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Don't let the skeptic win

As humans, we're wired for survival.

When we're staring physical danger in the face, the brain's hypothalamus is activated. It initiates a series of chemical releases and nerve cell responses that gets us ready for the impending threat. Adrenaline is released into the bloodstream, our heart rate increases, and blood is rapidly pumped into our muscles and limbs. Our awareness, sight and impulses all intensify and quicken. Our ancestors faced a lot of dangers, and the fight-or-flight response evolved to help them evade or battle those dangers in order to survive.

As helpful as these responses are for assisting with our physical survival, our system actually can't distinguish between a real threat, like a lion approaching you in your cave, or an imagined threat, like when you're laying in bed at 2am stressing about whether your new website is going to crash or not. The physiological responses to the real or imagined threat are the same.

The challenges here are obvious, but this post is about something slightly more subtle:

The fact that we're hard wired for the stress response means that it's very easy, even natural, for us to slip into thinking that activates the fight or flight response. When you're sitting around a table at work discussing the viability of a new project, it's actually much easier for your brain and nervous system to imagine everything that can go wrong, rather than everything that can go right, with the new project. The chemicals released during the stress response are strangely addictive. The adrenaline and cortisol make us feel sharp and alive, albeit for short periods at a time.

This is why I love one of 2U's company values, "don't let the skeptic win".

It's too easy to imagine everything that can go wrong with a new project, business or innovation. When concerns are raised around the board room table, the person who is raising the concerns is often viewed as prudent, rational and sensible for identifying the myriad of issues that could arise. As they describe these potential issues, our bodies are literally hitting us with the addictive stress hormones as we imagine the scenarios unfolding. When they describe how these issues can be avoided by rather not doing the new project, we feel a sense of release and reprieve from the imagined scenario. Back to safety... let's rather not tackle that new project.

The problem here is that if we allow this natural tendency to drive our decision making on an ongoing basis, we wheel spin and stagnate. Rather than daring greatly and venturing into new projects or innovations that the world desperately needs, we put these imagined scenarios on repeat, and pat ourselves on the back for avoiding the threats that come with them.

Today, in partnership with the University of Cape Town, and with support from the incredible team at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, we launch the UCT Online High School. It's a massive project, and it's the result of years of hard work and dedication from the team at Valenture.

We're doing a lot of new things in this school, and we're building the backbone of an ecosystem that will drive more equitable access to high quality schooling in South Africa and beyond. Will things go wrong? Definitely. Will there be mistakes? No question. Would it have been easier and less stressful to not do this project at all? For sure.

Rather than letting the skeptic win, we're walking in eyes wide open to the challenges and threats, and deciding regardless that this is worth pursuing.

Rather than letting the skeptic win, we back ourselves to be hyper responsive when things go wrong and our stress state is activated.

Rather than letting the skeptic win, we choose to bring the future forward, and work tirelessly towards a vision of education in South Africa that is hard for most to imagine yet.

To be clear, the role of leaders in any organisation is to see the threats clearly, and to mitigate them. The distinction here is whether you let this define your decision making, or refine your decision making. If it defines your decision making, you will wheel spin. If it refines your decision making, you will lead responsibly.

The skeptic is in all of us, and the deeper invitation of this post is to watch closely for it in your own psyche. When you feel a calling towards some greater vision of your life, relationships or contribution to the world, how much airtime do you give to the skeptic? It's too easy to do nothing, and it's too easy to criticise yourself and others who are daring greatly.

Don't let the skeptic win. We need bold innovations more than ever right now in our country.


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