Till Death Do You Part – A Chinese American Look at Marriage Vows

bride-going-to-wedding

A bride on her way to her wedding. Normally, a bride would cover her face with a red veil. It’s not entirely clear why this woman is using a basket. 
Fuzhou, Fujian. Circa 1911-1913. [Ralph Repo]

This time of the year, the walk down Bay State Road (a stretch of Boston University) always brings back nostalgic memories from nearly a decade ago.  I remember running to class with nothing but PJs, mid-night strolls under the gas lamps, and whatever happenings that were compressed to those few moments that now define our youth.

Instead of lugging along a bag of books and lab kits, I was escorting a friend’s wife to a ceremony on campus.  This was one of the many weddings that’s been etched onto my calendar, soon to become viral hits on facebook and sooner to be replaced when baby photos are published.

In the beautifully maintained chapel, the couple exchanged a traditional Christian wedding vow where upon they both agreed “to love and cherish one another for better or worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness in health until we are parted by death.”

BY DEATH!?

I tried translating the vow into Fujianese and giggled at the gravity of that statement.  Maybe my 5th grade understanding of Chinese is to blame but it does open a window into our interpretation about marriage and our anxiety in adhering to such grandiose commitment.

Romanticization of Marriage

I was involved in a short-lived relationship with this wonderful person a few years back.  The fact that we lived in two separate cities became a point of friction for us and our conversations quickly dissolved.  We remained friends and through the power of social media, I learned less than a year later, she was engaged, married and quickly became a young mother.  All within the span of 1 year.  There was almost no refractory period between the end of our relationship and her engagement.  Although my personal ego was damaged, it also allowed me to be introspective about finding Ms. Right.  Specifically, is there such a thing as the perfect someone?

This romanticization of love and marriage is often a synthesis of the media and a reflection of our individual pursuit of fulfillment.  Movies don’t win viewers with plots about mundane reality of relationships and compromises.  With the advent of online dating, we’re further led to believe that the “perfect” someone is merely a swipe away in this sea of potential partners.  

Somewhere along the way our cultural purpose for marriage has shifted from one of self-sacrifice for the betterment of “us” to one about personal fulfillment.  In other words, the perpetual search for a perfect partner is also a reflection on our inability to accept our flaws.

Timothy Keller puts it best when he says that the goal of seeking a life partner shouldn’t be to find the perfect finished statue but rather it’s to find the high quality marble that allows the partnership to sculpt a life together.  

Harmonizing Your Identity

For Chinese Americans (immigrant or not), exploring the concept of marriage digs deep into a self-examination of our bicultural identity.  More than an examination, our marriages can be a moment where a newer and fuller American identity is formed out of our own volition.

I once found myself in a conversation with a group of friends talking about relationship deal breakers.  A seemingly liberal Chinese American friend admitted that he would only marry a Chinese woman and like most politically correct leftist warriors, we sneered at how narrow-minded that must have been to say in the 21st century. However, his intent wasn’t one of exclusion but rather it was to harmonize who he is with his family values (who happens to be traditionally observant Chinese Immigrants).

Obviously these are anthropomorphic observations without right or wrong answers.  However, the point to recognize here is that our marriage partners should not only be examined in the context of their capacity to support our personal fulfillment, but how we can sacrifice our impulses for the greater harmony of our family and public good.  That is a vow worth taking.

Reference: The Meaning Of Marriage – Timothy Keller

Advertisements

Resolving Your Infinite Filial Obligations

amazing_china_historical_pics_025

Young Mother Carrying A Child On Her Back In The Market, Hong Kong Island [c1946] Hedda Morrison

Imagine that one day, your parents approach you with a ledger containing all the items and services they’ve paid to raise and support you from infancy to this very point.  The ledger is so meticulously kept that it even includes the medical expenses to have you delivered in the hospital. 

And they want you to pay this debt today.  How would you react?  Would you want to repay them?  

