapidly drawn back to reveal the two mindsets. You are given the briefest of opportunities to select your preferred emotional profile. If you take longer than a second you will be penalised and if you pause for more than three seconds, procrastinating over the decision, you will be disqualified from participating in the event.

Card A on the left bears the words “Arrogance and Complacency” while card B on the right reads “Fear and Ignorance”.  You hesitate for a fraction of a second before pressing button B. Based on my own experience, this would be the better choice by far. But why?

Fear is a constructive emotion provided that you do not allow it to overwhelm you. You must, of course, control your fear so that you are able to deal effectively with the root cause. As everyone knows, the antidote to fear is action. The alternative is paralysis. Fear is your friend because it alerts you to something that requires your attention in the same way that pain does. Show it your gratitude, as you would a stranger who, when passing by, gives you a valuable piece of information.

If you never feel fear in your life, it may be that you lack awareness or have no true purpose. Perhaps you are not living at all, at least in any meaningful way. You will certainly be opening the door to the evil twins Arrogance and Complacency.

Ignorance too is a powerful force for good in your life if you offer it the same courtesy that we have advocated for fear, recognising the opportunities for discovery and exploration that it offers. My own ignorance is both broad and deep. I welcome the massive dark holes in my learning like old friends who I greet in the gloomy night with a powerful torch. Can you imagine being ignorant of Beethoven’s symphonies and grasping the opportunity to embark on such a journey of enlightenment?

Arrogance and complacency will dull your senses, convincing you that you are the master of your circumstances and need not exert yourself. Their cosy embrace will prevent you from seeing the danger that lurks out of sight, diligently waiting to ambush you. Your good intentions and self-confidence will prove to be inadequate armour.

The Knot Garden believes that a little fear is a good thing, provided that you experience it as a natural effect of a challenging endeavour. Ignorance too. We must acknowledge that they bring us valuable messages, to which we must respond effectively before cheerily waving them on their way.

Separation And Reinforcement

In a fortuitous turn of events, shortly after coming up with the skeleton of an idea for this week’s post I happened upon a physical manifestation of the abstract theme that I was working on.

For this nugget of serendipity I had a loathsome television commercial to thank which, going beyond the normal degree of irritation engendered by advertisements, compelled me to switch channels. In doing so, I was transported from a fantasy world of Tolkien’s making to the fifteenth century of the Ming Dynasty.

The documentary itself, whose subject was The Forbidden City, was interesting enough but one particular passage had me mesmerised. A wooden structural building component known as a dougong, invented in China more than two thousand years ago, was the subject of a remarkable experiment. In a simulation of a powerful earthquake, a scale model of one of The Forbidden City’s fifteenth century timber framed buildings was stress tested on a shake table.

As the power of the artificial earthquake was cranked up the walls of the building disintegrated. The intensity was increased until a reading equivalent to more than ten on the Richter scale was reached, equivalent to the explosive force of more than fifteen thousand megatons of TNT. This magnitude exceeds that of the strongest recorded earthquake. At the conclusion of the test the wooden frame, incredibly, remained standing and intact.

Apart from the aesthetic beauty of the complex structure of the dougong, I was struck by the elegant design principle that makes it so resilient to major seismic events. The interlocking wooden parts fit together in an intricate and ingenious manner, connecting the wooden pillars to the roof beams securely but with enough play between them to allow flexibility. The slightly loose coupling permits a small degree of movement between the components, allowing the frame to absorb shocks very effectively while keeping the vertical and horizontal members tied together.

So how does this relate to my abstract theme? The idea postulates that we can live our lives to greatest effect if we devote our time to a small number of related activities that strongly reinforce each other and yet remain independent. In this way, any setback suffered by one area of endeavour will not impact the others.

This is in line with The Knot Garden’s belief that we should maintain a fine balance between the the key elements of our life such that they are bound to each other tightly enough to provide mutual support but loosely enough to preserve the integrity of the whole when we are tested by adversity.

Control, Persuasion And Collaboration

It started out as a routine workshop during the early stages of a short, intense project with a “hard” deadline. After a while it became clear to me that nobody other than myself knew how to deliver the solution within the challenging timeframe.

The analyst who represented the customer and the project manager appointed by the software company, both good and competent people, were aligned in their desire to set off down the wrong road – one with a deadly hidden cliff at its end. I had visited such places before and knew of the dangers. When faced with unrealistic targets it is surprising how many professionals rush towards the perceived safety of the waterfall, only to discover too late its treacherous nature.

