Fear can take on many forms. When we’re young, it’s a monster under the bed or a scraped knee. As we get older, our fears become more complex. We’re afraid of getting caught cheating (but seriously, don’t cheat) or of not being accepted into a college or being qualified for our dream job. We can be afraid to lose, win, and tie all the same. People who are thought of as fearful are often mocked. But the truth is, fear isn’t always necessarily a bad thing. In fact, in can be good for you both professionally and personally.
In a very real sense, fear keeps us alive. It’s a response that is coded deep within our DNA. In many ways, fear is the thing that helps make us most human. It sounds odd, but it actually relies on some interesting science. Unlike other human emotions, fear is felt and expressed in one of the oldest parts of the human brain: the amygdala. That means it could actually be one of, if not the oldest emotion we have.
This makes sense in the context of early man and survival because fear was a survival tool. A healthy dose of fear kept us living so we could fight another day. On the other hand, a lack of it led to us getting eaten by a pack of wolves. However, there are other fears that have evolved beyond biological responses, like fears that leave us feeling anxious or overwhelmed. The world is full of these fears. They keep us up at night and are a guide to things we ought to be pursuing or things we hope to avoid.
In a sense, our fears have run amuck. Instead of working to help us survive, they’ve evolved to keep us from thriving.
Fear can be a great tool to help us learn new things about ourselves. When it comes to success, identifying and conquering our fears should become a routine exercise. For a lot of us, the first place we start on our journey of controlling our fears is by attacking the very thing that can prevent us from getting started in the first place — a fear of failure.
Handling a Fear of Failure
Fear of failure is not uncommon. While being afraid to fail may seem like a fairly basic, surface-level fear, it actually hinges on one underlying principle: shame.
In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Fear of failure relies on an underpinning of shame. If we aren’t good enough, if we don’t do something perfectly, if we screw up – we are no longer worthy of our reputation, success, and belonging. Keeping all of the things that could go wrong at the forefront of our thoughts is what makes moving toward success feel like climbing Everest. Instead of looking at what could happen, we should focus on what needs to happen.
Carol Dweck talks about this shift in mindset in her bestselling book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. In the book, she discusses two mindsets people have: a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. People with a growth mindset view their failures as productive, their faults as correctable, and thrive on trial and error as a means of growth. Those with a fixed mindset view their traits and abilities as permanent and unchangeable.
To put it bluntly, Dweck found in her research that people with a growth mindset tend to have more opportunities and advantages than those who don’t. In other words, it pays to view failures as learning experiences.
Instead of letting fear of failure prevent you from living a big life, learn to harness your fear. With the right mindset, our fears can become tools that we can leverage to help us accomplish incredible things.
Learn to use your fear
While it may seem counterintuitive, we can actually leverage our fear for positive outcomes. Instead of trying to simply suppress our fear or not deal with it and hope it goes away, we should embrace it as a powerful tool for success.
Below we run through four strategies for using your fears to your advantage.
- The Focus Dividend
One of the ways we can leverage fear is by using it to increase our focus.
If you’ve ever had a lot to do in a short amount of time and somehow magically got everything done, then you’ve probably experienced the intense focus that fear can evoke. Scientists call it “the focus dividend”, but we call it “fight or flight”. In short, this fear-induced response is what gives us a bonus in mental clarity and focus that allows us to be incredibly productive in a very short period of time.
In their book Scarcity, authors Sendhil Mullainthan and Eldar Shafir claim that “the focus dividend is triggered through scarcity.” When we have a lack of something, our brains prioritize it until we have abundance. So if we’re short on time and resources, we channel our focus on having both of those things until our problems are solved.
In one study they conducted, the authors created an Angry Birds style game for their participants to play. The goal of the game was to try and score points by launching blueberries at various objects. Some objects were worth more points than others, and the participants had to be thoughtful about each shot to accrue the most points.