This is somewhat of an absurd scenario but it forces us to examine our moral, social, and emotional obligations to our parents.  In our family, as with anyone influenced by deep rooted confucianist teachings, filial piety is front and center of every conversation.  To some, this sense of moral obligation is a bridge that connects your role in your family to your career, loved ones, and personal virtue.  Yet, to others, it could be a chasm in a widening cultural and philosophical debate.

Our Debt In Dollars and Sense

Your college tuition, clothes on your back, the rent that you never paid as a toddler, are all material obligations that many of us will never be able to repay.  These are items that can be itemized and because they are visible to us, we place the greatest amount of stress and importance on these tangible obligations.  These material obligations can lead us astray from the less tangible forms of debt, including emotional debt.  How do you account for those early weekend mornings when your mom is up at 6AM driving you to SAT practice?  Or saving the best part of the fish for you?  These are the debt that many of us will carry permanently in our subconscious journey.

Our first apartment in NYC was a 5-story pre-war walk-up.  Because we shared the unit with a number of other newly immigrated families, there was literally no room for a desk.  With all his pseudo-handy skills, Dad managed to build a murphy-esque desk right over our large window unit.  For my first few years in this country, that nook in the corner became my own little office.  There’s nothing remarkable about the sheets of shaved pinewood cobbled together on hinges but the sense of scrappiness and resilience is unshakeable . How do we even begin to put a price on this?  We don’t.

Moral Obligations

David Graeber tells a story about a couple that moved into a new town and pretended on their first night that the husband was beating the wife mercilessly.  She made sure that her screaming for help was heard by the neighbors.  This continued all night but no one intervened.  The next day, they packed up and moved out of town.

Why do we feel a moral obligation to society? In one respect, the world has offered you all that it has aggregated: culture, history, art, and science.  And the price of admission into this community is conformity.

Fujianese weddings have a long standing tradition of giving hong bao (red envelopes) to the newlywed which can amount to several hundred dollars per attendee.  I initially felt weird maintaining this practice, particularly since most of the couples are so far removed from our family.  But this is in fact the perfect tool for social cohesion.  Newlyweds essentially take out a “loan” from the greater Fujianese community to start off their new relationship.  Then as new relationships are formed in the community, the same couple is expected to return to the wedding as guests and offer the same (inflation-adjusted) hong bao to the newlywed.  This cycle is expected to repeat in perpetuity.  

This sense of moral obligation is tied to not only our yearning to re-compensate but also to the cyclical nature of our relationship with our parents.  Just as we were once infants requiring unlimited unrequited love and nurturing,  our parents will one day come to this infantile state as they physically deteriorate.  And during this concluding phase of their lives, the moral obligation is gradually flipped onto us.  Nature has a way of balancing out the universe and all debts must be resolved in one form or another.

Ref: Debt – The First 5,000 Years (David Graeber)

 

When ChaBuDuo Is Not Good Enough

on quality

credit: Getty Image

A few years back, my parents had a major renovation done to their apartment.  Instead of going through the cringe-worthy, formal bidding process of finding a contractor, my dad knew a guy.  It’s like a superpower that all Fujianese parents have; a secret construction guy, tucked away in their back pocket, waiting to be summoned at a moment’s notice.

Most Americans would find this unusual but there is a huge overlap between business and family for Asians.  When the contractor visited, it was akin to a long lost uncle wandering his way back home again.  Dad ushered him around the home, finger pointings ensued, they exchanged gestures, congratulatory pads on the shoulders, and just like that, they’re locked into a verbal contract.  It was the most machismo and unnerving thing I’ve seen.

Months after the project completed, I returned back to my parents newly renovated empty nest, now covered with marble flooring and granite countertops.  It was an impressive transformation until you start noticing random quirks in the finishing. Sink in the bathroom was unusually tall for us, which meant having to lean into the mirror every time we use it.  The counter had an outward facing notch that led splashes to flow outward.  Any of these issues are minor until you start seeing our whole family touting giant wet spots on the bottom half of our shirts every morning.  High comical quality indeed.

I asked my dad about this.

“Chabuduo.” He responded.  

