I am scared.
I am scared of failing. I am scared of dying. I am scared of losing friends. I am scared of ridicule. I am scared of throwing up. I am scared of commitment. I am scared of snakes. I am scared of rejection. I am scared of being called a fraud. I am scared of vulnerability. I am scared of being insignificant. I am scared of regret. I am scared that I won’t fulfill my potential.
At some point in my life, I have experienced every one of these fears (and so many more), and I am sure you have too. Based on my conversations with world class professionals, best selling authors, Fortune 500 executives, recent college graduates and everyone in between, I know one thing is certain: we all experience fear.
Although we can never make it go away (you know that, right?), the most interesting thing about fear is the feeling we get when we dance with it and try something anyways.
Triumph. Greatness. Excellence. Success.
These are all ways of saying: “I felt the fear, and yet I tried anyways.”
This video embodies what it means to be afraid and still try:
That kid experienced fear. He could have turned around and climbed down the ladder. He could have let the fear of the 30 ft drop control him and eat at his stomach. But instead, he jumped. He did the damn thing. He experienced his sense of greatness by taking the plunge.
I want to convince you that you’re capable of taking your own leap, starting your own project, quitting something that’s holding you back, or otherwise doing that scary thing you’ve been avoiding.
The Five Types of Fear
Type 1: Anxiety
I learned from Seth Godin that anxiety is the act of experiencing failure in advance. Anxiety happens when we think about something that will challenge us and begin to run through all of the ways we’re likely to fail and what will happen as a result. We think so deeply about the feeling of failure that we forget why we ever dreamed the idea up to begin with.
Type 2: The fear of missing out
Sometimes referred to as FOMO, the fear of missing out is often at the heart of our inaction. This is especially true for young people. After all, by making a decision to try something out or chase an idea, we are inherently deciding not to spend our time doing something else. Yes, you will miss out on something, no matter what you do. Experiencing FOMO doesn’t change that; it just prevents us from taking any definitive action.
Type 3: The fear of better options
Ah, yes, the fear of better options. While the fear of missing out happens even when we know we have all of the options on the table or we are presented with a damn good option, the fear of better options happens when we don’t know what other options we might have. “If I choose to do this, what happens when that comes up and it’s even better?” we ask ourselves. So we avoid a great experience, relationship, or opportunity just in case something better comes along. Meanwhile time flies by and we miss out on even better opportunities as a result. Silly us.
Type 4: The fear of shame
While anxiety is failure experienced in advance, the fear of shame is our fear of what other people will make us feel. It’s thinking ahead to when we fail and someone gets to say, “told ya so.” Luckily, Teddy told us a bit about those critics in his famous, “The Man in the Arena,” passage.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Yes, somebody will always try to feel better about never taking a chance by shunning you for taking a chance and failing. True failure happens when we let this reality create shame before we ever take the chance.
Type 5: Impostor Syndrome
Leslie Madsen-Brooks and Rachel Fagen helped me learn about impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome happens when we finally step into the spotlight we’ve been avoiding and then we fear that someone will uncover us for who we really are. We fear that we are not qualified to be earning so much money, experiencing so much success, or having so many great relationships.
The impostor syndrome causes us to question ourselves in unreasonable ways. Where others see our potential, our talent, and our results, we see our insecurities and vulnerabilities. “What if I find myself in a situation where I don’t know how to respond, can’t produce the same results, or simply fail to perform?” we ask. So instead, we retreat from the learning zone and step back into our comfort zone. What a shame.
Bonus: The Fear of Death
Ah yes, the fear of death. Sometimes, there is the real chance that we might just die as a result of the chances we take. After all, if you get on that plane to chase the girl of your dreams, it might crash. If you hike that trail to see that beautiful waterfall, you might be bitten by a poisonous snake. If you get on that space shuttle, it might explode on the way to the moon. Yes, you might die… Well, actually, you will, it’s just a matter of when.
However, the question you have to ask yourself is this: are you willing to take that chance in pursuit of your greatness? Is it really that likely that you’ll get fired, never find another job again, spend all of your money, starve, and die a slow, miserable death if you take that chance? I doubt it.
Alternatively, the fear of death sometimes reminds us that certain chances aren’t all that smart or worth taking. Getting into a sleeping bag with 25 rattlesnakes might just be stupid, rather than courageous or great. Determining the difference is key to dancing with the fear to achieve your potential.
PS: The fear you experience in rare situations when your life is truly threatened (in a natural disaster, when being followed by a stranger, when experiencing a crime) is fear you should listen to and run away from. Yes, the lizard brain is still of some use, but that is not the kind of fear we are referring to in this article.
Responding to Fear
Different people respond to fear in different ways, and many factors affect that response. Our past experiences with fear, our current reality, the circumstances surrounding the fear, the people in our lives, our recent successes or failures, and so much more directly impact the way we respond.