One group playing the game was given larger quantities of blueberries to shoot, the other was given significantly less – and it radically changed the way in which they played the game.
Players with larger quantities of blueberries were significantly less likely to be careful with their shots – they were less concerned about missing, less afraid and less focused. Those with fewer blueberries, however, were more accurate with their shots. In a sense, those without blueberries made their shots count.
Waiting until the last minute to finish a project or solve a problem isn’t a best practice. You won’t always get your best work done by procrastinating to the point of being fearful of whether or not you’ll finish. However, using the focus dividend in conjunction with our time blocks may help us get things done more efficiently.
For those who don’t know, a time block is an appointment you make with yourself. It’s a period of time that you give to yourself each day to make sure you get your most important work done. Without them, our time can be used up by other people for other projects. If the idea of being rushed into a million meetings with no time to work on your ONE thing makes you panic – good. We should be afraid to lose our time, and that fear should encourage us to time block.
Or, if you want to use the benefits of the focus dividend, create some mini-deadlines for yourself to provide that tiny focus boost. It may sound silly, but it works. Breaking larger projects into smaller parts with a timeline can help us create that same sense of urgency – but with a cushion of time built in so we aren’t actually waiting till the last minute to get everything done. If you want a little extra pressure, find an accountability partner that will help keep you on the ball. This puts you into an accountability cycle, while still maintaining the benefits of a focus dividend.
Don’t let that far off deadline lull you into a false sense of security. Instead, be a little afraid that other things will take that time – meetings, other projects, soccer games – and time block accordingly. Be smart with your time, like the people with fewer blueberries, instead of squandering it like the players who had more.
- Time to Think BIG
Like we said above, a fear of failure is really underpinned by feelings of shame. This sense of shame and its permanence ties into Dweck’s notion of mindsets. If you’re feeling fear, maybe that means it’s time for a mental shift from a fixed mindset that fears failure and shame, to a growth mindset that fears missing an opportunity.
Using fear as a measuring stick for your mindset is just a smart thing to do. If you’re really afraid of something, chances are there might be something really valuable at stake or something even greater to reap in return.
In The ONE Thing, we tell you that in order to succeed big, you have to think big. Oftentimes, that also means you have to fail BIG. The bigger the success, the bigger the failure, after all.
Big goals and big dreams seem far off and unattainable. As illustrated below, if we only aim small and take small actions, we are always going to fall short of our potential. Like we say in the book, “What you build today will either empower or restrict your tomorrow.” Building a foundation for a big future means planning and committing to living a big life. To do that, you have to lean into your own fears and use them as springboards for success.
Thinking big requires a growth mindset. The moment we view our failures as a necessary step on the way toward success, a whole world of opportunities opens itself up. Even if you understand this intellectually, you’ll have to go through a process where you realize that failing forward isn’t as intuitive as it might seem. It’s important to remember that what you measure grows. That means taking the time to measure our results. That way, we can actually see the ways every action we take, even if that action ends in failure, is still a step in the right direction.
Often, our fears are crushed by knowledge. In the same way Scooby Doo and the gang would assuage everyone’s fears by removing the mask from a monster, when you remove the mask on your progress and failures, they become manageable and even encouraging. Reduce your actions to numbers so you can keep score of your progress. That way you can actually see yourself failing forward.
- Forget your Fear of Missing Out
Success requires dealing with another fear: the fear of saying “no”.
Some of us find it really hard to say no because we have an intense fear of missing out (FOMO). If you ever hear about a particular activity or are presented with an opportunity and are overwhelmed at the thought of missing something if you don’t say “yes”, then you might suffer from FOMO.
Being successful means getting over our fear of missing out. What we should really be afraid of are distractions. And the truth is, FOMO is a fear that leads to numerous distractions.
When we succumb to FOMO, we load our plates up on everything other than what we should be focusing on. If you’re clear about what your ONE Thing is, and understand that your time is finite, then you understand that when you say yes to distractions, you’re saying no to progress. If you say yes to others too many times, you may find that you have no time for yourself.
