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On Fear Setting

Fear is enormously useful for our survival as a species. When there is a sudden movement or sound in the middle of night, it’s only natural that cortisol begins to flow through our bodies and turn all of our attention to whatever threat might be present in the darkness. Just in case there actually is an axe murderer, it’s okay to let fear take over in this moment.

Like many bodily and psychological systems that humans have developed over the years, there are some times in which fear is simply crippling. If you allow your fear of flying to prevent you from fulfilling your dreams to travel the world and live in foreign countries, you are allowing your fear to kill your ambition and desires, and that’s a problem. If the only reason you won’t get out of a bad relationship is because you are scared of the unknown future of being on your own, that’s a problem as well. Rationally, it’s not hard to understand that your situation will be better if you change it, but without rationality, taking on a new situation can seem just… scary.

Fear is not abnormal. Successful people are not born fearless, nor have they learned to rid themselves of every ounce of fear or feeling. Rather, successful people who have taken risks and ventured into the unknown have learned how to see fear as merely a part of their mental makeup when facing a given situation. They didn’t allow fear to cripple their ability to take meaningful action.

First, let’s put a fear into context, and let’s start small. Think of the dumbest, most irrational fear that you have, let’s say, of insects. You’re scared to death of anything that crawls, minus toddlers. How often is this fear warranted, and how often is it irrational? Even in the case of a Black Widow, there are remarkably few deaths actually caused by the revered spider’s bite. In reality, there is no threat to your safety by an itsy-bitsy spider that has decided to spin its web in the corner of your room. (The scariest part about such a situation is that you haven’t cleaned your room for so long that there are spider webs in it—that’s disgusting.) There is no threat to your existence, life, or safety at all.

Similarly, most honey bees are not looking for trouble or aching to sting you; they’re just looking for honey! Unless they are provoked, you have no reason to be afraid, and this is proven because you’ve had close encounters with plenty of bees and plenty of spiders (whether you knew it or not), and have escaped unscathed from their perils. Why are you still scared?

Sadly, it’s not as easy as waking up one day with your fears put behind you and in their proper place. No, it actually takes practice, which can be achieved with small exercises in micro-bravery—small, unremarkable, yet challenging acts of bravery in everyday life. To start overcoming fears and realizing that fear is just another component of your mental makeup, start with something relatively easy. Break down whatever you are scared of into a less extreme version of itself.

For example, if you’re deathly afraid of public speaking, try simply introducing yourself to someone new. This is exactly what we did earlier in the book (see Practice Confidence in Part II) with communication: we broke down the larger goal of becoming great communicators into smaller, more achievable feats. Even the small feat of making an introduction can be scary and difficult, but it’s much less overwhelming than jumping on stage in front of hundreds of people. It’s a great way to get started in overcoming the overarching fear of communicating in a public setting.

As you endure these small stints of micro-bravery, notice something: you’re able to put the larger fear behind you in a smaller situation. You might not be ready to speak in front of a thousand conference attendees, but you’ve gone through some awkward introductions, and it wasn’t half bad, after all.

The key is to realize that your fears usually don’t correspond to real dangers.

According to a 2014 study (Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement), nervousness and excitement are essentially the same emotion. In that case, why do some people call it nervous and others call it excited? The latter have exercised a mental muscle that allows them to put fear in its place. They can actively recognize that their fear is largely irrational, and operate accordingly, experiencing excitement rather than nervousness. This has enormous implications for us, as being excited rather than nervous will help us perform better and overcome fear in tough situations.

Once you’re comfortable with overcoming a small fear, you can move on to understanding that fear is just part of the experience in something like public speaking. It’s just one feeling, among excitement and love and a sense of sharing that you feel when you’re communicating with an audience about things you care about. A fear of planes is just one part of the experience of travel, and it won’t kill you before you get to experience the freedom and gratitude that comes with seeing new places.