Generally speaking, there are two types of responses to fear:
- Responses that hold us back from accomplishing our goals and reaching our potential
- Responses that move us closer to triumph, excellence, greatness, and success in reaching our goals
Responses that Hold Us Back
Negative Response #1: Self-sabotage
We’ve all experienced the reality of self-sabotage before. But this particular kind of self-sabotage is the kind where we set completely unreasonable goals, avoid making the difficult decisions, or try to make everybody happy with our new project or idea. Rather than doing the difficult work that is sure to make somebody uncomfortable or unhappy, we set ourselves up for failure from the get-go. Rather than settling for anxiety or the fear of shame, we instead guarantee our own failure.
Negative Response #2: Perfectionism
Perfectionism is what we do when we’re scared to subject ourselves to criticism and feedback. Rather than gathering feedback early and often while sticking to a deadline, we convince ourselves it’s not quite right. The manuscript sits on our hard drive, the phone call goes unmade, and the business ideas gather dust. Rather than risk failure, we wait on some day in the future when we will perfect it. Eventually we realize perfection is the enemy of shipped, and that perfect day we were waiting on may never arrive. Perfectionism might be a subset of self-sabotage.
Negative Response #3: Procrastination
Procrastination is similar to perfectionism in that we neglect our deadlines because, after all, a deadline is a fake creation in our minds. However, rather than attempt to perfect something we’ve already started, we simply refuse to start. We watch the world go by as we check Facebook, grab lunch with a friend to talk about the idea, read one more blog post, or find some other distraction.
Now is the second best time to start. The best has already passed. (I’m paraphrasing Seth Godin there.)
Negative Response #4: Negative Self-talk and Lack of Self-Confidence
While a healthy skepticism and humility are huge assets, negative self-talk and lack of self-confidence often come from dwelling on the fear for a bit too long. We wallow in the possibility of failure and shame as we convince ourselves that we’re not who we say we are. You think you are simply an impostor waiting to be uncovered.
“I’m not good enough and I don’t have the talent necessary to succeed,” we say. Come to find out, we never know until we shut up and ship. That first project might be ugly, but it’s better than nothing… and that’s the only way we get better. But the negative self-talk and lack of self-confidence have to go away in order to get better.
Negative Response #5: Physical pain
Perhaps the oddest of them all, our bodies have this built in functionality whereby we experience stress, fear, and anxiety in our physical being. Bypass the fear by taking action, and all of a sudden the pain disappears. Is it mental or physical? It may not matter, as it’s simply a reaction to letting the fear get the best of us. The reality here is that displacing the fear is the only way to displace the pain. Action refocuses our energy and gives us an entirely different experience.
Responses that Catapult Us Forward
Hopefully by this point you realize that fear is not a feeling that is limited to a certain type of person. Everyone experiences fear. The key is not to avoid or dodge fear altogether, but rather to hone the ability to move forward in pursuit of your goals despite the fear.
There are many ways to productively respond to the fear, so rather than relaying all of them, I’ll hit on some of the most effective, which I hope will give you the basis you need to get started on that project or idea that’s been in the back of your mind.
Acknowledge the fear
Learning to acknowledge the fear is the first step to taking action in the presence of fear. This takes a sense of emotional intelligence, but it also gives you permission to respond productively rather than retreating. Fear usually produces a fight or flight response thanks to our beautiful little amygdale (also called the lizard brain). Your job is to identify when you’re feeling one of the types of fear we talked about earlier, and then to simply sit with it for a bit. Say hi. Identify what type of fear you’re feeling and what is causing it. If you can tackle this step, it may be the biggest win in the entire process.
Dance & Wobble
Learning to snow ski can be a terrifying process. They tell you to do the pizza wedge with your skis, and yet you can’t seem to get it right. As you learn, you start to get the hang of it, and eventually you learn to ski with your skis more and more parallel to one another. The pizza slice becomes a distant memory.
However, in between the pizza slice and the parallel turns, there are falls, crash landings, wobbly legs, and shaky turns. The key to get better is to constantly operate in that area just beyond what you’re comfortable with. You get your skis constantly closer to perfectly parallel, going just to the edge of out of control, but not quite stepping over the line.
That area of learning is what Seth Godin calls the Wobble. It’s where you’re not quite comfortable, but not quite out of control. To get there, we have to decide that we’re willing to dance with the fear regularly. We have to be willing to crash in order to get better, take intelligent risks, and truly fulfill our potential.
First, you have to decide that you’ll invite the fear to dance. Second, you have to turn that fear into fuel to find the wobble that makes you better.
Be Open to Vulnerability
Brene Brown has done groundbreaking research on the power of vulnerability. Vulnerability is the opposite of shame, in that we willingly open ourselves up to the possibility of failure and criticism. Acknowledging fear is a great first step, but in order to take action in the presence of that fear, we also have to acknowledge the reality that we are opening ourselves up to judgment by others because of our actions.
Your willingness to operate in the presence of fear will make other people uncomfortable because it will challenge them to question why they are not also taking action based on their dreams. Your actions will solicit responses ranging from incredibly enthusiastic to incredibly hurtful. Your job is simply to open up and then decide who is providing the feedback worth learning from. Which brings us to our next destination.
Shun the Non-Believers
Being vulnerable is valuable in that it allows you to take action and receive constructive criticism and feedback from those that care about you most. The people who appreciate your vulnerability and offer valuable feedback are those who will continue to push you to be your best.
