What’s your relationship with fear?
Can you tell the difference between healthy and debilitating fear?
There are situations where fear is unnecessary. But there are also times where fear isn’t just warranted, it’s a prerequisite for success.
“Holy S***, I Can’t Do This.”
I spoke at a TEDx conference last year. Like all the other speakers, I practiced my speech over and over again up until the last minute.
A month prior to the conference we did a trial run where all the speakers got on stage in front of an empty auditorium with about 1,000 seats in it. When I got up to speak, I completely froze after my first few lines. I froze because I got caught up looking at all 1,000 seats.
“Holy shit. I don’t know if I can do this.” I thought. We went through the practice sessions, the speech coaches gave me some pointers, and I was able to give the entire talk without freezing — excellent.
Skip forward to the day of the talk.
I’d practiced the talk at least ten times that day — flawlessly. Then, in my final run through, I stumbled over my words, froze, panicked, and couldn’t remember the lines in my talk.
Holy shit. I don’t know if I can do this.
When the moment came, I gave the talk without any major screw-ups.
The moments after the talk — hearing the round of applause, signing copies of my book for audience members, the pats on the back, handshakes, and hugs — were some of the best moments of my life.
There’s nothing quite like feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Without the fear, the success wouldn’t be as much fun.
I asked about your relationship with fear because I want you to know that you can build a healthy relationship with it. You can use it to guide your life, harness it to your advantage, and even come to appreciate it after a while.
You need fear. If you don’t feel it, your life might be moving in the wrong direction.
Fear = Signal
“If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), “Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist? [or an entrepreneur] [or a successful person]” chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.”
There’s nothing wrong with being afraid.
You shouldn’t, however, be afraid of being afraid. The fear of fear kills more dreams than fear itself. The idea that you’re supposed to somehow feel invincible and unflinchingly confident or else you can’t do it…is nonsense. That’s ‘counterfeit innovator’ talk.
I used to be afraid of being afraid. Now, I have no less fear than I had before, but I’m okay with feeling fear. It’s such a subtle distinction, but it’s an important one.
When you’re okay with feeling fear you understand it for what it is — a signal to your dream.
Your dream will require you to be vulnerable, to face rejection, to stumble. But the vulnerability, rejection, and stumbling are what makes success feel good.
Ernest Hemingway, when asked what most harms aspiring writers, said “early success.” Think of any person who either gets lucky, inherits wealth, or gets successful too fast. They usually don’t appreciate their success, become complacent, and wander aimlessly through life.
The struggle leads to appreciation. You fear the struggle, but you need it. You fear the pain, but the pain is the contrast you need to feel the joy when it subsides.
Do you really want to coast through life without any fear and doubt? Wouldn’t success and accomplishment lose their richness?
The goal here is to move past the debilitating amount of doubt you fear and move to feeling them in healthy doses.
How do you do that?
Practical Strategies for Dealing With Self-Doubt
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature.” Marcus Aurelius
If you don’t own a copy of The Meditations by the stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, buy it. It’ll be the best $10 you’ve ever spent in your life.
The basic premise of stoic philosophy is this: Life will be hard for you, really hard. You’ll fail, people will reject you. Situations outside of your control will cause peril in your life. BUT no one or nothing can take control of your thoughts unless you let them.
Many of the strategies I use are rooted in this thinking.
As follows are a few strategies I use to deal with doubt.
Dumb it Down
Naval Ravikant, CEO of Angel List and ponderer of things, describes life as “a collection of Sensory Experiences.”
We have a bunch of sensory experiences in the span of a lifetime and then we die. The problem isn’t the sensory experiences we have, but our interpretation of them — mainly, we take life too seriously in either direction.
In the seemingly positive direction — ambition — we put too much emphasis on the magical ‘S word’ success. What is success? Under the definition above, it’s just an interpretation of sensory experiences. That’s it.
In the negative direction — failure, fear, rejection, embarrassment — we put too much emphasis on completely emotional and imaginary negative experiences. We internalize failure as saying something about us. But what is failure? Under the definition above, it’s just an interpretation of sensory experiences. That’s it.
