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Fear is a tough topic to cover as it motivates so much of what we do on a day-to-day basis. Even when we’re not fully aware of it, fear has its hooks in us and is dragging us down. Naturally we aren’t talking about phobias or that adrenaline rush you get when you skid to a stop right before rear-ending the car in front of you on the freeway. Fear is so much bigger than that. Fear drives almost all of our actions. Why we do some things and why we avoid others, why we get close to some people and push others away. In the process of life, fear is the single biggest hindrance to goal achievement. It’s just such an important topic to cover.
As I talked about recently in the series on Flow, fear is best described as an acronym: ‘False Evidence or Expectations Appearing Real’ or ‘Failure Expected Action Required’. Fear occurs when we have negative expectations of a situation – even when those expectations are completely unfounded. So many people just assume the worst is going to happen when things are ambiguous. Making this assumption leads to a quick “recoil effect” which isn’t dissimilar from what you do when you actually encounter a negative outcome to an action.
To paint a real-world scenario: Just a few months ago, a friend and I were asked to speak to 450 people at Microsoft about productivity and inbox management. We live and breathe this stuff, so I wasn’t concerned about our ability to pull it off. But when I learned how many people would be in attendance – and that it would be recorded for on-demand viewing – my first reaction was to curl up in a ball. What if I say something stupid? What if one of the questions from the audience puts me on the spot and I can’t answer it? What if a co-worker watches me up on stage and thinks I’m an idiot because of how obsessed I am with keeping my inbox clean? ;) Of course none of this had even happened yet – the fear was based on projected failure, months before I had to actually give the talk. And the concerns I had were mostly irrational; I knew the material, I knew people were hungry to learn it, and I knew I could be put on the spot and survive. I worked through the steps below to get myself into the right mindset to do this. <Note that we did the talk and it was totally fine – in fact, it was so much fun it helped reaffirm my interest in starting this blog>
Without further adieu, here are some keys to overcoming fear:
- Know that fear is just an emotion and it can be talked down. Research has shown that the way we talk to ourselves can have a profound effect on our motivation. If your self-talk is resoundingly negative, you’re eventually going to believe what you have to say. So try and cut your negative self-talk off at the knees and replace it with positive self-talk. Instead of thinking to yourself, “I’m going to tank up on stage”, reframe it as “I know I can do this – I know my stuff”. Read more on self-talk in the context of Flow.
- Fear dissipates with research, so learn about whatever you fear and practice, practice, practice it. Fear is often times about the lack of control over something. For example, people fear flying or having even minor surgery because their control over the situation is taken away from them. Well, fight for some of that control back! The best way to do it is to know your stuff in and out and have rehearsed it 10,000 times before you have to do it for real. People who know how to fly planes don’t fear flying in the same way non-pilots do.
- Stop projecting the worst of what could happen. Ask yourself what’s the worst that could happen – and then be OK with that outcome. For example, if you’re about to move across the country for a new job and it’s keeping you up at night, do a little soul-searching to brainstorm what’s the worst that could happen. If you can be content with the worst possible outcome, what’s holding you back? Would you be lonely for a few months? Could it cost you 5x more than you had expected? Would you miss your family? Figure out the worst case scenario, do what you need to do to be OK with that, and then move on.
- Make fear manageable; break it up into little chunks. This is the same way you get anything done using any productivity system. If you’re looking at something huge and overwhelming – like “Write a best-selling book”, the best way to get a grip on your fear is to break it down into discrete actions. I’d be scared to sit down to try and write a best-selling book, but I wouldn’t be scared to “Write an outline of chapter 1 covering the mating rituals of bears”.
- Don’t be afraid of criticism, blame, or embarrassment. Usually the “fear of failure” isn’t about failure at all, it’s about the impending impact to your ego. No one likes being criticized or feeling embarrassed about something. You just have to be OK with looking like an idiot (see #3) since 9 times out of 10 that’s all that’s holding you back! And the chances of you looking like an idiot in the eyes of others are actually much lower than you think they are.
The real key here isn’t so much to overcome your fears (it just makes a good title) but rather to acknowledge them and work with them. Fear will always be there, what you have to do is overwhelm your fear with desire and work through it to the other side. Once you’ve done that, the rewards are always greater than if you just gave up without trying. As Randy Pausch said: “The walls are there for you to show how badly you want it.”
Even with these tools in your toolbox, fear – especially deep-seated fear – isn’t something you can work through in 5 minutes. It takes time to separate your rational fears from your irrational fears and for your mind to come to terms with doing something it thinks is irrational. So the bottom line: When afraid, do what you would normally do if you weren’t afraid.
What would you attempt to do if you knew you couldn’t fail?