Have you tried 'fear-setting' rather than goal-setting? The new way to tackle life head-on
These days, we hear a lot about overcoming our fears - but how about embracing them? Orla Neligan looks at a new school of thought that advocates 'fear-setting' rather than goal-setting, and turning feelings of anxiety, rejection and loneliness into strengths
I'm 10,000 feet in the air staring at the open door of a plane, parachute strapped to my back, bile rising in my throat. I am so terrified that my body has frozen to the point where the sky diving instructor has to drag my limbs across the plane floor. What's the worst that can happen? Death. Yes, there's that. Paralysis. Yes, but what if nothing happens? What if I enjoy myself?
Fifteen minutes later I'm on the ground staring up at the sky and wishing it wasn't over. But show me someone whose heart isn't thumping before they throw themselves out of a plane at 10,000 feet? It's a pretty rational fear. And it's not just fear of physical harm that makes us run for cover. Fears of intimacy, rejection, loneliness, for example, shape many of our social interactions and our futures. We all have them - anxieties we feel about leaving a job or starting a new one, ending a relationship or speaking up at work - they are part of being human. But irrational fear can impede our path in life; the trick is how you manage it or, in the words of Tim Ferriss, how we deconstruct it.
Ferriss is a 40-year-old entrepreneur and self-help guru with a string of best-selling 'life-hacking' bibles, known often as the 'Oprah of audio' due to the influence of The Tim Ferriss Show podcast - the first business-interview podcast to exceed 100 million downloads. He speaks five different languages and holds a world record in tango, which is why it's surprising to hear that he came close to committing suicide.
The subject of his near suicide is how he begins his TED Talk 'Why you should define your fears instead of your goals', his recipe for avoiding self-destruction and paralysis rather than focusing on what makes you a success. Because once you conquer those fears, there's nothing stopping you from achieving whatever you wish. His thoughts on 'smashing fear' are informed by a quote from ancient Roman stoic philosopher Seneca: "We suffer more often in the imagination than in reality", leading him to the ancient practice of stoicism - in layman's terms, an operating system for thriving in high stress environments that allows you to separate what you can control from what you can't.
Ferris traces all of his averted disasters and biggest wins back to a simple three-step process called 'fear-setting' (as opposed to goal-setting) and practises it once every three months to stay focused. The process involves listing the fears that are causing you the most anxiety, whether that's asking someone out, ending a relationship, starting a new business or asking for a promotion. The next step is creating three columns with headers: Define, Prevent and Repair. All the worst things you can imagine about taking those steps are listed in the Define column. The answers to what you can do to prevent these things from happening, or at least decrease the likelihood, are listed under Prevent, and lastly, should the worst case scenarios happen as a result of taking the steps, you list what can you do to repair the damage.
"Has anyone else in the history of time, less intelligent or less driven, figured this out?" Ferris asks rhetorically, encouraging viewers to keep the question in mind while doing the exercise. "The answer is probably yes."
"You won't achieve the goal unless you conquer the fear," notes Mary Curran, a life coach and trainer at the Centre for Professional and Personal Development in Dublin. "Change comes when we're ready to move out of our comfort zone but with change comes insecurities and fears. Fear can be a positive thing, often there as a signal to warn us, but often it stops people from becoming the best versions of themselves."
When actress Natalie Portman returned to Harvard 12 years after graduating she spoke honestly about her fear and insecurity about attending the high-profile college and how she had felt like there had been some mistake; that she wasn't smart enough, and that every time she opened her mouth, she would have to prove that she wasn't just a "dumb actress". Billionaire Warren Buffet was so terrified of public speaking that he dropped out of a public speaking course before it even started. He found ways to manage his fear through coaching. Apparently, public speaking is the number one phobia in America: comedian Jerry Seinfield once joked that if you go to a funeral you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy. I suspect that lots of us are frightened and anxious and often too embarrassed to admit it. We may not be faced with the threat of being mauled by a hungry lion but the thought of humiliation or losing our reputations can be enough to send us underground.
One of the most terrifying things I have ever done, as a journalist, is go on public radio. What if I couldn't remember what I wanted to say, or cursed on live radio? But, after several stints in front of the mic, Seneca's philosophy rang true: our imagination is often the obstacle in our way. In my experience, fear is usually a signal that something is worth doing and that it will change your life for the better once you've conquered it. It's the internal toxic voice that we are so often unaware of that feeds the monster. "I call it the fear gremlin," laughs Mary Curran. "The gremlin hates change and will do everything to talk you out of it, it's the biggest obstacle and pitfall to moving forward."
Much like Ferriss's fear-setting technique, Mary works on identifying people's fears and deconstructing them. "Fears are essentially false evidence appearing real. They are untrue stories that we rationalise as a means of protection. It's important to ask yourself what's real, where's the evidence and whether you're still living in past realities."
Sometimes fear isn't as obvious as a python looming in front of you or walking through a war zone. It can have a habit of sneaking up on you, often disguised as procrastination. It's the perpetual 'work in progress' that never gets finished, the CV you're going to complete tomorrow, the novel in its final edits, the marathon you're 'planning' on running next year.
For Cathy McNulty it was the habitual postponement of decision-making that brought her to the point where she needed help. "I was second-guessing myself all the time, passing on opportunities because I didn't trust myself to deliver. Fear was the undercurrent residing emotion. I got very good at declining, avoiding and postponing things which made matters worse, and I soon learnt it was more comfortable to settle for less. It's the story we continuously tell ourselves over time that develops and becomes our reality."
With the help of coaching, Cathy was able to identify her fears and 'edit' her 'self-limiting beliefs', which were feeding the fears. "I often ask the questions: What's stopping you?" says Mary Curran. "What's the reason you're telling yourself you can't do something? Most of the time I find the patterns are the same and it's about changing your mindset using various tools that include visualisation and positive affirmations. Instead of saying, 'Nobody listens to me in the boardroom', we retrain the brain to say, 'I come across clear and concise in the boardroom and have everyone's attention'." Mary believes conquering fears involves accepting responsibility for where you've landed today, getting out of the triangle of blame and putting the same energy into making the effort to change your thinking as you do to competing commitments.
The work of Brene Brown, a research professor and best-selling author of Daring Greatly, has found that our lack of self-esteem and the belief in our own unworthiness drives us to live fear-based lives. "People buy into fear because they don't have the language to attach to it. Anxiety is fear, greed is fear, anger is fear, eating and drinking are fear, drugs are fear." Brown concludes that we're all afraid, we just need to get to the point where we understand it doesn't mean that we can't also be courageous.
To go back to the ancient stoics, Aristotle believed courage to be the most important characteristic in man. "Courage is the first of human virtues because it makes all others possible." Ferris echoes that in his parting statement, encouraging us to ask ourselves where in our lives right now might defining our fears be more important than defining our goals, since the biggest challenges we face will never be solved with comfortable conversations.
So, next time you're asking yourself, "What if it goes wrong?", perhaps you should also ask yourself the question, "What if it goes right?".