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We are all a little afraid. But we can overcome our fears

Image by Sammie Vasquez

We've all felt fear before many times in our lives. Sometimes, fear is a useful warning. When we get burnt by fire, fear is triggered to warn us not to get burnt again. But we've also experienced the other side of fear - the debilitating effect that prevents us from trying something new, which holds us back from asking a question or making a suggestion because we worry about looking silly, and leave us with regrets and what-ifs which are painful and where there might not be second chances. 

So how should we manage fear? And when needed, how can we overcome our fears?

1. Fear has to be defined - Fear-Setting

We've learnt that fear is an automatic response from our bodies to warn us of potential danger. This gives us a very good idea of where to start.

All fear triggers before anything really happens (and it has to). But it is up to us to:

  1. Define what has caused us to fear to begin with. Our brains are wired for a safety-first approach, and if we don't define our fears properly, sometimes we (do what psychologist term) awfulise - we dramatically and irrationally think of the worst possible outcomes that might happen, and freak ourselves out with our own thoughts. 

  2. Determine how we want to respond to our fears. Even if the fear is legitimate and there is some risk ahead, we will have to decide if this is a risk worth taking. 

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A great example worth reading is that of Isaac Lidsky. Lidsky was particularly fearful because he was diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition at age 14 - he was going blind. He started to awfulise - he saw Blindness as this massive and terrible fate that was going to destroy his life. He was never going to do anything worthwhile, his life was going to be very small, he was never going to get married, he was never going to have a family - no one will love a blind man. 

 

Lidsky tried to escape from his fears by pretending it didn't exist. He tried to pretend he wasn't going blind, until he could pretend no longer - he had mistaken a urinal for a sink and was walking into fire hydrants because he couldn't see. That became a turning point for him - he realised if he had just used a cane, he would not walk into fire hydrants and hurt himself. And it was possible and not that difficult to learn how to use the cane. Similarly, with audio recordings, braille, and a special keyboard,  he could read and write fairly normally. As he thought more deeply about it, he realised that this massive and terrible fate - Blindness - can actually be broken down into smaller, actionable parts - and it eminently possible to improve and be good at each of these parts.

 

You can read more about Lidsky's story here.

So fears are very scary if we don't put some thought into breaking it down. We start to awfulise. And we get freaked out by our own thoughts. But as we learnt from Lidsky's example, even Blindness can be a manageable fear, if we were just to break down exactly what we are fearful of.

Is there a good way for us to break-down our fears? 

Fear-setting

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Fear-setting is a super useful tool that helps us break down our massive, ambiguous, terrifying fears into a form which we can understand and process.

It helps us to define:
 

  1.   What exactly are our fears? When fear strikes, we have that churning feeling within us. We have these awful thoughts, that life ahead will be terrible. But what is it really that we fear? What are these terrible things that will happen? Write these down, and let's take a look. 
     

  2.   What can we do to prevent the worst from happening? Even if we assume the worst, we also have the power to prevent some of these from happening. What is it that we can do to minimise these negative outcomes?
     

  3.   Even if the worst were to happen, what can I do to help myself recover? History is filled with people who have recovered from big setbacks or extremely challenging circumstances. 
     

  4.   What are the costs of inaction?  As humans, we are biologically wired to prefer the status quo. When we try to make a change, we naturally start thinking of all the potential costs and negative consequences. Yet at the same time, we do not consider the costs of not making changes, of staying the same. Again, Ferriss' quote is useful - "Most people choose Unhappiness over Uncertainty". 
     

  5.   Besides the negatives, what about the positives?  And finally, what about the positives? Sure you might feel fearful, there might be some risks. But what would you stand to gain? Even if you don't succeed, what would you have gained along the way? 

I strongly recommend finding out more about and committing to fear-setting.

You can check out the "fear-setting" page, which features more information, a link to Tim Ferriss' Ted Talk and his fear-setting template. 

I have also included a sample portion of my own fear-setting notes below, which I filled while considering taking a break from work to write a book. 

 

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2. Have a really strong "what" and "why"

You might have personal experience (or know friends) of being a new parent. It's incredibly exhausting, which in turn affects your well being. 

