Fear is caused by a perceived threat to our survival, whether that be a threat to our physical body or an imagined threat to our ego or identity. Fear of physical death prompts you to look both ways as you cross the street. Fear of ego death stops you from asking that attractive guy/girl out because you might get rejected.
While the two threats are logically different things, we often have a difficult time telling the difference between the two. This is because real threats to our physical survival and imagined threats to our ego both provoke the same fight-or-flight response.
Fear is experienced in an ancient part of our brains called the amygdala (colloquially known as the lizard brain). This part of the brain is responsible for processing all fear, both real and imaginary, and doesn't necessarily "talk" to the thinking areas of the brain that provide rational thought.
To be fair to our brains, historically, threats to our ego were sometimes shortly followed by threats to our survival. Up until a few hundred years ago, an argument with another human could have easily resulted in them killing you. Or perhaps banished from the campfire to the mercy of wolves. There were some very real consequences!
The truth is, though, these days a piece of feedback from your boss is unlikely to result in your immediate demise, and giving a humiliatingly bad speech at a company party won't result in you being hunted down by a pack of wolves.
Our minds, however, are still in this ancient place; we over-index fear.
Is fear useful?
Fear is useful in the sense of "hey, there's this thing over here that probably needs my attention." However, when we start acting on that fear, and making decisions driven by that fear, that's when we start running into problems.
Let's take an imagined scenario and see how fear plays a role in decision making.
Suppose you have an executive, let's call him Tim, who isn't scaling with the company. You know deep down that you will need to replace him with someone more experienced. However, you also want to keep him in some kind of role at the company, and you're afraid that if you bring the subject up with him that he'll immediately quit, throwing everything into chaos. So what do you do?
A fear-based decision would be to kick the can down the road by telling yourself that Tim could improve. Don't be ruled by your fear; you are not being rational. By delaying the decision, you're doing everyone a disservice. A better approach would be to lean into that fear, be vulnerable, and sit down with him. Explain the position you're in, including your fear that he'll quit. You might be surprised—people really appreciate vulnerability.
Fear is a very base-level emotion. It's programmed into us at the machine-code level. When you are in a state of fear, adrenaline starts pumping and your higher brain functions shut down. Fear prepares us to take action, not to think. It prepares us to escape, or even to fight, and in some unfortunate circumstances, to freeze. Notice that there is no mention of complex problem solving, weighing pros and cons, or taking time to process before action. Clearly it's not a great place to be making complex logical decisions from.
Fear as a motivational tool
It's undeniable, though, that fear is a great motivator, or at least in the short term. Throughout history fear has been a weapon in the authoritarian's arsenal to bend people to their will. Even today, fear of "being fired" is the stick most companies use to get things done.
However, these days, using fear to motivate fails for two reasons. The first is that it leaves a toxic waste that builds up over time and leads to distrust, anger, and hate. The second is that the world is increasingly favoring creativity in the workplace, which you simply cannot instill via fear. Fear is an extrinsic motivation; creativity comes intrinsically. Fear doesn't create a learning environment; in fact, it disables learning.
Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. - Yoda, Jedi Master
The first step in facing your fears is to acknowledge them. At Clearbit, you'll sometimes hear the phrase "this might be a fear-based motivation, but…". Naming your fears and shining light on them is the first step to approaching them.
Step 1: Realize you are feeling fear
Your body will tell you when it's in a state of fear. The key is to build awareness to this.
Let's try an experiment: think back to a situation where you were really scared, perhaps a car accident, or a public speech to a massive crowd. Think about where in your body you felt that fear. Was it a tightening of the chest? Or perhaps a pit in your stomach? This is how your body manifests fear.
Learning to recognize this feeling will give you a chance to pause and dig in before it rules you.
Step 2: Identifying your fears
Really dig into the underlying motivations behind the fear. For example, does it stem from a fear of a lack of control tracing back to a traumatic childhood experience? Or perhaps your fear of a lack of recognition is ultimately rooted in an indifferent father whose attention you were trying to seek?