However, there will also be people who fire back at your bold actions, projects, and ideas with hurtful words and critical comments intended to damage your self-confidence and belief. These are the nonbelievers. They do not appreciate your bravery, willingness to put your work into the world, and openness to vulnerability. You should state very openly to these people that you do not accept their hurtful words and criticism. Invite them to acknowledge their own fear and enter into a mutually vulnerable relationship. If they refuse, your job is to shun the nonbelievers and put them on mute. They are neither valuable to you, nor productive to converse with.
Remember the Why
To experience fear, there has to be something you’re scared of. At some point, you came up with the idea, project, relationship, or experience for a reason. Take time to revisit the purpose behind this thing you’re scared of. Why did you think about it to begin with? What story will it tell about you? Are the why, the story it tells, or the people you’ll help things you believe in? If so, constantly remind yourself why you are dancing with the fear to begin with. If not, forget it and move on to something you do believe in.
Once you convince yourself you believe in what you’re up to, you need to set clear parameters for your project or idea. That means determining what success looks like for you, and by when you need to ship in order to accomplish what you set out to do. Remember, people might not like your project, but that’s not why you set out to do this to begin with.
Paint a picture of success that depends entirely on your own actions. You can only control your own actions and influence those of others. Set goals that depend on your own actions and establish a timeline that prevents you from procrastination and perfection. Any task at hand will fill the time you allot to it, so set and stick to your timeline. You might even ask, “What would I have to do to shorten this timeline?”
A clear understanding of success and a clear timeline will help you dance with the fear.
Build competence through research and planning
An important part of the process of dancing with fear is doing the research and planning necessary to have a real shot at succeeding in putting your best effort forth.
When researching, your goal should be to find examples of others who have done what you are trying to do in addition to brushing up on the background and existing information on the topic of your project.
Once you’ve done your research, your goal should be to put together a project plan that outlines the steps necessary to accomplish your goal. A plan will help you avoid being paralyzed or not knowing what to do next.
A given step in the plan might require you to revisit the research stage to learn a new skill or understand how to take action next. Continuously moving through the process of research > plan > action > research > action will ensure that you consistently make progress.
The key with research and planning is not to let it become a distraction or excuse for missing deadlines. Just like the entire project, always set a timeline for your research and planning. “I will do 3 hours of research for this stage of the project and then I will start,” is one way you might frame your research. Stick to this schedule.
Even if you feel underprepared, taking action will remove the fear of being underprepared. And remember: you can never know everything there is to know about a project. If pressed with a tight deadline line and a choice between research or action, pick action. The fastest way to learn is to do.
Ask for Help
Sometimes you’ll come across a stage in the process where you simply don’t have the skills to continue making progress OR you know someone who could do it better than you. This is not a reason to give up, but rather a reason to find and ask for help.
On most projects worth pursuing, you’ll need help completing them. Bestselling authors don’t usually design their own book covers. A man proposing to his girlfriend doesn’t always pick the flowers or cook the meal (but you can, if you want).
If you need help to create a great outcome, ask for it. There’s no shame (quite the opposite) in finding the best people to help you do your best work. If you can’t afford it, or can’t find the right people, find a different way to accomplish the same thing (there are always options).
Own the Outcome by Applying the Learning
The beautiful thing about tackling fear is that you get complete ownership of the outcome. If you follow through on your plan and timeline, then you know you have done everything you can to set yourself up for success. Regardless of the results, your best efforts represent success in dancing with the fear. Learn from the outcome to fuel your ideas, plan, and timeline for the next project.
If people don’t respond to your work or efforts the way you had hoped, then you can take a look back at why they didn’t respond well. If there are opportunities to improve in the future, internalize the learning and use it to your advantage next time; if the idea just didn’t resonate, then come up with a new idea and start over (remember: it’s about the work, not how worthy of a person you are).
If people responded extremely well to your project or efforts, take the time to deconstruct why they responded that way. Internalize any lessons you can and use them to your advantage in the future.
Finally, if you didn’t put in your best effort and you missed your deadline, didn’t meet your goal, or didn’t launch, you can use this to your advantage as well. Take time to analyze what went wrong… Were you too ambitious in your timing? Did you do too much research? Did you forget to ask for the help you needed to be successful? Internalize the lessons you learned about the way you work and apply them to your next project.
No matter the outcome, don’t let it fuel your fear, but rather apply the learning to continue the dance.
One Last Bit of Inspiration
Everyone experiences fear. The difference between the people who live the lives they imagine and those that don’t is how they handle the fear. You can start that project you believe in, help the people you care about, or make a positive change in your life if you choose to.
The following video is the perfect example of what’s possible:
If you think this guy didn’t experience fear, then I’m afraid I can’t help you. But if you can acknowledge the fact that you and he both experience fear, then you have a shot at achieving your full potential.
The only difference between his fear and the fear you are experiencing right now: a choice. A choice to dance. And a choice to try something anyways.
Will you allow fear to take the lead step… Or will you?
Further Reading & Resources
Photo: GORE-TEX Athlete Ines Papert climbing by GORE-TEX Products on Flickr
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