When Wealthy Fujianese Americans Struggle

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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.

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Quiet Racism Of Chinese Immigrants

dark streetsAlmost as a rite of passage, many Chinese immigrant teens are intimately plugged into their family business.  For me, it was preparing ungodly amounts of vegetables at my dad’s restaurant during the Friday evening shift. Over the course of my high school years, this arrangement developed into a familiar routine. Even the commute across the NYC skyline became a passive response.  Little did I know, one November night, this commute would inadvertently plunge me deep into the inner bellies of the Bronx, altering my outlook as a newly minted American.

I arrived at the bus stop that evening and spotted the usual crowd of restaurant workers, old ladies with bins on wheels, and large families of children fighting for their parents’ attention.  Smart phones weren’t available yet so people watching was the preferred distraction.  Off to the periphery, a nameless girl in a beige sweater was browsing through her book.  Flipping through my mental rolodex, it immediately became apparent that she and I shared an ESL class.  It’s worth mentioning here that I’ve also been harboring the biggest crush on her.  As the bus rolled up to our stop, she hopped on and I followed.  I was thinking to my awkward 15 year old self that this could be the serendipitous encounter to spark a lifelong romance.

She found a seat near the front and I was squeezed into the back, clinging onto the strap near the door.  I spent the next 15 stops ruminating over all the different ways to salvage this situation.  Should I casually move up next to her?  How do I even describe what dicing through 50 pounds of garlic and onions smell like?  What if she doesn’t recognize me at all? On the 16th stop, she got off and I just sat there dumbfounded.  On the 17th stop, I realized something strange was happening.  I couldn’t recognize any of the establishments we were passing.  Evidently, I’ve gotten on the wrong bus. A sense of panic ensued.

The stories that circulate in a typical Chinese immigrant family are often incredibly personal and quietly exclusionary.  My first encounter with inner city violence was the night our delivery man was sent to the hospital after being beaten at gunpoint.  Mom said his injuries were so bad that he could barely open his eyes.  These stories quickly morphed into blanket statements about entire communities of people which ultimately mapped onto our realities.  Horrified that I might meet the same fate as our delivery guy, I ran up to the bus driver and asked eagerly for directions back to a familiar stop.  He nonchalantly asked me to get behind the yellow line.  Frustrated, I jumped out onto the sidewalk at the next stop, looking to regroup before I’m ushered further away from civilization.  

For a city that never sleeps, the neighborhood appeared to have never been awaken.  Shops were almost entirely closed off with graffitis smeared across each parcel.  In the distance, you can hear the clamoring of the commuter rail as it roamed by this forgotten town.  Sparks of dimly lit lamps guided me down the street.  All of sudden, I felt a nakedness which can only be described by the absence of my bag. As if the universe was suddenly issuing a pop quiz on urban survival, I stood there kicking myself all while the bus disappeared into the night along with all my belongings.

With adrenaline now coursing through me, I chased the bus for the next few blocks for as long as I can until a man appeared. He walked briskly towards me.  In that moment, all the horror stories of inner city murders, rape, and robberies flooded my reptilian brain.  I imagined my face on a milk carton the next day and the Sunday headline reading, “Lost Immigrant Boy, Distracted by Girl, Slayed.”  

Gasping for air, I instinctively blurted out, “I’m sorry, I don’t have any money” and waved my hand at him.  Before I had a chance to dodge away, he smiled and asked, “I’m Brother Ibrahim, are you lost?”  

“Yes.” I responded.  And as if for the first time someone is listening to me, I explained my predicament to him while keeping a healthy distance.  In a moment of surprising altruism, he said he wants to help me get back home.  As he walked with me down the corner, I was wondering to myself if this was just a ploy to usher me to a convenient spot with fewer eye-witnesses. But as we walked towards the main thoroughfare, I felt this sense of anxiety and fear soothing away.  Even the streets have gotten brighter and more populated.  Upon arrival, he handed me a map, instructed me on the train I have to take, circling the stop with his finger.  I nodded in agreement. Then, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a transit token and dropped it in my hand.  “Good luck and don’t get lost again.”  He smiled before disappearing out the door.  

We fall into autonomic responses because that’s how we make sense of the world. It’s much easier to just paint some people as all criminals or murderers. And sadly the Asian community hasn’t done enough to dispel these stories.  In a perfectly meritocratic society you’d get what you deserve until you’re the one begging for help because you’re lost and penniless.  Is it then fair to say that you’re lazy and maybe even inclined to commit crimes because you’ve failed to achieve the American dream?

I never had a chance to really thank Brother Ibrahim that night, but his simple act of kindness profoundly shaped my American experience.  It taught me that we have far less control over our situations than we think we do, especially as immigrants.  But even in moments of distress and heartache, there are always good people willing to help regardless of language, religion or creed.  The least we could do is to aspire to do the same.

The Fujianese Dinner Test

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It was our first date and I was craving something unusual.  Tucked away in the dark alleys of downtown Boston is a scrappy cash-only restaurant with four tables, a legit local joint that you’d be hardpressed to find in New England.  No General Tso’s or Crab Rangoons. No frills.  Just good old country-style Chinese cooking.

