There’s an aspiring adventurer, entrepreneur or novelist in all of us. Yet when it comes to chasing after our goals and dreams we’re often too scared to take the leap.
Fear holds us back. It destroys dreams. It kills productivity and, in all honesty, sucks the fun out of life.
Before embarking on life as a freelancer and starting Nudge, I had a huge fear of leaving my 9–5 job. Whenever a chance to follow my dream would present itself, I wouldn’t take it.
Fear isn’t something you can overcome by simply working harder. You can’t solve it by spending money. And you certainly can’t avoid it by delegating. So, I wanted to dig a little deeper and understand why we let fear hold us back and share with you how we can overcome it.
Why do we fear failure?
It’s quite often not failing itself that strikes fear into us, it’s the other negative outcomes that come along with failing like a lack of income or potential embarrassment.
A few years back, whenever I’d so much as contemplate leaving the safety of my job I’d instantly make excuses and talk myself out of it .
When a chance would come along, I’d always ask myself what if this didn’t work out? and my mind would flood with all the potential negatives that could arise. As expected, I’d soon come to the conclusion that the best option was the safest one and resign myself to staying put at my day job.
Unfortunately, we humans are hardwired to focus on the negatives of situations. It’s what psychologists call the ‘negativity bias’.
As James Altucher explains on Quora:
“If you were in the jungle and you saw a lion to your right and an apple tree to your left, you would best ignore the apple tree and run as fast as possible away from the lion.”
This type of behaviour originated in our ancestors as a short-cut to survival, and though we no longer need it (it’s not like we have to run from predators every day now), over 400,000 years of evolution takes a long time to undo.
The fact that negative information weighs more heavily on the brain was also backed up in a study from Ohio State University where professors measured the reactions of participants after showing them pictures known to arouse specific feelings: pictures of a sports car or delicious looking food for positive feelings, a fork or table cloth for neutral, and finally a mutilated face or dead pet for negative feelings.
The results showed that seeing a negative image sparked the strongest reaction by all of the participants, proving that our attitudes are more heavily influenced by downbeat or negative imagery and news. It’s why newspapers and news shows report so heavily on negative stories. As ironic as it may be, it’s what we all want to hear.
How fear affects our decision making
If we’re more heavily effected by negative thoughts brought on by fear, how does this change the way we made decisions on a daily basis?
Fear of failure, fear of our own inadequacy, fear of making the wrong decisions and fear of what others think of us can all affect the decisions we make.
The part of our brain that governs this fear is known as the ‘reptilian brain’ — it’s the oldest part of our brain and has its roots in our evolutionary desire to stay alive, determining whether to fight, flight, or freeze in a stressful or dangerous situations.
“Fear prompts retreat,” Emory University neuroeconomist Gregory Berns explains in the N.Y. Times. “It is the antipode to progress. Just when we need new ideas most, everyone is seized up in fear, trying to prevent losing what we have left.”
Berns concludes: “The most concrete thing that neuroscience tells us is that when the fear system of the brain is active, exploratory activity and risk-taking are turned off.”
We might not be faced with life-threatening situations on a daily basis, but our basic fear instincts still control how we view the potential outcomes of our decisions.
So if you’re thinking about embarking on a traveling adventure, you might focus on costs (maybe you could spend that money on more logical things?), not having a job to come home to, or maybe homesickness, instead of all the amazing positives like meeting new people, having memorable experiences, and expanding your worldview.
The same applies to most dreams and goals. Although the positives may outweigh the negatives in the end, it can be hard to see past the negatives and commit to the decisions we really want to.
Fear shuts us down before we even have a chance to start.
3 proven strategies to get over fear and live the life you want
We might be evolutionarily predisposed to react rather than think when faced with tough decisions, but there are some ways to trick the oldest part of our brain out of making us miss opportunities.
1. Change perceptions of failure
Sir James Dyson is one of the world’s most successful inventors, but he refers to his life as ‘a life of failure’.
In an interview with ABC Radio he explains that the when he was building the prototype for the first Dyson Hoover there were 5126 failures until he got the one that worked.
As highlighted by Sir James Dyson’s story, failure isn’t an ending — it’s a part of your story. It’s a natural part of growing. And should, at times, be looked at as positive, not negative. By changing your perception of failure you can learn to stop fearing it.
After all, one of the greatest sportsmen of all time was prone to failure, too…
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan
2. Find a mentor
Mentors can be amazingly valuable people to have in your life.
Whether you’re looking for someone to mentor you while starting a business, someone to give you the courage to write your first movie script, or someone to encourage you to travel the world there’s a person out there who can guide you and help you get started.
The great thing about mentors is that they have all likely struggled with fear at some point and can relate to the position you’re in and help you get past it. If you don’t know where to start when looking for someone to help mentor you this article is a great start.
3. Breakdown your dreams
In his book, The Naked Leader, David Taylor makes a very simple and bold statement:
Imagine if you couldn’t fail. Who would you be? Where would you go? And what would you do?
Removing thoughts of failure can help you to define exactly what you want from life. Take some time to sit back and think about the bigger picture: What dream to you want to chase? And if you couldn’t fail, what would you do?
Once you know the answers to these questions, break your dreams down into smaller, more achievable chunks and suddenly you’ll see there’s less to fear.
As Lewis Howes explains in this Forbes article, “If your goal is to ‘start a business’ — change it to ‘interview one business owner’. That second goal seems a lot less daunting, right? By breaking down dreams, there’s less to fear each step along the way.”
Bonus tip: Identify the root-cause of your fear
Take a step back and ask yourself: ‘What am I really afraid of?’
‘Failure’ is a pretty vague term and the root cause of someone’s fear of failure is often something more tangible such as:
- I’m afraid I won’t make enough money
- I’m afraid I’m not confident enough to sell my idea
- I’m afraid of starting something new
The above examples are more concrete challenges. When I analysed my fear, I realised I was worried about money. I was comfortable on my salary and at a time in my life where I wanted to have enough money to enjoy my life as well as just covering my bills.
Once I’d identified why I was afraid, I could figure out my way around the problem, rather than continue to suffer from the fear. Identifying the root-cause of your fear will allow you to do the same.
In order to do something big , whether that’s travelling the world, quitting your job to start a business, or chasing your wildest dreams , you have to overcome something equally big: Fear.
By understanding the why of your fear, you’ve already taken the first step towards the life you want.
So, what are you afraid of?