Fighting Fear with Frank Bruno

Monday, June 30, 2014

Your average architectural project involves large sums of money, hundreds of moving parts and significant, often irreversible change.

Feeling scared? You should. Fear is normal for both the client and the architect. Those who say otherwise are putting on a brave face, are foolhardy or simply don’t understand the risks.

Fear indicates when we should pay more attention, make more effort and be more brave. It can either inspire action or paralyse us. Recently, I met ex-boxer Frank Bruno at a talk explaining how to encourage the former and avoid the latter.

It’s hard to believe someone as physically powerful as Frank –  who stood toe-to-toe with Mike Tyson in the ring – could even utter the word fear. But as a child, severe dyslexia and his characteristic colossal size made him a victim of ridicule. He lashed out, and was sent to a boarding school to keep him under control.

At 16, Frank faced a crossroads. He would either spend the rest of his days as a doorman or take a chance on a trade. With dreams of being a boxer, he focused on a training plan that turned fear into a monastic rhythm of discipline.

In the ring, fear was a constant companion. From the simple fear of taking a hit to the fear of falling short of his dreams, fear kept him alert, warned him of danger and forced him to train hard.

The reward was celebrity, wealth and an early retirement. Each brought change and challenges but the chapter that followed proved hardest: a marriage breakdown, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and bankruptcy.

Frank spoke honestly and openly about this dark stage in his life. Anyone would be forgiven for buckling under such burdens, but using fear as a motivator is now so ingrained in Frank that he’s back on track and ready for a fresh start.

Of course, boxing and architecture are worlds apart but fear encompasses both.

A recent client wanted to build a new house but had become stuck in indecision. The challenge seemed too big, the outcome too uncertain. His focus on every negative aspect was drowning his life changing dream.

I sat down with him and analysed his fears. We broke the project into bite sized chunks that tackled each one, brought everything into perspective and provided a tangible feeling of control. Confidence restored, we put the plan in action.

I visited his new home last month and you could feel the sense of achievement everywhere, from the house itself to the smiles on the faces of him and his family. I asked if the end result was worth the hardship and received a resounding “Yes!”

Quietly he sat me down and said that the project meant much more to him than the building itself. His biggest triumph was overcoming his fears and achieving his goals.

It’s a sensation that’s become very familiar in my career and it’s a pleasure to be able to share it with my clients. We all feel fear, and we should: it marks the first step in actions that are worth taking.

By John Dyer-Grimes