This culture of close enough plagues the perception of Fujianese American (Chinese) craftsmanship.  And that’s what we’re here to examine.

This is not a diatribe about first world problems.  A poorly placed vanity isn’t killing anyone.  But this lack of of adherence to quality on an industrial scale can be catastrophic.  Remember the melamine scandal of 2008 where thousands of infants died from drinking tainted baby formula?  Or the school that was built to withstand earthquakes and collapsed?  The numerous plants that have spontaneously combusted?  People die when chabuduo is amplified across billions of lives.

Was It Always This Bad?

The story is rather different more than a thousand years ago.  Remember the silk road? The route where Europeans traveled thousands of miles to access the highest quality textiles, spices, and services in China?  Even today, high quality porcelain is called fine china because of its origin in high quality Chinese craftsmanship.  The more I dig into this history of excellence, the more I’m confounded by the juxtaposition between the past and the present China.  How is it that we can engineer the forbidden city to last for more than 600 years but can’t design a school to withstand an earthquake?

What Went So Wrong?

An entire group of ethnic Chinese did not just wake up one day in history, had bad coffee, and decided that close enough was good enough.  In the context of modern history, the bustling Chinese metropolis as we know it, is a fairly recent phenomenon.  When Deng Xiaoping opened up China to the free market, it was done so with relentless ambition of catching up.  Since the early 1980s, explosive economic growth brought more than 500 million Chinese out of poverty.  That’s more than the total U.S. population!  So credit should be given to the Communist government.  But imagine if your purpose in life isn’t to produce high quality goods but rather to meet the quotas of production set by the government.  In the pursuit of catching up to the west, the collective effort has been shifted from individual agency to meeting economic metrics set by the global elites.  Building 20 good enough schools is suddenly more important than building 1 great, earthquake-proof institution.  Somewhere along the way, chabuduo became a pervasive new standard.

Slowing Down

Examining how the Chinese economy might turn around is slightly beyond the scope of this discussion.  But on an individual level, you can affect the quality of your output and character if you simply slow down.  The key ingredient for quality is caring for your work.  But you can only care with adequate gumption (the fire, resourcefulness, and hunger to initiate).  It’s awfully difficult to be excited about writing the next report, if you have a quota of 100 to complete this week.  So this leads to a condition of impatience.  Robert Pirsig calls this a gumption trap.  So often we find ourselves overwhelmed with our workload but we persist without taking a break, fearing that we’d fall behind.  But this exact form of impatience is what leads to corner cutting and the culture of chabuduo.  The best remedy?  Slow down.  Take a break. Go hike a hill.  Everything you can do to clear your mind will replenish your gumption.  This means you’ll likely have to push out your journey but sometimes, it’s better to travel than to have arrived.

When Wealthy Fujianese Americans Struggle

mao-full-suite1-1200x474

Warhol’s Mao

The New World Mall is an unapologetically utilitarian building sitting in the center of Flushing, Queens.  On a typical Sunday, you may find this structure towering over a sea of pedestrians; a scene I often try to avoid if not for the palatial dimsum restaurant atop the concrete enclosure.

On the surface, the restaurant has all the standard appeals.  You’ll find an army of steamy metal carts roaming through the narrow openings between tables, families fighting for the waiters’ attention, and porcelain plates clamoring away.  But more than anything else, my family was enamored with the success story behind this particular restaurant.  A story that’s resonant with many Fujianese migrant workers who cobbled together every penny they’ve pinched to pursue their entrepreneurial endeavors.

While stuffing my face over a plate of durian pastry, I unscrupulously asked my mom why didn’t she ever invest in a business of this size?

“Because I invested in sending two kids to college instead.” she said with a smirk.

She has a way of cutting through people with her words.

“Besides, why do you care? You’ve got a cushy job that pays you well.  Don’t waste your time with restaurants.  Your dad and I had to endure this so you don’t have to.”