That’s where the Pareto Principle comes in. The way the Pareto Principle (or 80/20 Rule) works is fairly simple. 80 percent of our outcomes are generated from only 20 percent of our actions.
While we need to think big in order to succeed, the Pareto Principle says that we achieve big things by focusing on small, yet powerful actions. If you divide all of your daily activities into two categories: The 20 percent activities that produce 80 percent of our results, or the 80 percent of activities that produce only 20 percent of our results, you can manage your time and do a lot more to account for your FOMO:
- If saying yes means sacrificing your 20 percent, then you say no.
- If saying yes means sacrificing your 80 percent, then you can probably say yes.
Like we teach in the book, saying “yes” to something requires a full understanding of all of the things you’re saying “no” to. When you say yes to every new shiny opportunity presented to you, you’re also saying no to time you could be spending focusing on your ONE thing. And that is time you can’t get back. Instead of allowing our FOMO to distract us from what matters, we need to learn to be more afraid of not making something of ourselves.
- Finding a Little Empathy
In her book The Fear Factor, author Abigail Marsh discusses the importance fear plays in our ability to connect with one another. For instance, we all have what is known as an “Integrated Emotion Systems Model”. This model exists in other species as well as humans and mediates instinctual response and shows that fear has the ability to change how we act. It’s why a dog might roll over on its back when in the presence of a larger dog or why we put our hands up when a scary face pops up unexpectedly during a movie. When faced with fear, we interpret it quickly (by reading a facial expression, a change in voice, or how someone else is reacting to something else) and respond accordingly.
The key part of these responses is empathy, which is an important tool for understanding one another. It’s the way we are able to say “even though I don’t feel your pain exactly, I understand what you’re going through and I’m sympathetic.” The better we are at reading and understanding fear in ourselves and others, the more empathetically we respond.
It may sound odd, but fear and its resulting empathetic responses are what make us better people. In fact, it can make us more likely to act altruistically and empathetically towards others. When we see other people in scary situations, we want to help them. When we hear someone tell us something they’re afraid of, we feel empathy. It’s what allows us to be more responsive, thoughtful, and understanding with one another.
This also means that the last thing we should do is internalize our fears. We should be more proactive about getting them out in the open, and leveraging those we trust with helping us conquer them. Dorothy Thompson once wrote, “Fear grows in darkness; if you think there’s a bogeyman around, turn on the light.” Every time we internalize a fear, we give it a little more darkness to grow in. Instead of letting our fears fester away inside us, we need to “switch on the light” by sharing them with those around us. That person can be an accountability partner, your life partner, a friend, a mentor or even a coach. When we hold fears inside, we create our own barriers and stumbling blocks. Our deadlines begin to feel insurmountable. Our free time is suddenly packed full of work, and we forsake our personal lives.
Sharing our fears with others is an important step in tearing down barriers between us and success. It is both a form of catharsis and leverage. More often than not, the people around us are always happy to help us accomplish our goals – we just need to let them know we need a little help. Likewise, we want to be open to those around us. When the time is right and they share their fears with us, we can respond empathetically and in kind. The next time you’re feeling that pit of anxiety in your stomach, take ten minutes to find someone and share your fears with them. Even if they can’t directly help you themselves, people are generally full of advice to help you leverage your time and get what needs done, done.
There are a lot of myths surrounding fear. Oftentimes, we feel far too ashamed to express our fears to others or even ourselves. But fear doesn’t have to be a dirty word. Understanding and using our fear can actually be an incredibly powerful thing to do. Once we begin to use our fear not as something to overcome or shy away from, but a challenge or opportunity for growth, we’ll begin to know how to leverage our fear into something productive. If you need help tackling some of your fears and doing some self-reflection, try our list of Deadly Questions. How are some ways you leverage your fears? Let us know on our Facebook page!