Named must be your fear before banish it you can. - Yoda, Jedi Master
For some, even realizing that what they are feeling is fear can be difficult. Here, slow down the process. Notice whether there are times you are seemingly overreacting or have a strong desire to leave a situation. Once fear has been identified as the emotion, ask specific questions about the situation to figure out what the underlying worry is. Ask yourself some questions. What does this mean about me? About others? About the workplace? About the world?
Cognitive therapists use a system called the Downward Arrow Technique to identify the root of negative thoughts and unhealthy beliefs.
Step 3: Leaning in
Once you are more self-aware of your fears and your fear-based motivations, the next step is to lean into them. This is painful, but know that doing otherwise only leads to even more suffering.
Really ask yourself whether the fear is rational. Is it a fact, or is it a story in your head? If it's the former, is there anything I can do about it today? Is it really that bad in the bigger scheme of things? Writing your fears down often helps to rationalize them. Dwelling on your fears in your head only serves to stir them up into a toxic paranoia.
Stoics used a visualization exercise they referred to as negative visualization to train themselves to stay calm and free from emotional suffering in the face of adversity.
Contemplate what you have, and then visualize your life without those things. Imagine life without your significant other, or without your job, or without your health, and so on and so forth. Don't just think about it logically, really feel it deep down to your core.
Negative visualization is a stoic technique of mentally visualizing that you’ve lost things you value from your life. In my case, it is not having the company and the ability to learn as much as I have at all. I makes me realize that our total progress on Atrium in many ways exceeds where I thought we would be at the outset. If you had told me in the beginning that we would have made this much progress on revenue and team so quickly, I would have been ecstatic. So the smaller, daily bumps are much more palatable. - Justin Kan, CEO Atrium
First and foremost, this technique makes you quickly appreciate what you have in life: your health, your family, your opportunities, and more. Realizing how blessed you are can put things into perspective.
Second is the ability to set expectations up front and be far more honest with yourself. What could go wrong? How would you handle such scenarios? Can you overcome or plan for them?
This practice is called a pre-mortem in the business world, but the idea is the same. When you prepare for the worst, you are in a better place to deal with disaster if and when it does arise.
Finally, this practice can help you realize that the things that you are afraid of are not as bad as you made them out to be. What if you lost your job? What if you had to move to a much smaller apartment? What if your work turns out to be a failure?
We build up our fears to the point that they are larger than life. Confronting them, and even temporarily experiencing them, can help you overcome such barriers.
This is a great way of putting your life in perspective, realizing how irrational some of your fears are, and also understanding that it wouldn't be that bad if some of them were realized.
Accepting your own mortality
You'll notice that some of the most successful people in this world, like Elon Musk, tend to have a particularly fearless attitude—why is that?
One answer is that it's nature; in the same way that some people have a higher pain tolerance, some people have a higher fear tolerance.
However, it also can be a learned trait, the key part being coming to grips with your own mortality. Now, you might be thinking to yourself, this is a book on management—why dwell on such a morbid topic? Well, that's exactly the point; we just don't like thinking about it. Most of us go through our lives in denial, pretending that we're going to live forever.
The earlier you can come to grips with the realities of your own mortality, the more likely you are to put your life in perspective, care about the things you really should care about, and focus on achieving the things you want to achieve.
Steve Jobs said it best:
Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.
Almost everything--all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure--these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.
Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet, death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it, and that is how it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It's life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.
- Steve Jobs
A parting thought
Viagra, valium, and penicillin all have something in common: they were discovered by accident. Fear (in the workplace) is often the fear of making a mistake. Yet mistakes are often where the magic happens.
Realize there is no right or wrong in your choices; perfectionism slows you down. As we accept that we will make mistakes, that they will not ruin us, that we will be ok, we can then take more risks.