Fear-Setting: A powerful exercise for making major life decisions.

Beware fear disguised as optimism.

“There’s no difference between a pessimist who says, ‘Oh, it’s hopeless, so don’t bother doing anything,’ and an optimist who says, ‘Don’t bother doing anything, it’s going to turn out fine any way.’ Either way, nothing happens.”

— YVON CHOUINARD

Most of us don’t call fear out for what it is. We often dress it up as something else. Many of us will even rationalise our fear as optimism.

We entertain thoughts that our situation will magically improve over time. This is common for someone working a job they dislike.

But the truth is — if you feel the same way you did several months or years ago — things probably won’t get better by themselves. Unless you do something about it, you’ll remain just as unhappy as you are now.

This is what’s happened to me.

Now I’m standing at the edge of the precipice, about to take a leap of faith. All of my gremlins have come crawling out of the woodwork.

They’re whispering in my ear. Telling me this is a massive mistake, that it will end in disaster, that I have no idea what I’m doing…

Of course, fear wants us to play it safe. It wants us to choose certainty over happiness. That’s because the ego isn’t interested in happiness. It’s only interested in survival.

But that’s why it’s important to understand just how dangerous that leap of faith really is.

To do that, you first have to embrace your demons. You have to give them the time and space to air out their concerns. So that you can really examine them. So you can hold them up in the light and see that fear for what it is:

  • False.
  • Evidence.
  • Appearing.
  • Real.

This helps us understand where our fears are really coming from. It helps us see what we can do to mitigate those concerns. Which fears are worth listening to and which really aren’t.

This, in turn, can give us the strength we need to take that leap of faith.

Fear-Setting: A powerful exercise for making major life decisions.

“You have comfort. You don’t have luxury. And don’t tell me that money plays a part. The luxury I advocate has nothing to do with money. It cannot be bought. It is the reward of those who have no fear of discomfort.”

— JEAN COCTEAU.

With this in mind, I have an exercise you might consider. It’s an exercise I ran through the other night to gain more clarity on my impending decision to divert from Hong Kong and my career in aviation.

It’s called fear-setting — something that Tim Ferris said was “the most valuable exercise I do every month.” If you’re interested, his article breaks it down in greater detail.

In a nutshell, here’s what you do:

  1. First, you write down the significant life change you’re considering.
  2. Second, define the worst-case scenario in pain-staking detail. Ask yourself if it really would be the end of your life? How permanent would it be? How likely is the worst-case scenario?
  3. Third, ask yourself what steps could you take to repair the damage/deal with the worst. Would you be able to get another job? What if you were fired from your job today? What would you do? How would you cope?
  4. Fourth, ask yourself what the outcomes/benefits of a more probable scenario are. What are the definite positive outcomes (for your self-esteem, mental and physical health, etc.)? What would the impact of these more likely outcomes be?
  5. Fifth, ask what the cost will be if you do nothing? What is the cost of inaction? What will it cost you financially, emotionally & physically if you postpone this difficult choice?
  6. Finally, ask yourself what you’re so afraid of? What are you currently putting off out of fear?

Perhaps it’s better the devil you don’t know?

“It’s not that we fear the unknown. You cannot fear something that you do not know. Nobody is afraid of the unknown. What you really fear is the loss of the known. That’s what you fear.”

– SJ ANTHONY DE MELLO

After running through this exercise, I came to several important insights.

I realised the nightmare scenario I’d been envisioning was one in a million. And the benefits — the positive outcomes — were much more likely. Even if the worst did come to pass, I realised that much of what I felt I was giving up was reversible.

But I also considered what the longer-term costs of inaction might be. This presented me with another picture – one that was every bit as scary as the one that had been causing me to hesitate.

So I asked myself, ‘what am I really afraid of here?’

After giving it some thought, I realised that what I fear most isn’t what the future might hold but losing what I know.

I fear losing the gremlins that have kept me safe for so long.

People often say it’s better the devil you know. But what if the devil you don’t know isn’t a devil after all?

After all, you don’t know.

What if it’s an angel sent to save you? If only you dared to reach out to it — if only you had the strength to take that leap of faith and leave the shoreline behind?

The truth is, change is the only inevitability in this life. Clinging to what we know only provides us with a false sense of security.

I would argue, to embrace change — to embrace the unknown — is to embrace life itself.

***

You can find AP2’s personal blog here at: https://clear-air-turbulence.com

You can also find him on Medium at: https://anxiouspilot2.medium.com

Or on Twitter at: @anxiouspilot



22 thoughts on “Fear-Setting: A powerful exercise for making major life decisions.

  1. Glad to hear that you confronted your fears to overcome. What helped me to make a major move from one state to another was the advice to focus on what you will gain through the change rather than on what you’re leaving behind. Unfortunately, I cannot recall whose advice that was.

  2. I agree! I’m not normally like this. I like the familiar, the comfortable, the things I know. And I’ve worked at my present day job for almost 10 years. To say it’s a chaotic office would be an understatement. They don’t work smarter, they work harder. But the more I’ve tried suggesting things, the more resistance from the people who’ve been there over 25 years, especially the owner/boss. Well, my husband is medically retired from fire fighting, so he gets a pension, but he started a small business. So I set up a website to try to drum up business for him. In truth, that’s what I would prefer to do-help him. Thus, after much inner conflict and back and forth with my husband, I decided to take that leap of faith, and retire. I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m happier being able to try the things I want to, and to spend time with my family.

  3. “Of course, fear wants us to play it safe. It wants us to choose certainty over happiness. That’s because the ego isn’t interested in happiness. It’s only interested in survival.”

    I have never looked at it that way. That’s powerful AP2! Great article! I wish you the very best as you make the transition!

  4. Thank you for sharing your insights with us. It’s relevant to us all. All the best for whatever you decide.

    1. Thank you Lesley. It’s a great exercise even for smaller decisions we’re putting off. Wishing you well 🙏

  5. Great words of wisdom here, AP! I too have battled with the devil I know – the comfort that keeps me stuck as I too try to decide what I want to do with the rest of my life. I wish you the very best and surety of step as you move forward!!

  6. I love your 5-point fear-setting plan. As you know, I’ve got big changes in my life coming up. I’ll go through this exercise as a way of seeing the big picture. Most fear is a result of this odd human tendency for many of us to imagine the worst-case scenario and to automatically assume that’s what’s going to take place. Often, something much less than that scenario is the actual outcome. Thanks for providing such an actionable plan!

  7. This reminds me of FDR’s “There’s nothing to fear but fear itself”. In some situations, taking action is a whole lot better than ruminating.

    1. I agree – often trial and error through action is the only way to figure things out. Thanks Karl 🙏

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