“If I have an art, it’s deconstructing things that really scare the living hell out of me,” says Tim Ferris, author of the 4-Hour Work Week. “Fear is your friend. Fear is an indicator. Sometimes it shows you what you shouldn’t do. [But] more often than not, it shows you exactly what you should do.”
Tim isn’t the only person to use fear as a propeller. Mark Zuckerberg has told of his “fear of getting locked into doing things that are not the most impactful thing you can do,” and how he uses that as a driving motivator in his work. Meanwhile, the fear of being unable to pay their rent led two unemployed twentysomethings to co-found a little business called Airbnb. And JK Rowling admits that, after her marriage ended and she was left as a broke single parent, she feared failure more than she feared poverty – so was determined to prove herself (and write an ending that’s turned out pretty good so far).
Taking these visionaries as examples, what if we treated our fears as arrows, instead of barriers? Instead of trying to be fearless, what if we could all learn to be ‘fear-ocious’ and thrive because of our fears, rather than in spite of them?
“When I’m working with clients, I use their fears as clues and insights,” says life coach Alyce Pilgrim, the founder of Live Life on Your Terms. “Maybe your fears are trying to tell you to leave that nine-to-five you don’t love anymore, or that you need to move your body more. Fear exists for a reason and can be a way of seeing how bad you want something.”
Most people think courage is the absence of fear, Alyce says, but in actual fact it’s seeing fear – and using it to propel us. So what if we put as much time and effort into the things we fear as we do the things we love? As Elizabeth Gilbert writes in her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, “It’s a simple and generous rule of life that whatever you practice, you will improve at.”
One benefit of fear is that it makes us focus on something important to us, even in a world of distractions. A study by Columbia University found that arachnophobics (those with a phobia of spiders) could more quickly spot an image of a spider when hidden amongst other images.
But there are also other benefits. Executive leadership coach Don Arnoudse believes that fear helps us in a number of ways: it crystalises what is important to us; makes us more open to receiving help (“Fear reveals our self-sufficiency as an illusion,” writes Don in a LinkedIn blog post) and, because it pushes us to focus on and solve problems, we become even more present.
“The next time you feel fear, first take three deep breaths. Then, ask your fear, ‘What benefit are you offering to me? What are you trying to teach me?’” writes Don.
Another strategy for harnessing and turning fear around is ‘imagery rehearsal therapy’, which is often used to treat people suffering from recurring nightmares. Step one: when you wake up, or as soon as you think about it, write down the story of what you dreamt about or, in this case, what you’re afraid of. Step two: write down a positive alternative ending. Step three: rehearse this new ending in your mind before bed, or whenever the fear arises.
“Often our fears are closely linked to our values and what we care about most in life,” says psychologist Samantha Clarke. “So one thing you can do is acknowledge this. What is it that I value [that] is causing this fear? What would life be like if I achieved this goal or moved in this direction? Imagine the future if you could do the thing that you are scared of, whether it’s a new hobby, moving house or starting a relationship.”
The process of turning an occurrence that you fear may happen into proactive preparation has been dubbed ‘productive paranoia’. If you’re frightened of falling ill, then commit to a healthy new hobby. If you’re scared of losing your top talent, work on your company culture and put incentives in place that will help you keep them. If you’re nervous about public speaking, sign up to a slam poetry night and become more confident. You might even find you have an undiscovered talent that could change your life completely.
In the ’80s, self-help author Susan Jeffers earned a cult following with her book Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway. But, perhaps we need a new slogan: ‘Feel the fear and find a solution’. The monster under your bed could become your life coach – if you stop ignoring it and look where it’s pointing.
Watch Tim’s Ted talk on the subject of fear below.