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published 17 Apr 2015 in Austria 4 minutes 52 seconds to read

Learning to cope with fear – denying 'Angst'

How can we deal with situations of anxiety and why is coping important for our everyday life? In his guest commentary, Markus Wrbouschek of Sigmund Freud University Vienna, sheds light on the topic of fear and entrepreneurial psychology.

Failure

About the Author
Markus Wrbouschek is a psychologist and teaches Qualitative Research Methods at the Sigmund Freud University in Vienna. His research interests concern the subjective aspects of new labor regimes as well as methodological problems. He is also a vocational trainer with experience in AMS-financed trainings for unemployed women.

Modern Societies rely on narratives that provide a coherent frame of reference. Since Schumpeters writings the entrepreneur is seen as an adventurer setting out into the stormy oceans of local or global market competition, alone or accompanied by a few like minded companions, driven by nothing but an idea, is one figure around which the narratives of our society evolve. We follow the individual success stories in management journals and magazines but even those who fail seem to demand a respectful nod from us.

Weren’t they at least trying to build something of their own? Didn’t they dare follow an idea however fruitless their endeavor turned out? Where do those entrepreneurs gather the courage, strength and motivation to face the bureaucratic and economic obstacles, to follow their idea and make it the astonishing story we’re reading?

Measuring the entrepreneur

Psychological research has found out that the successful entrepreneurial personality possesses superior intrinsic motivation, is performance- and achievement oriented and has an above-average sense of self-efficacy (that is the belief that he or she can control his or her own fate without the help of others). When it comes to attributing success or failure, the entrepreneur will tend to find reasons for both within him- or herself.

Today, psychology still faces the problem, that behavioural, cognitive, personality and context measures cannot provide an accurate prognosis of future business success.

Today, psychology still faces the problem, that behavioural, cognitive, personality and context measures cannot provide an accurate prognosis of future business success. Finding correlations between successful enterprises and leader personality traits of entrepreneurs is of very little value when trying to anticipate the success of future startups. It seems that we tend to focus on the players more than the play! 

The Giant and the (Giant’s) market

As a narrative the adventurer-version of the story of the entrepreneur is also highly fictional. However charismatic and bold the leader, success is the result of a fragile set of occurrences that have to align positively at the right time and the personality of the leader is but one of them. Although the tendency to attribute success or failure intrinsically is crucial for the entrepreneur’s sense of control, everyday business operations sometimes leads to severe emotional and cognitive stress.

So, one of psychology’s most interesting and hardest to grasp phenomena is Angst. Not the fear facing a specific threat – be it a shaky business deal or hard negotiations with potential investors. Not even the fear that is evoked by news of free-falling stock market prizes. Angst – as existentialist thinkers like Kierkegaard and Heidegger have elaborated – concerns us deeper than a situational threat we face. It refers to our way of being-in-regard-to-the-world. It concerns what critical thinkers would call ‚Vergesellschaftung‘ (socialisation). In market societies this Angst has a lot to do with the role that the concept of risk is given. This is the dark side of the tale of the entrepreneur as adventurer, the fact that an adventure demands a stormy sea instead of a lukewarm bath tub. 

Today everyone’s an entrepreneur!

Research as well as clinical evidence suggest that the fundamental Angst, the uncertainty that comes with living in a society based on the concept of risk, is not an exclusive experience of entrepreneurs anymore. A growing number of clients/patients in vocational coaching and psychological treatment complain about a permanent feeling of uncertainty and exposure, about stress that results from living and working under the constant pressure to prove oneself without knowing exactly what the criteria for success might be.

At the same time psychologists as well as sociologists like Ulrich Bröckling, Günter Voß and Hans Pongratz point out that acting and thinking like an entrepreneur is about to become the norm for the broad masses – regardless of whether they seek self-employment or remain within more traditional forms of employment.

At this point the narrative of the entrepreneur reveals its ideological function. If everyone is to act like an entrepreneur it means everyone is to relate to society’s fundamental concept of risk in the same way – by embracing it and taking responsibility for the outcome of the struggle! 

Exposed and responsible

The entrepreneurial narrative [...] allows us to understand how society functions and what role we should play in it.

The entrepreneurial narrative is more than just a story of remarkable individuals it is a framework that allows us to understand how society functions and what role we should play in it. It forces us to take individual responsibility for whatever happens to us, even when we have little to no control over the factors that decide success or failure. The entrepreneur’s intrinsic attribution style reflects this. At the same time it forces us to deny the fundamental vulnerability we experience in the local or global economic competition.

Ironically psychology, again, took up this problem of denial. Burnout research is beginning to recognise the fatal consequences that the constant demand to act as an self-dependent adventurer without actually being able to control the outcome of the endeavors one has to partake in can have. At the same time we see a shift in psychological research moving away from the question of how one can get rid of the fear of failure towards how one can develop a sense of failure that allows for a more realistic – if not as omnipotent – self image. A self image that – through its shortcomings – reflects what society cannot provide today.

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