“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself . . .” ~Franklin D. Roosevelt
You’ve heard that quote more times than you can count.
You’ve also made fear-based decisions; we all have.
Looking back, you can point to times it has happened and caused you to fall short of what you could have achieved.
It certainly has happened to me.
I was three years into my first career as a high school science teacher. I had always wanted to live abroad, specifically Mexico, and I had always wanted to learn Spanish (after taking an embarrassing amount in high school and college without really ever picking it up).
So when I met a lady that had a connection to a high school in Monterrey, Mexico, where they taught the classes in English and had an opening for a science/math teacher, I jumped on it.
I contacted the school and expressed an interest. When they told me if I ever came through Monterrey they would be happy to speak to me, I immediately booked a flight and flew down during the upcoming spring break.
I went to the interview and told them I would be happy to teach science or math, or both. They told me about the program, and that they support all of the teachers with intensive Spanish-immersion classes.
It was exactly what I wanted—a way to live in Mexico, learn Spanish, and keep teaching.
I left the interview excited.
A couple months later, they contacted me and told me I had the job if I still wanted it.
Perfect, right? I got exactly what I had been dreaming of.
I turned it down.
I rationalized the decision at the time because I had already told my current school I would be there the next year and had already committed to a trip to Europe with friends that I would have to miss because the school year started earlier in Mexico.
The reality is that my school would have understood and my friends would still be my friends (and Europe wasn’t going anywhere) if I took this opportunity, which I had been talking about for years.
The real reason I didn’t take the job was that I was scared. Scared to move to a new country where I didn’t know anyone. Scared to leave my comfort zone. Just generally scared of the unknown.
Now, looking back, I have a lot of regret about that decision. Over ten years later, I still haven’t lived abroad and I still don’t speak Spanish fluently.
But I have also learned from that experience to push back when fear pops up to stop me from moving forward.
And importantly, I’ve gotten much better at recognizing when it is fear that is stopping me, even when it isn’t so obvious.
And that’s what I want to share with you.
How You Can Target Fear and Beat It
Below are five common, but not-so-obvious, ways fear works to limit our potential.
And importantly, how you can recognize that fear for what it is, and then push through anyway.
1. You procrastinate.
We have a lot of faith (for no apparent reason) that the version of us that wakes up on Monday will start that thing we want to do.
It’s like we believe some other person will be responsible for getting us up and moving.
It’s hard to start now, when we are the ones in charge. Why?
Fear lives in starting. Because starting means one of two things will happen: You will do the thing you set out to do, or you will fail.
And failure is scary; we fear it. So we decide to start later.
The problem is that later is quite elusive. So the change never really happens.
Even though you think you are protecting yourself from failure by procrastinating, you are actually just ensuring it. By not starting, you take success off the table; the only thing left is failure.
The solution is simple, but not easy:
Recognize your procrastination for what it is—you letting fear prevent you from moving forward.
Move anyway. It doesn’t have to be a huge movement, but just do something that commits you to either success or failure.
2. You create your “big-hairy goal” and then wait for the magic to happen.
I know, you’ve been told to set a “big-hairy goal.”
The problem is that the definition of a big-hairy goal is a goal that seems impossible. Because it seems impossible, you don’t actually believe you can achieve it. So you don’t act. You just wait for some cosmic shift to occur.
You are scared that if you act you just will prove that it is impossible. That fear paralyzes you.
To overcome this, you have to set smaller, more approachable goals, after you set the “big-hairy” one. Goals that you see as possible, but that add up to the end game.
Come up with three small goals that you believe are doable and that will get you closer to the “big-hairy goal.” They don’t need to get you there. They just need to head you in the right direction.
When you’re done with those, come up with three more. Keep that up and that almost-impossible goal will become inevitable.
3. You let “emergencies” get in the way.
Have you ever decided that something you’ve been “meaning” to do for months, like organizing your closet, has now become a must-do thing?
You are probably using your newly minted “must-do” task to avoid starting something that might open you up to failure.
While organizing a closet isn’t fun, you aren’t going to fail at it, so it’s not scary. Even though it feels very much like you are being productive, you are actually paralyzed.
If you hear yourself saying things like, “I know I said I would do X today, but I actually can’t because I really need to get Y done first,” you are probably falling victim to this fear-based behavior.
The solution is easy: Realize that you haven’t done Y for the past two months, and so not doing it today will probably be fine and do X instead.
4. You focus on the judgment of others.
As soon as you go from, “This is going to change my life for the better” to “What will so-and-so think about it?” you have almost certainly sunk your chances of moving forward.
Everyone wants the approval of their peers and seeks to avoid their disapproval. But you can’t let fear of disapproval prevent you from acting.
It’s not easy. But, when you feel judged by your peers, and you feel like it is stopping you from moving forward, consider these questions:
Does this peer lead a life I value?
What values are they using to judge me?
Do I even want to live up to those values?
If you don’t want to live up to their values, just shrug off their judgment and move on.
5. You forget that your life one big science experiment.
Science is all about failure. And your life should be all about failure too.
Science comes up with an explanation for the data available, and then tests that explanation.
As soon as the explanation fails, everyone goes back to the drawing board and comes up with a new idea, incorporating the data that was collected as a result of testing the first idea.
Over time, science gets more and more right. That is what life is about.
You aren’t going to live a perfect life. You aren’t going to achieve everything you could possibly achieve. But, you can get closer to perfect. You can achieve more than you have so far.
But to do so, you have fail. You have to try something new. And doing so, you will fail. Which is great. Because then you get to learn from your failure, and try again.
To start, try to get three people to tell you no every day, ask random people to do things for you, ask for discounts on retail or food, whatever.
I know it sounds stupid, but the whole idea is to get used to failing and so dampen the fear of it. Then you can see failure for what it is:
A big billboard telling you are going in the right direction but that you just need to adjust your course a tad to take into account what you learned from the failure.
You have the tools to recognize fear for what it is and to shine a light on it when it pops up its ugly head—no matter what form it is using.
Then you can then address that fear, knowing that it is largely, if not totally, of your own making. And you can stop the rationalizing that you will inevitably use to avoid doing the scary thing that led to the fear in the first place.
Once you have done that, you will start pushing the envelope of your potential and achieving more than you thought possible.
So look fear in the eyes. Call it out. And, keep moving.