The business analyst expressed a view that seemed to be borne out of a clear set of orders that she had received: “We must deliver X quantity of these, complete and fully working, by date Y”. The project manager took a similarly premature view of delivery but with a slightly different perspective. “We need to discuss the project schedule in detail so that we can set realistic delivery dates”.

As is so often the case for such projects, the gap between the customer’s required delivery date and the supplier’s proposed completion point was massive. This is a common problem in the world of Information Technology. Schedules are constructed at the outset using wishful thinking and incomplete knowledge of the system to be built. This is why Agile approaches were developed.

The mismatch in expectations results from the lack of a detailed understanding of the customer’s requirements. The solution is simple. Working collaboratively with the customer, learn as much as possible in the shortest time about what needs to be delivered. Do this by implementing a single, carefully chosen set of user interactions during workshops involving small numbers of key participants. Aim to complete all of the required data mappings during the process.

And now to the crux of the matter. How should one influence the course of events based on a certain knowledge of what needs to be done? I am not a control freak. But sometimes it is necessary to persuade people that you know a better way forward. Rather than imposing my view on those others involved, I invest time in explaining why my path should be considered for adoption.

The Knot Garden believes that it sometimes makes sense to lead others gently but firmly in a certain direction. But this should only ever be done with their willing co-operation. In this way we can still move forward in a collaborative fashion, with individuals feeling that their contribution is valued, rather than by the application of brute force. We leave the business of controlling others to the Wellingtons who lead an army and must defeat a Napoleon on the battlefield.

This principle opens the door to a wider discussion of the important but profound question of control. We will explore the subject in depth over time but for will be content to reflect on a simple proposition. As The Knot Garden puts it, learn to control yourself completely first and then resolve to control events only to the extent that is necessary. Do not seek to control others but rather help them to see other ways of reaching their goals.


As much as I dislike acronyms, there is one of my own making that keeps popping into my head. It is useful to me and can be pronouced as a word, otherwise I would not give it the time of day. I did a quick search on the web and could not find it, so I figure it is all mine – but you are welcome to borrow it if you wish. It is tiwisidi. In keeping with my standard convention, I write it in lower case as a word.

Think it, Write it, Say it, Do it! Everyone knows that this, at the highest level, is the blueprint for success. So why no-one else is using the acronym is a mystery to me. But let us get to the point. Tiwisidi, applied properly, requires a considerable commitment of time and effort. And time, in particular, is in short supply – unless we are good-for-nothing layabouts whose only purpose is to be prey for the Cyclops.

The most important part of tiwisidi is the bit at the beginning. Without the ti, there is no wisidi. And without the wisidi, there is nothing. So we will focus our attention on the thinking that precedes the manifestation of our ideas. Let us ask: what is the fuel for thinking, the real food for thought? I suggest that it is a composite made from time, food and drink and knowledge. There is also a necessary fourth element that we refer to as the spirit, which provides motivation. This is the life force that impels us towards some goal,  powered by an intense interest in an entity, cause, theme or principle.

What we think determines who we are. Our thoughts are private (unless you believe in telepathy). But they eventually manifest themselves in a concrete form and so their ultimate expression is public. Our thoughts are remarkably important – not so much because they finally reveal themselves in some worldly guise but because they make us what we are.

What interests me right now is the time component of the fuel. There are two important temporal questions. How much of our time should we devote to thinking, as opposed to doing (yes, I know the distinction is not always clear, but let’s start from a simple base)? And how should we use our thinking time – what precisely should we think about?

If I were a politician, I  would likely choose to think about how I could discredit my opponents. Thankfully I am not engaged in the gruesome business of politics and so I am free to have more constructive thoughts.  This freedom is a great thing but brings with it the burden of choice – the need to select from a bewildering array of possibilities, inflated by the information-spewing behemoth known as the Internet.

We need a single guiding principle for directing our thoughts. The Knot Garden tells us that we should start with our beliefs, examining them regularly and measuring how well they line up with our interests.  If there is a strong correlation then we can organise our thinking accordingly. This will allow us to live according to what we believe in.

Tiwisidi starts with a thought. We just need to make sure that, out of the infinite range of possibilities, we choose the right one.