What about top athletes? It seems really glamorous to be an Olympic champion. But it means a crazy training schedule. It means a restricted diet. It means losing most of social life because you have to get to bed early. 
 

In our learning from others segment, we also have, among many examples, Jadav Payeng, Narayanan KrishnanMasafumi Nagasaki, Nami Kim, Eddie Hall, David Goggins - who risk their security, their jobs, and even their lives, going through tremendous hardship and pain, for a goal which they are guaranteed to achieve. 

So why are people able to overcome their fears and press through so much? 

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Photo credit -BabyCentre.jpg

This brings us back to the classic Viktor Frankl (another in our learn from others page) quote:

"He who has a why to live, can bear almost any how"

If something is important enough to us, even if we're afraid, we often find the courage and grit to press on and keep going. This is especially relevant because whatever it is that we are trying to change or pursue, fear is not going to happen just once - we are going to feel fear on a constant basis over and over again. And this is true even for those who seem fearless.

(This is also why motivation is not useful - motivation is commonly translated as making yourself feel like doing, but getting to where you want often involves doing even when you don't feel like doing so)

Elon Musk (who among many other projects) - made electric cars desirable, rockets reusable, and is trying to set up a human colony on Mars - might seem positively fearless, but even he grapples with fear constantly:

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So determining what we want to do and why we want to do it is vital. If our answers to these two questions are not convincing enough even to ourselves through both the good times and bad, it'll be unlikely that we can fight through our fears, not to mention that even if we somehow achieved what we set out to pursue, it would not mean that much to us.

What if I am unsure of what I want to pursue in life? Bill Burnett and his team at Stanford provides some answers.

3. What is your next best step?

Image by Jonatan Pie

Getting from point A to point Z can be daunting unless you remember that you don't have to get from A to Z. You just have to get from A to B. Breaking big dreams into small steps is the way to move forward

Sheryl Sandberg

Let's say you want to run a 100km race. (Ok I know some of you might not want to do so, but do indulge me for argument's sake). 

 

Holy shit. That seems pretty impossible. How can you possibly ever complete something like this?

 

First, you need a plan of how to do it. You need to think about your training, your diet, whom to get advice from. So having a broad plan of what to do is important. 

What if I am unsure of what I want to pursue in life? Bill Burnett and his team at Stanford provides some answers.

4. Develop a growth mindset

Let's say you want to run a 100km race. (Ok I know some of you might not want to do so, but do indulge me for argument's sake). 

 

Holy shit. That seems pretty impossible. How can you possibly ever complete something like this?

 

First, you need a plan of how to do it. You need to think about your training, your diet, whom to get advice from. So having a broad plan of what to do is important. 

What if I am unsure of what I want to pursue in life? Bill Burnett and his team at Stanford provides some answers.

5. Dare to be vulnerable 

Let's say you want to run a 100km race. (Ok I know some of you might not want to do so, but do indulge me for argument's sake). 

 

Holy shit. That seems pretty impossible. How can you possibly ever complete something like this?

 

First, you need a plan of how to do it. You need to think about your training, your diet, whom to get advice from. So having a broad plan of what to do is important. 

What if I am unsure of what I want to pursue in life? Bill Burnett and his team at Stanford provides some answers.

6. Nothing is more valuable than really good friends

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I guess this doesn't really need that much elaboration. We tend to be so much braver when there are friends who listen, truly support you, challenge your blind spots, and find ways to help you overcome the obstacles in your life.

So how can we find such friends?

 

Well, sorry. I don't think I can or should offer a convincing personal answer to this, because I am pretty terrible at this. 

I can only draw on the wisdom of Winnie the Pooh:

 

  1. The picture above -  Eeyore had found, in Pooh and Piglet, friends for life. I don't think we can stumble upon a Pooh and Piglet randomly. I think you only find friends like Pooh and Piglet if you are first and foremost a good friend yourself. I often wondered why I haven't been very successful in making good friends, and it's this picture above that gave me the answer one day - because I'm just not a good friend myself, and on balance probably didn't deserve Poohs and Piglets. 
     

  2. In the picture below (this is related to our series on luck) - you can't possibly make good friends if you don't meet them first. And right with the theme of this page, even if we don't feel like it or feel a little scared, we have to go and meet new folks.

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