This comment haunted me because it encapsulates the irony of Fujianese Americanism.  The grit and discipline that developed out of hardship in building a good life is shaved away when it comes to what we wish for our children. What if a good job is the only thing that’s preventing us from living a great life?  What if wealth comes with unintended consequences? It has long been studied that economic mobility not only brings comfort and power but also gluttony, apathy, risk avoidance, greed, and even our modern psychological maladies.

Suicide, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other alarming conditions are not just confined to the poor.  In a society that believes that money can buy our well-being, upper-middle class youngsters and wealthy suburban women are two groups most likely to suffer from depression and suicidality [Tribe – Junger].

This is particularly relevant for the next generation of Fujianese youngsters who may find themselves in the upper-middle class without any context of the struggle that led to their condition.  Some may argue that the higher rates outlined above is merely due to the fact that wealthier people have greater access to mental health services.  And that’s true to some extent but what Junger points out is that as Americans become wealthier, they also begin to dissociate themselves from their communities, breaking themselves away from their tribes.  This alienation is a source of psychological angst.

Too Much Safety Can Kill You

Growing up in a struggling Fujianese immigrant family, I remember sharing a single bedroom apartment with 4 of my cousins under the care of our grandparents.  The irony was that I never felt poor or needy.  In fact, the most nostalgic memories I have were the gloomy Saturday mornings we shared watching cartoon. But as we get older and accumulated more wealth, we moved further away from one another.  We can afford strangers to babysit for us so we no longer need our neighbors or relatives.  Our yards get bigger and fences get taller.  We hire security guards to watch our gated communities.  We don’t ask our neighbors to borrow sugar anymore but instead we ask for recommendations for a psychiatrist.  This level of wealthy alienation is the reason why the next generation of Fujianese Americans will struggle greater hardship than their migrant parents did.  Evolution did not prepare us to be permanently safe.

We Feel The Safest When We’re Needed The Most

So where do we go from here?  Should we all just keep our kids in crime-ridden neighborhoods and substandard schools?  The key (I think) lies in how we connect with our communities.  Months following the 9/11 terrorist attack, rate of suicide in America decreased noticeably.  When interviewed, Junger suggested that such events (however terrifying) have the uncanny power to pull people together and even give folks a reason to live.  The central thesis is that we need our tribes.  We have a primal urge to feel needed and to identify with our tribes regardless of our socioeconomic status.  The beauty is that there are tribes all around us.  Whether is volunteering for the local food pantry or organizing events with your neighbors for a local fundraiser, the opportunities to connect and build a tribe is readily available.   The next generation of young Fujianese Americans will inherently struggle with this as they’ve been taught to not invest in activities with no direct financial return. Moreover, as we continue to assimilate and adopt American Individualism, many of us will operate with diminishing collectivist mentality.  This indirectly pushes us to deal with our hardships without the support of a tight-knit community while combating the stigma of seeking professional help.  Your biggest struggle is to fight against that intuition and to embrace the communities that surround you.

Why Are Fujianese So Materialistic?

 

china lv materialism

credit: GWAS

Back in high school, North Face jackets were everything.  Even at the slightest hint of winter, you would immediately find an army of kids decked out in their latest gear. Whatever North Face’s marketing department was doing in the Lower East Side, it was definitely working.  The brand grew into a cult of sorts and of course, I was the odd one out because my mother was an eternal pragmatist and the thought of spending $300 dollars on a black rain coat was ludicrous.

Nonetheless, the pressure was strong. Even kids with counterfeit jackets were adopted into the “cool” circle and the puffy coat I owned stuck out like a sore thumb. I still remember the bright red goose-down from Nautica’s winter of 98 collection.  I looked like a walking communist balloon but instead of sickle and hammer, mine was punctuated with a sailboat.  The urge to fit in and belong was so overwhelming that I mustered up all the savings I had one weekend and spent it all… all $324.99 on this beautiful GoreTex jacket completely furnished with a hood and secret pockets to help me conquer a winter apocalypse but would not keep me warm…

I’m sharing this story because this might be the same level of fervor that the Wang Shangku must have felt when the 17 year old decided to sell his kidney to buy an iPad. Or this gentleman that spent two years worth of salary to buy 99 iPhones as a romantic gesture of proposing to his girlfriend.  Materialism is at an all time high with Chinese but what’s confounding is the irrational driver behind this urge to spend.

