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1.    We tend to fear what we can't control. 



Superman grounded

In the photo above, we have all 3 of Charlie's Angels... . and some random dude. Ok ok. Random dude happened to be the director of Charlie's Angels - Joseph McGinty Nichol, more commonly known as McG. (Sadly, this next story is not about the Angels but McG; sometimes I do question my choice of stories but ok, let's move on).

In July 2004, McG sat in his car outside the Burbank Airport. Following the success of Charlie's Angels, Warner Brothers had hired McG to shoot the new Superman movie. He spent a year preparing for the movie, during which Warner sunk in more than US$20 million.  That day, a private jet bound for Australia was prepared for the director, where 1,000 people (actors, production crew, etc) were waiting for McG to arrive and start filming.

McG never got on the plane. He was paralysed by fear. 

His team did everything to convince him. They told him the statistics. Only 1 in 11 million people are killed in flight accidents, compared to 1 in 5,000 in a car crash. McG was 2,000 times more likely to die driving home from the airport than taking the plane to Australia.


But fear is a formidable beast not easily tamed. No statistic was more real than how he felt. This applies to us too, in our daily lives. Fear is paralysing. And sometimes, fear overpowers our logic.

But what exactly triggered the fear? Was it really flying? Or was it something deeper? McG explains:

“In reality, it was a control issue: Whenever I got outside my comfort zone, I just felt like I was going to die. When you get on a plane, you transfer your destiny, at least for the next few hours, to the pilot and crew. You cannot control the plane’s path or its speed. You cannot leave the aircraft at will if you get tired of the crying children or your seatmate’s elbow shoving. In fact, the only choice available to you is pretzels or peanuts. Moreover, you have very limited information. You don’t know if those bumps you’re experiencing are from routine turbulence or something to be concerned about. You don’t know if the pilot is tired or alert, or if you’re going to arrive on time." 


"The loss of control is a disturbing sensation."

MCG's experience gives us a better sense of what drives fear. It was not flying itself that made him fearful. And he understood that driving was more dangerous than flying. But regardless of the statistics, driving his own car gives him a sense that he will be in control, that it was he who would determine his own fate, rather than other people whom he didn't know, and whom he didn't have control over.

We become anxious and fearful when our ability to control our environment is removed. This seems to start even at a young age. As toddlers, we do not always know what we want to do and how to do it. But when they do know what they want, they are more likely to start crying when they don't get to do it - from holding their milk bottles to deciding when playtime ends.


And as adults, we prefer to be in control in a situation when we know what to do, rather than to leave it to someone else.  see numerous examples (read about the Ikea/Converse/Origami effects here) of how we favour outcomes determined by us rather than someone else (think about the basis of many office arguments). 

Fear of control.png

We learnt earlier that all our fears are inextricably linked to survival. It is easy to see how this is the case. We are more likely to be harmed by something we have no control over, as opposed to something we can completely control. And this is deeply rooted in us. Think about it - when you bring a young child out to a garden for the first time, and the child sees a snake slithering away from a flower.


A child has never seen or learnt about a flower or a snake before - why is it more likely that the child is scared of the snake and not the flower? 

Well, the snake moves, while the flower is rooted in position. We can control our relative position to something that can't move, but we can't control the snake not to approach us. 

In the same vein, how many people do you know have a fear of domesticated animals? We don't fear a horse or a cow or a dog or a cat or a chicken because we have a higher degree of control over them. In contrast, many of our phobias revolve around animals we can't control - arachnophobia (or the fear of spiders) is the most common phobia in the world. Yet this is statistically unjustified. How many people do you know have been harmed by spiders? In the US, you are 3 times more likely to be killed by a cow than a spider. 

This brings us to the most important consideration which we will examine again and again. About 2 million years ago, the first "homo" or human species evolved into being. About 1.5 million years ago, we gained control of fire.   Think about MCG's example above. Even as we give up control to pilots when we fly and to politician to govern (and tax us), the chances of our survival being threatened are very low (in fact, there really is no other feasible alternative - you can't possibly learn how to drive or pilot every vehicle you get into, and governance is not possible if everyone wanted control). Conversely, being in control might feel good to us, but might not necessarily lead to good outcomes - driving our own cars is much less safe compared to autonomous self-driving cars that will be introduced in the near future, and controlling every part of someone's actions as a micromanaging boss is likely to drive your employee away.


Most importantly, when we make changes in our lives, we tend to lose some form of control that we enjoyed in the past. But without giving up some control, we lose the opportunity to experience something new. Considering that our survival is no longer really an issue today, our need for control is another fear we need to constantly remind ourselves to fight against, for a more meaningful life story. 

Understanding fear:

1. Emotions, like fear, just happen to you. You don't need to tell your brain to feel scared. Your brain decides that for you (and usually very quickly), and you are merely informed about it. 

2. We fear what is uncertain

3. We fear what we are not good at

4. We fear what we know is painful

5. We fear losing what we possess

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