They say to never take your first date out to a messy meal but the temptation was overwhelming.  I ordered us a large plate of braised oxtails and frog casserole, all things that conjure nostalgic family gatherings for me.  Sitting next to the kitchen, I could smell the sweet and musky evaporation wafting in the air even before the plates landed on our table.

I eagerly raised my chopsticks but paused when I saw the look on her face.  She was in a confused trance. I explained the entrees to her and suggested that most people around the world have frogs and oxtails in their culinary repertoire.  That in fact, Americans are denying themselves of an otherwise hedonic worldly experience by sticking to perfect clean cuts of chicken and steak.

That was our first and last date.  

Admittedly, I’m guilty for trying to push a culture onto someone so soon.  I felt a sense of unease,  not because the date didn’t work out,  but because I was confounded by my reaction to her mild disgust.  A part of me felt the urge to stand up for Asian foodies everywhere. But a side of me was also secretly ashamed of the messy assortment I was brought up on.

My grandma was, by most standards, the perfect housewife.  She was always vehemently ready to support her family, even when they were blatantly wrong.  But beyond her unconditional love, she was also simply an amazing cook.  Her specialty was duck braised with fermented rice wine (Bo Jiao Ag).  It’s a long messy process to prepare but at the end, you’ll find yourself with a bowl of a perfectly aromatic concoction.  In all her resourcefulness, you’ll find parts of a duck you never knew existed before.

At dinner, she’d save us the meatiest portion and worked on the unsavory leftovers herself.  I once unscrupulously chewed on a jagged piece of bone so hard that it chipped my tooth and punctured my gum.  I was 13 and tossed the biggest hissy fit I could muster, vowing to never eat her cooking again.  In hindsight, I could tell she was hurt by those comments.

Food sits at the heart of most Fujianese families. Even as an adolescent, you’re taught to chew carefully through the complexity of these meals  And if you’re successful, you’ll learn that the best part isn’t the bone, but the art of being resourceful and gritty.

That evening after the date, I ended up keeping the odds and ends of the oxtail.  While it may be messy to eat, I’ve learned that it’s a quiet symbolism for the messiness of being a Fujianese immigrant. And that I think it’s worth keeping.

 

Why Are Fujianese So Materialistic?

 

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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

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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.  

3 Reasons Why Fujianese Are Literally Everywhere

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credit: Taiwanese Secrets

There is an annual tradition in ChangLe where thousands of devout spiritualists would parade through the town to celebrate the birthday of Guan Gong, ushering the Gods and Goddesses from one temple to another.  The ceremony was followed by towering guard costumes, protecting the lords and subsequently, the fortune of our village.

In hindsight, this parade totally flies against our perception of a Maoist vision for China.  A vision where the great “leap” requires letting go of the past we’ve relied on to carve out our identities.  A deeper dive into Fujianese history would suggest that this freedom of cultural/religious expression is driven largely by the deep rooted migratory culture.

The Stomping Ground for International Trades

As early as the 15th century, Xiamen (major port city in Fujian) became a dominant hub for exchanges between China and Southeast Asian countries.  For 400 years right through the Qing Dynasty, Fujianese merchants explored far into the Pacific Islands.  This helped to establish Fujianese (Hokkienese) communities in neighboring countries such as Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines.The network was so extensive that I have even run across Mexicans who can trace their lineage back to Fujian.

A Lesson In Maoist Poverty

No other countries have stronger Fujianese ties than Taiwan.  The rise of Maoism drove the Nationalist movement out of China and into the neighboring strait of Taiwan.  This raised the political tension between the two states and left Fujian in the middle of the dispute. For the next few decades, fear of a Nationalist resurgence led the Communist government to minimize economic development in Fujian, forcing the once thriving exchange economy into agricultural labor.  The irony is that this policy further strengthened the relationship among the Fujianese and Taiwanese. Over the course of 30 years, the Taiwanese government developed migration brokerage programs to aid Fujianese with immigration around the world, including South America, Eastern Europe, and the U.S.

A Generation Aspired

Communism ushered in a whole new period of economic uncertainty.  Annual household income in the ‘70s for Fujianese were less than $300/year.  Migrants in Europe and North America were making around $1,000/month! Stories of successful migrants quickly permeated and inspired a positive feedback loop that led to millions of Fujianese migrating abroad.  

Remittance or the money sent back to their family compelled a whole new set of cultural values for migration and entrepreneurship.  In 1995, officials had estimated that hundreds of millions of dollars were transferred back to Fujian from countries all over.  On top of this sudden and ostentatious wealth, migrant funds were used to develop public projects such as schools, entertainment and cultural centers.  Parades, such as the Guan Gong Ceremony, were suddenly tolerated by the once secular government. In fact, governments openly praised the migrants and went as far as sponsoring foreign employment.  To the communities in these villages, migrants were considered heroes who collectively (through their sacrifice) brought them out of poverty.

Brazilian boys wanted to play like Pele.  Kids from the south-side of Chicago want to be like Jordan. American millennials want to be the next Zuckerberg.  In the ‘70s, Fujianese boys fresh from high school aspired to travel the world in search of a windfall.  The stories fueled a whole new generation of young men looking to move abroad (by legal and illegal means).  Some found successes while others discovered tragedy through these perilous journeys.  What’s remarkable is that these young men would go on to create transnational communities with cross cultural identities that even the Gods and Goddesses themselves could not have foreseen.

REF: Transnational Chinese

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.