The flight up to our apartment told stories of unfixed plumbing issues and neglect. When we first learned that NYC was getting a tenement museum, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the appeal of paying money to visit one when we couldn’t wait to get out of ours. We shared a two-bed apartment near Madison for less than a year and were relieved when grandpa took us in.  The hard and fast grind brought my parents out of Chinatown all together into small town New Jersey.  Like a switch of a button, we transported into the middle class.  My dad caved in and bought his first luxury car.  We took our first family vacation to the Caribbeans.  Rapid social mobility brought us infinite possibilities but it also came at a cost.

Our family experience was reflective of the Chinese global economic mobility in the past 20 years.  Millions of Chinese were lifted out of poverty and many were suddenly propelled into the millionaire’s club.  With this escalation, also came obscene spending.  Report from Ipsos ranked China the most materialistic country in the world that outspends everyone else in the luxury goods market.

If you’ve ever been to a Fujianese American Wedding (which I highly recommend), in addition to the magicians and dancers, you’ll certainly find a ludicrous display of spending/giving.  At a recent wedding, I could barely keep my jaw closed when the MC announced that the groom’s dad was giving him $888,888 along with the key to a new BMW.  More than a signal of affection, it also screamed to the world that we belong… that we matter.

For 200 years, western colonialism carved up much of Asia, forcing unfair trades and exploitation.  And while countries like China and India have risen out of that era of submission, the taste of shame remains on the tongues of many Asians and Chinese Americans.  On a macro-level, our materialism is a response of indignation.

“What’s so great about them (White Americans)?  They’re probably making just enough to pay for rent and cheap alcohol!” A man at the wedding table shouted at us as he grabbed a chopstick full of abalone.  He continued, “So what if they’re more cultured and better educated than we are…look at this $1,000 coat. They can’t even afford this in a lifetime.” He points to his Burberry jacket.  In a culture where money speaks loudest, our humanity can easily get drowned out by the noise.

Russ Harris categorizes this as our impulse to control our anxieties.  And this impulse is initiated by thoughts we all struggle with.  Think about the time when you were made fun of because of your English, when you’ve been denied a promotion, or when you’ve been rejected because your coat looks like a giant red balloon.  These triggers set off thoughts of insecurity and inadequacy and a quick fix is to look at your new Rolex and say – I’m fine.  I’m rich.  I’m impenetrable.  For Fujianese Americans, the growing sense of materialism is a control mechanism to tame this fear of not-belonging.

So what’s left to do?  Should I sell my Mercedes and go live out the rest of my life in a monastery?  The short answer is no and there are two perspectives to share here:

  1. Materialism is a condition of economic development.  The next four most materialistic countries were India, Turkey, Brazil, and South Korea.  This suggests that materialism is not only a cause of economic growth but also a necessity. How would the economy grow if people didn’t buy stuff, however superfluous it may be?  Some have even argued that our heighten sense of materialism would be alleviated if only China overtook U.S. as the dominant global economy.
  2. A value-driven life breaks you out of the happiness trap.  A key point that Harris makes is that we all use quick fixes to get us through tough times whether it be the next greatest phone or an expensive bag.  A more sustainable approach is to have your actions be driven by your value(s).  For most Fujianese, family sits at the center.  Can you maybe substitute that new car with more time with the family?  Can you also lean on your family to get through unhelpful thoughts that were triggering you?  A value-driven life provides you with a compass for which you can measure whether or not a thought or action is helpful in actualizing yourself.

I never built up enough courage to tell my mother that I had spent all that money on an expensive raincoat.  Today, that jacket remains an expensive raincoat.  But more than a raincoat, I kept it as a reminder of my once incredible urge to belong as well as other foolish yearnings that motivated me.

