Originally written as a guest post on The Personal Finance Playbook.
Over the last few years, I have taken a strong interest in asking questions to better understand who I am and frankly, what the hell is going on. More specifically, why do I act and think as I do?
One of the most successful tools I have developed is to become an observer of my thoughts and emotions. After all, our thoughts influence emotion and actions down to a molecular level, so I knew this was a good place to start. To develop this “observer” skill has taken a lot of practice.
And the emotion I have been most curious about is fear. Before my journey inward, I had always seen fear as an enemy, but I now understand that it can, in fact, be a powerful ally.
HOW I’M GOING TO DIE
The past two winters, I have taken 10 days off work and journeyed up to a cabin in the woods of Wisconsin. 10 days: no people, no technology and plenty of time to think, reflect, and problem solve.
Upon arriving at the cabin this past winter, I couldn’t help but notice the deafening silence and the drowning darkness of the night. The town is eerily empty during this time of the year.
Once I got to the cabin and turned on some lights, I was instantly struck by fear. My eyes darted to the windows assuming someone would be standing on the other side, ready to murder me.
Amid an all-encompassing panic, I turned on the exterior lights and began a hurried inventory check: food, water, and the bb-rifle in the closet. I clutched the gun, looked out the window and saw no one on the other side. Relief filled my body. And then, I began to laugh.
Realizing the humor of the situation, I asked myself aloud, “What the hell just happened to me? What exactly was I afraid of?”
Queue my imagination! My brain presented me with the vivid scenario of axe-wielding madman that happens to be trudging along the snowy woods and sees the light of the cabin in the distance. He then slowly surrounds the home until at one point, I happen to look out the window and like Michael Meyers he is standing in the doorway smiling, staring at me. A struggle would ensue and he would hack me to death. I wouldn’t even have the chance to call loved ones.
That’s it, this is how I will die.
After this drama played out in my mind, I stated to the empty cabin, “Let me get this straight. You’re saying some random person will happen to be in the area, break into this cabin and kill me for no apparent reason? I’ll tell you (me) what, if that were to be true, that would just be awful luck!”
I should let you know that when you spend 10 days in a cabin alone, you tend to talk to yourself a lot.
Immediately as I said this, the fear that had clouded every thought and action since I entered the cabin left into the darkness of the night. It was gone. Like a bully running away in embarrassment.
How often does a situation like this happen to you? You’re struck with fear and the next thing you know you’re grasping your hypothetical rifle, ready to fight or run like hell, unable to think rationally in the process.
While it still happens to me, I’ve learned that by becoming the observer and stepping away from my emotions, I am better able to see fear for what it is and then choose to deny its proposed logic.
Fear may seem like this monstrous, mysterious, complicated emotion, but it’s actually quite simple to understand if you go back far enough.
THE ORIGIN OF FEAR
Our brains run on software that is over 1 million years old. They are designed for one thing: to keep us alive. Fear was essential for humans to learn important lessons and evolve over lifetimes. We learned to fight or flight in the presence of real danger, predators or situations where death was a high likelihood.
The fear of rejection was also extremely important to our ancestors. Be or act differently than the tribe and you were cast outside the city walls, kicked off the ship or exiled, and therefore your chances of survival plummeted.
So what did we learn through evolution? To fit in, no matter the cost. The voices and perceived thoughts of others became louder than our own because being “normal” was incredibly important. Our appearances mattered more than the truth of who we are.
FEAR IN THE MODERN WORLD
The good news is being rejected, while not ideal for happiness, no longer presents a real threat to our survival because those dangerous situations are pretty much non-existent today. The bad news is our brains are still running on that really old software, designed to look for fear. So our minds find other “modern” things to fear as it relates to rejection.
It’s why we constantly lie to ourselves and to others. It’s why we don’t like to question the rules of normalcy. It’s why we feel we need the largest house, the brand new car, more followers, fake surface relationships to maintain an image, or to stay in that job we simply don’t enjoy.
Most of us live our lives in accordance to the opinions of others, and it stems from our primal fear of being rejected.
We spend our time, money and energy on things that do not align with our values because we are afraid. Fear is the number one reason we do not grow.
I say screw that. Enough giving in to fear and setting limits on your life.
MY TWO METHODS FOR FACING FEAR
Now it’s one thing to point out your fears, but it’s much harder to face them head on. The key is to recognize, analyze and release it. And bonus points if you can laugh at it. It may seem trivial, but by doing this over and over, you’ll develop the capacity to stand tall against what used to hold you back.
These two techniques in particular have worked extremely well for me.
Analyze the fears you have in order to move forward.
Take my story about the axe-wielding murderer in the cabin. Oftentimes writing down or saying out loud what the absolute worst outcome of a situation or action would be, leads to an understanding that our fears usually never manifest.
It has helped me with something as simple as asking someone out on a date or talking to my boss about a promotion. The absolute worst thing they could do, if I act accordingly, is say no. Not exactly a catastrophic outcome.
The second component of fear setting is not just looking at the costs and risks of action, but instead looking at the costs and risks of inaction. If you want to move on from your job or a relationship for example, it’s good practice to determine (and write down) the risks involved in doing so. And then consider the consequences if you don’t act.
Think about how inaction will affect you and the people you care about. Not just now, but years from now.
DEATHBED REGRET MINIMIZATION
Jeff Bezos discussed this technique which played a central role in his decision to leave a stable career on Wall Street to start a company selling books online. An extremely scary and difficult decision at the time.
To figure out if the risk of leaving his current, “stable” life was worth it, he visualized himself as an old man on his deathbed. He knew that he would not regret trying to start a company and participating in the new frontier called the internet. Even if he failed, he’d have no regrets for giving it a try.
However, more importantly, he knew that he would absolutely regret never trying. Funny enough, that company turned out to be Amazon and he is now the richest person in the world.
This particular technique helped me make the decision to quit the job I loved, say goodbye to my family, friends and an entire community I had built, and move to a new city where I had no job, no place to live and knew no one. I had two bags, a blender and a few thousand dollars in my savings account.
The fear was tremendous and the risks felt intense, however by visualizing myself on my deathbed, I knew I would regret it if I never gave this a shot. And I’m so thankful I did. I’m getting to realize my dreams and prove to myself I am capable of taking large risks for high rewards.
FEAR IS THE GATEWAY TO GROWTH
By now you should understand how fear is a major obstacle in our lives. It limits us and our potential for greatness. By understanding fear, its origins and purpose and then seeing what areas of our lives are controlled by fear, you can start to take control back.
When you act in spite of fear, it opens the pathway to live truthfully, to be your authentic self, to take a risk, to pursue a dream, to grow. You will learn more about who you are and you will live with more intention aligned with your beliefs and values.
And by living in this way, you will naturally begin to build wealth.
But being wealthy is not just about financial freedom. It’s also about control, it’s about peace of mind, being grateful, truthful and living a life of abundance. Being financially wealthy is simply a byproduct of an entire wealthy lifestyle. And overcoming your fears is a big step toward a life of wealth in all areas.
With this in mind, I want you to take a moment to think about how different your life would be if you weren’t afraid to actually live it.
Who or what would you no longer feel the need to hide from? Who would you spend your time with? Where would you live? What would you keep? What would you leave behind? What would you choose to spend money on? What would you no longer feel the need to spend money on?
What would you go after?
Really think this through, visualize it. And then, let’s build wealth together. One fear at a time.