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You’re on the precipice of a 40-foot drop, looking down. Your heart hammering so hard that you can feel your whole body teetering. Voices from down below are cheering you on but you’re not there. You’re not present. You’re in a different world, paralysed by fear.
You’re at the beach, swimming in the sea, the sounds of paradise and laughter all around you. You dive under the water, open your eyes and see the yawning depths of the ocean swallowing you. Endless, dark, and empty… you hope.
Fear is potent. Even the word sounds fierce. Sometimes we fear ‘fear’ itself.
You’re walking down the corridor past that colleague you like. This time you’re going to stop and say something to them. You’re so acutely aware of their presence as they pass you, and they’re so acutely unaware of yours. You forget how to walk naturally. They don’t notice. The moment is gone… but it’s okay because your life is fine anyway. you didn’t need to talk to them. It’s not a big deal is it?
You were afraid to act, and you justify it by pretending to be content. This is fear, disguised as optimism. We use this all the time to pull the wool over our own eyes, and stay in our comfort zones. You’re probably familiar with the feeling of being paralysed by fear in one moment that seems to stretch to eternity, but the worse kind of fear is the kind that paralyses us in our journey through life. We don’t always feel it, it isn’t always there. Sometimes we disguise it as a feeling of ‘content’. It ensures that you stay where you are. Safe. Unchallenged. In a fog of fear.
This is fear, disguised as optimism.
I follow a system known as fear-setting, devised by Tim Ferris and inspired by stoic teachings, to recognise and defeat these fears, and be brave in my decisions. It’s a pretty simple system, not dissimilar to goal-setting but potentially more impactful. I’m going to show you how it works and by the end of this article, you’ll know how to stop fear from ruling over your life.
Fear-setting works by getting you to:
Address your fears
Contemplate on why you have those fears
Consider how you would prevent the worst from coming to pass
And (most importantly) it encourages you to think about the often worse situation that could come to bear because of your inaction.
What if I…?
It starts by asking this question. What if I leave my job? What if I move to another country? What if I live a nomadic lifestyle and never stay in one place for more than a few months? For me, all of these questions are one:
Your question should be the thing that you catch yourself thinking about when you’re bored. The first thing that comes to mind when you think of your future.
At this stage we’re strictly dealing with hypotheticals, so don’t be afraid to put your feelings to paper.
Next, we’re going to pull our fears out of the ethereal unknown and put them down on a page, where they’re all of a sudden not so scary. This should be the worst case scenario that could occur. Here’s my list:
Now we’re going to figure out what we could do to prevent the worst from occurring. Try to be realistic, and don’t be surprised if the answer seems easier than you expected- that’s the purpose of the exercise.
Finally, we’re going to write down the course of action that we could take, if the worst were to happen anyway. What would you do? Who would you call?
Articulating your fears and their solutions like this can be a very freeing process. Uncertainty is what you really feared, and now that you’ve removed the uncertainty you might find that there’s not really a whole lot left to be afraid of.
What might be the benefits of an attempt or partial success?
This is our next question. List all of the things that you would get out of trying, even if you fail. You might ask for a promotion and not get it, but you’d get valuable feedback which guides your professional development. Ask that person out and get rejected, but now you know that they weren’t into you- it was the possibility that was keeping you up at night.
The benefits of an attempt at a digital nomad lifestyle are that I would see more of the world. I’d learn whether solo-travel is ‘my thing’ or not. I’d learn whether I like freelancing or value job security. There’s a lot of questions about myself that I think I would find the answer to in merely attempting this.
It would also be a really cool thing to be able to talk about, even if I only do it for a year. Worst case scenario it might just be an elongated holiday, or a miniature retirement.
The cost of inaction
This is the big one. What are the costs (emotionally, physically, financially etc.) of not doing anything?
Inaction is an action. Not choosing is a choice. It’s a choice that has costs. We don’t tend to fear the costs of inaction because they’re not uncertain to us. But they have real consequences.
Uncertainty is what you really feared
Consider the costs of inaction at multiple times too. What happens in 6 months? 1 year? 3 years? 20?
If I were to take no action, I would continue on a solid trajectory up the corporate ladder. I would probably buy a house in my home town. I would continue to work 9–5, the weeks would continue to blur past. I would only see my friends a few times a year, not for lack of desire, just because I don’t realise how much time is passing. I would go through the same process of personal development and promotion every few years. My salary would steadily rise. I would live comfortably. I’d be able to take a couple of holidays a year to exciting new places. I’d only be limited by my PTO. I’d do this for a few decades until I could retire, and then I’d sit in a chair and play the MMO’s that I’ve always denied myself because I no longer need to worry about how much of my time I sink into them.
I’m grateful for everything that I have, proud of what I’ve achieved, and I understand that this kind of life is enough for many people. But not me. I don’t know what I want out of life, but I don’t want the life that I’ve described.
I already live comfortably, and can do so on a low salary. I’m a minimalist, I don’t want a big house and wish I didn’t need a car. I like learning things that are new and novel and exciting, and I love seeing new parts of the world. One or two holidays a year isn’t enough for me. I want every evening and weekend to be a holiday. I want to do something positive for society, and climbing the ladder at a big corporation isn’t it.
The costs of inaction for me are mostly emotional. Through inaction I’ll get many things that I don’t really want. When I lay it all out like this I realise that I’m more afraid of staying where I am than I am of uprooting my whole life.
What about you? What’s the question that’s burning a hole in your pocket? Has following this activity shifted your perspective as drastically as it did mine? Are you going to pull the trigger and follow your dream? I hope that you do. After all…