In either direction, positive or negative, we spend too much time perceivingand not enough doing.
Doing is courage. Not only treating life like a game but playing the game is courage.
I’m playing the game. I’m not taking life as seriously, which, in a counterintuitive way, makes me more motivated to succeed and pursue lofty goals. I mean, why the hell not?
Look at your fear, doubt, and anxiety about the future and dumb them down to their core elements — just perceptions, interpretations, smoke and mirrors. It takes a lot of repetition, but once you realize this, you can be freer.
Visualize Both Routes
What follows is pure irony…
Even if you don’t go after your biggest, wildest, hairiest dreams and goals, you’re still going to feel bad!
You’ll still feel anxiety, doubt, and fear. You’ll still wake up in the morning with that slight feeling of unease and go through the cycle of emotions that come with the day to day grind.
Human life is suffering. From the homeless person to the billionaire, we each have our own unique cocktail of negativity, stress, and b.s. If you’ll still have these feelings regardless of what you do, why not go big?
Look at your two options carefully.
Option one — You make a plan to change your life and you execute the plan. Yes, many parts of the journey won’t feel great, but you’ll get the glimpses of exhilaration. For some reason, you’re deeply afraid of this route because of…?
Whenever I feel afraid, I ask myself what I’m really afraid of. What are the worst possible things that could happen? Nothing more than a bruised ego.
Option two — You keep doing what you’re doing. You may not be depressed, per se, but if you’re feeling a dull sense of complacency…it will remain.
When you’re complacent, your life can almost erode your spirit slowly. It washes off that brilliant, bright, and dumb sense of ambition you once had. Far be it for me to judge, but I can tell when life has defeated someone. You can see it in their eyes — blank. I don’t want that. Do you?
I look at option one and two over and over and over again. When I don’t feel like writing, I compare the options. When I’m afraid to try something new and ‘risky,’ I compare the options.
In a way, I’ve learned to exercises my thoughts and emotions. I put them through a mental stress test to get to the truth. If you can learn to almost coldly analyze what goes on in your head, you’ll start to see the truth, too.
You’ll start to see that doubt is nothing more than smoke and mirrors and you’ll realize it logically makes sense to self-actualize.
The Confidence Myth
“I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’ “ — Maya Angelou
There’s a false idea that the more successful you get the less you feel fear, judge yourself and struggle with doubt.
In many cases, it can be the opposite. When you’re more successful, your standards go up and you can become more critical of yourself and your work. The more you gain, the more you have to potentially lose. If you feel like a fraud, a higher profile might make you feel like your chances of being found out are even higher.
Why am I telling you this? Isn’t self-help supposed to make you feel good about yourself? I prefer to try to provide real help.
The truth is there is no real magical point where your life is devoid of discomfort. We all know it and simultaneously trick ourselves into believing this point exists.
On an almost minute by minute basis, I remind myself the discomfort of being human isn’t going away. Then I work. Sometimes I feel great about it and sometimes I don’t. I have brief moments of joy and exhilaration like walking off stage after giving a talk. Then, a week later at my speech club, I get nervous to talk in front of 30 people.
This is life people.
You’ll battle with fear your whole life, but it’s a battle worth fighting instead of passively allowing it to happen.
The Bottom Line
See, I don’t pretend that everything I tell you to do is going to work. Strategies for success do work. Personal development does work. But, you have to be the one to do the work.
You know why I love writing about the never-ending struggle to become a better version of yourself?
Because even if only one out of 1,000 people who read this will follow through with the information, that’s all I need.
You might be that person today — who finally decides to say screw it and goes big.
Today, you can walk up to your boss and ask for a raise. Right now, you can take that dusty ass business plan and make one real move towards getting it off the ground. You can face the big scary keyboard and share your vision of the world for all to see.
You can dream big and act big — all while being scared to death.
…And it’s so.much.fun.
If Your Dream Doesn’t Scare You, It Isn’t Big Enough was originally published in The Ascent on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.