 

Fujianese Migrants Long Road To Integration

shield-bullet

credit: BBC

In the 90s, before Taylor Swift brought all-day brunches to Williamsburg-Brooklyn, our family ran a tiny takeout shop on Marcy Avenue.  We were sandwiched between a KFC and a discount sneaker outlet.  It had all the familiar features of a dicey urban neighborhood that realtors stayed away from. Sirens were a norm.  Shootings were a norm.  Robberies were a norm.  And it wasn’t an accident that we ended up there.

Like every new group of migrants seeking opportunities in America, many Fujianese found themselves in the middle of a country torn by racism and inequality.  What was unique about our experience was that discrimination often stemmed from groups of earlier Chinese migrants.  Some went as far as petitioning for recently arrived Fujianese to undergo extra scrutiny from the immigration officials.  Most were driven by fear of new migrants who undercut wages and vehemently marked their territory across old Chinatown.  This is an unfortunate and cyclical issue with America’s relationship with newcomers.  For my dad (and thousands of other Fujianese), it means having to look into the deep corners of America’s forgotten streets, often in neighborhoods stigmatized by crime and poverty.

The same year I arrived here, my dad found what would be his jumpstart into entrepreneurship.  At the corner of Marcy and Broadway, he worked seven days a week manning the shop.  Over the course of eight years, he carved out a niche for himself.  We also integrated with the community.  My mom would often take us shopping in the adjacent discount outlet where she befriended the Ecuadorian landlady and her husband.  For the first five years of my stay here, that’s where I got all my Jordans.

This city of dreams can also be a city of disillusion.  Several times I’d follow my uncle while he picked up supplies for the restaurant.  We’d drive through hundred million dollar condos catering to the billionaires of the world.  Not two miles north, we’d also drive through homeless shelters catering to the hungry.  A tell tale sign is the prevalence of bulletproof shields in every establishment.  My parents had elected to remove the inch-thick glass off our counter.  That empty groove where the shield sat symbolizes the true investment that migrants make when they move here.  To my dad, building trust with the community was key to building a living and a shield would just get in the way.  The stories of struggling immigrants coexisting together in these rough edges of urban America is all too common and rarely shared, but complicated nonetheless.

I returned one Friday evening from school and my grandparents rushed me out of our 13-story apartment.  They’d told me that something terrible had happened.  Yes – my parents are equally esoteric in a panic but you know it’s serious when they hailed a cab instead of waiting for the train.  As we arrived, I see the flashing light from the ambulance and paramedics sauntering about.  Now I’m panicking.  I’m panicking at the stupidity of removing the shield while everyone else had it up.  As we walked closer, I saw a lady panting heavily by the paramedic and my parents eagerly asking me to translate, pointing to the styrofoam box of rice:

“There is nothing inedible in here!” They shouted at me.  “Explain this to them.”

Confused but relieved, I tried to figure out what had happened from the paramedics.  I learned that a customer (the lady on the ambulance) had gotten sick.  She found a piece of star anise in her rice and was adamant that we’ve tried to poison her, threatening to get the health inspectors involved.  In what might have been the greatest cultural misunderstanding of my upbringing, I chuckled at the claim and soon the commotion died off.  My dad was on edge for the entire following week.

There’s a popular rumor that during Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, he received 200 grams of an incredibly rare tea (Da Hong Pao) from the Chinese Premier.  Nixon snubbed at the gift, insulted at the small quantity of tea.  The premier proceeded to explain that this type of tea was so rare and difficult to harvest that it took a group of farmers six months to accumulate the mere 200 grams sitting in front of him. I can’t vouch for the veracity of the story, but similar stories are told across all Fujianese American families.  The reality is that if it wasn’t for migrants, forgotten American communities would remain forgotten, the economy wouldn’t thrive through cultural diversity and ingenuity, no one would be willing to clean up after your sick grandparents, or cook for you at a minimum wage.  The drive for a slice of the American dream is what tolerates millions of migrants living on the fringes.  What’s even more important is that one day the fringes will eventually become the center. At which point, you in your full American glory will have to decide if you should give your fellow migrants a shot at the American dream too.  

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.