Appropriate Fear

by Kunal Tandon June 16th, 2020

Growing up, many of us are taught to be strong, brave, and fearless. We celebrate the fearlessness that we see in others. If you actually dig deeper, is anyone truly fearless? Isn’t the idea of being brave or courageous tied to the idea that you do something despite the fact that some level of fear still exists inside of you?

A great deal of fear can be crippling, but I believe a certain level of fear can often be the necessary ingredient for helping us do great things. I’ve always instinctually known this and believed it to be true, but I don’t think I had the language to describe this idea until I heard Gregg Popovich explain it perfectly. Popovich, the Head Coach and President of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs introduced me to the idea of appropriate fear. Popovich explained that “we’ve talked about appropriate fear for 18 years. We believe in it. Appropriate fear, basically, equals respect for your opponent. Don’t take anything lightly. Nothing comes easy. A little bit of fear is motivating. It doesn’t mean you're scared. It means you’re smart.”

I think a healthy dose of appropriate fear keeps us accountable to ourselves. It propels us to treat any challenge we might encounter with the proper amount of reverence for the difficultly it might present. Operating with appropriate fear is an expression of respect. I think about this in my own life and work.

Growing up, I was a good student, but not a great student. I did just enough to be a good student. No more, and most of the time, no less. I was a good test taker though. I always did my best when I felt the pressure of an exam. I wasn’t scared, but the stress it caused made me take the task of preparing for an exam seriously. In college, when it came time to interview for internships, and later in life for a new job, I was always juggling two thoughts at the same time. First, I wanted to instill confidence in myself, and also maintain some internal calm by reminding myself that the outcome of any single conversation wasn’t going to determine my future. Simultaneously, I’d also feel some level of anxiety and pressure. I didn’t try to push the stress out of my mind. It felt right to be anxious about an interview, to me, it signaled that I cared. Care is an essential part of doing anything worthwhile.

Thinking about my work today at El Cap, appropriate fear drives me in a number of ways. Appropriate fear is critical in the way I interact with operators, our investors, co-investors, and my partner. I’m always thinking about how I can be better. Doing my job is an incredible privilege, but it also comes with an immense responsibility. I owe it to every operator I connect with to come prepared to learn, listen, and ask thoughtful questions. I owe it to our portfolio companies to be a trusted resource that they can openly share both the highs and lows that come with building any business. I owe it to our investors to be a responsible steward of their capital, and to openly communicate with them along the way, and to remain open to learning from them throughout our partnership. I also owe it to my partner at El Cap to do my best work, over communicate, admit mistakes openly, celebrate wins, and reflect on how we can improve together. The appropriate fear that stays with me impacts how I do my work. I strive to remain confident, while always understanding that I can and need to be better.

Finally, I’ve been thinking a lot more about how appropriate fear is an important tool for any CEO. When you’re building a company, many of the decisions you make feel existential. You’re often learning at such a rapid pace, while doing so many things for the first time. As a leader, you’re responsible for making decisions that can have an impact on so many people beyond yourself. A crippling level of fear is understandable, but not practical. Appropriate fear keeps you sharp, it lets you know that the work you’re doing is important. Your decisions carry weight, and that understanding should put pressure on you, but that pressure should drive you to bring you best effort and respect for any situation you find yourself in.

I’ll leave you with a branch of Popovich’s coaching tree, Golden State Warriors head coach, Steve Kerr discussing the need for his team to have appropriate fear. He summarizes that appropriate fear is about recognizing the challenge in front of you, knowing that you need to bring your best effort, and not falling into the trap of complacency.


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