How To Say Yes To Fear

In 2016, I started a morning journaling process which involves setting aside a few minutes every morning to reflect on a set of questions.  One of the questions I ask myself is, “what is stressing me out and what can I do to stop this?”  This is a technique borrowed from Tim Ferriss (Tools Of Titans).

Initially I was just doing it for the sake of the exercise.  Over time, this accounting routine shed some new perspectives on my actions and decisions.  Examples run across the whole gamut of my life.  I was stressed about work and the ever increasing burden of chasing productivity and innovation.  I was stressed about our investors and tenants.  And as most Asian Americans can commiserate, I was stressed about being the perfect son, brother, cousin, filial piety, etc.  The realization was that these thoughts consumed my consciousness and played a massive role in driving a majority of the decisions I was making.  And that sent me on an existential journey to explore why.  Why do we make so many of our decisions based on fear/avoidance instead of love/want? More importantly, how can we manage our fear so that we can rationally make big decisions?

A half a year of browsing and interviewing psychologists and world experts has led me to piece together 3 mental tools that have made a drastic difference in managing my fear:

Step 1. Acknowledgement – “I am scared and I want you all to know”

The first step to managing fear is to simply acknowledge that it exists to yourself and if necessary, to your audience, and your greatest critics.  This helps to produce two miraculous side-effects:

Once you admit to the world that you ARE scared, you strip the power away from your critics (which often includes yourself).  If the only ammunition that people have against you is your own fear, then proactively sharing that with the world eliminates their ability to harm you… leaving them with no option but to actually pay attention to the content of your work, the real you.

This display of vulnerability can also improve your likeability scores.  Studies have shown that strategic displays of weakness will actually increase your social standing.  The psychology behind this phenomenon stems from our desire to empathize with other’s imperfections.  This is illustrated in 1998, when Clinton admitted to his extramarital affair with Monica Lewinsky and his approval rating actually skyrocketed.  This also explains why we fall in love with seemingly flawed characters like Don Draper (Mad Men), Homer Simpson, Michael Scott (The Office) and the list goes on.  In acknowledging your fear, you’ll quickly learn that everyone is struggling with the same anxiety and your vulnerability creates a window for real human connections.

Step 2. Rationalize Worst Case Scenario – “What’s the worst that can happen?”

Another tool you can use to manage fear is to simply ask yourself “what is the worst thing that can happen?”  This is a powerful question because it helps to address the misalignment between our reptilian brain and our modern existence.  

To illustrate this, let’s travel back in time 5,000 years and imagine that you’re standing in front of a saber tooth tiger.  Your reptilian brain, which is this primitive and instinctive portion of your Central Nervous System, will instantly process 3 questions:

  1. Can I eat it? No.  
  2. Can I have sex with it? Definitely not.  
  3. Should I run?  Yes.  

And you’ll immediately start feeling adrenaline pumping through your veins. This is incredibly important 5,000 years ago because your survival depends on it.

Now, let’s transport you back to today and you’re sitting in your boardroom teaming with lawyers, C-suites, and other powersuits.  You’ve selected a seat way in the back corner of a room.  Someone raised a question that you’re particularly interested/knowledgeable about but instead of confidently voicing your input, your reptilian brain kicks into gear. The same physiological response causes your heart to race, unable to tap into any intelligible thoughts because your body is worried about imminent danger.

Here is where you’d want to ask yourself what’s the worst that can happen. You’re certainly not going to get attacked by a saber tooth tiger but we seemingly react in the same fashion.  By examining the worst case scenarios, you’re short circuiting this response. The reality is that we’re living in a very safe and comfortable world.  Let’s follow the trail of plausible worst case scenarios:  You might get fired.  You might not be able to afford living alone.  You might have to move back in with your parents.  You might have to live on unemployment benefits.  If your parents are gone, you might need to stay at a shelter until you find a new job. It’s nowhere near as bad as getting your face chewed off by a tiger.  This is a great exercise because it forces you to think fast and slow about the potential consequences which often isn’t as dire as you think it is.

Step 3. Starving Your Fear – “I’ve rationalized my fear and I need to act”

This is a key mental tool purported by Grant Cardone (10X Rule) and Jeff Bezos (The Everything Store).  Fear feeds on time.  In other words, the more time you spend ruminating on fear, the greater control it’ll dictate over you and your decisions.  Once you’ve rationalized your worst case scenarios, you’ve got nothing left but to act.  Bezos calls it a bias for action, a bias to actively pursue your wants rather than living a life of aversion and fear.

Our struggle with fear has profound effects on our lives and wellbeing but it’s ever so present. Society is structured around fear.  As a child, we are taught that if we don’t complete our assignments we’ll be punished with bad grades.  If we don’t do our chores, we’ll be punished by our parents.  If we don’t study for the SAT, you’ll be punished with rejection from top universities. If we don’t meet this deadline/quota, we’ll be fired and have to live in squalour.  Our whole upbringing and existence is designed around fear so it’s actually common for everyone to feel disillusioned about the true impetus behind our lives. Lastly, it’s important to recognize that the tools outlined above aren’t a panacea but rather a starting point to living a more fearless existence.

 

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