How to Overcome Fear in Life: A Framework for Turning Fear into Fuel
Reading Time: 9 minutes
Fear will either serve you or stunt you. If you learn how to overcome fear in your life, you will dramatically improve the quality of your life.
Seven years ago, I was a poor kid in Orlando.
I believed that attending an Ivy League school was the best path to improve my life. Despite having little evidence that I was even qualified, I went for it.
I applied to eight elite schools and gave it my all. No “safety schools.” I was accepted to Princeton on full financial aid. My four years at Princeton transformed me intellectually, connected me with people from new cultures and socioeconomic classes, and tapped me into the world of economic opportunity.
Five years ago, I was a student at Princeton.
I wanted to study abroad and set my eyes on a program in Spain. The program required advanced Spanish language skills, but I was only a beginner.
I applied anyways. They made an exception. When I arrived in Barcelona, I couldn’t understand my professors. I thought I was going to fail my courses and considered going home. But I stuck it out and gave it my all again. By the end of the semester, I was presenting my research on the labor market in Spanish to members of Spain’s Congress.
Two years ago, I was an investment banker in New York City.
I spent 15 hours a day in a cubicle. My work didn’t excite me. I rarely saw my friends. I had money for the first time in my life, but I felt unfulfilled. Instead of taking a stable and lucrative job in private equity.
I joined a fully remote startup in a role in which I had no experience. I moved out of my apartment in New York and bought a one-way ticket to Cartagena, Colombia. I thought that I would fail in my new role, but I gave it my all again.
By the time I left that job, I had helped scale a business unit to multiple millions of dollars in revenue, traveled to 25 countries, and built a global personal and business network. Pursuing an Ivy League education, studying abroad, and making a career leap all dramatically improved the quality of my life. They accelerated my personal and professional growth and enabled me to reach new levels of fulfillment.
This has been a common theme in my life. I’ve pursued the uncertain and uncomfortable paths in hopes of achieving or being something more. And although it’s never easy or comfortable, I nearly always come out better on the other end.
The problem is that inertia and the security of what we know often keeps us from pursuing these rewarding but uncertain paths. It’s more comfortable to stick with the status quo and not take “risks.” And it’s easy to convince ourselves why the path of least resistance is the one we should keep trekking.
- The Ivy League is for rich kids that are way smarter than me so I’m not going to waste my time applying.
- I’d love to study abroad, but I don’t speak enough Spanish and will miss my friends too much.
- My banking job isn’t the best, but it’s stable and a good paycheck. I’ll stick around until something else comes along.
But if we stay in comfortable situations, we stunt our growth. To grow and reach our highest level of contribution, we need to challenge ourselves.
And to challenge ourselves, we need to learn how to live with and conquer the powerful emotion that keeps most of us in our place: fear.
Fear comes in many forms: fear of failure, fear of not being loved, fear of not being understood, fear of loneliness, fear of what happens after death, and so on. Our fears flourish when we start thinking about making a change or pursuing an uncertain path.
- When I applied to universities, I didn’t know if I had a real shot. I feared that I wasn’t good enough. I feared that I would fail. I feared facing my friends and family if I didn’t get accepted anywhere. While I awaited the admission decisions, I had to grapple with anxiety and self-doubt.
- When I went abroad, I couldn’t understand 90% of what my professors said. I feared failing all of my courses and delaying my graduation. My fear created so much anxiety that I landed in the hospital. The doctor prescribed me a dose of “tranquilo amigo” (“chill man”).
- When I left my job in banking, I had no idea if I would succeed at the startup. I feared getting fired after a few months. I feared a future of having to move back home and being poor again. These fears led me to wake up terrified and sweating in the middle of the night for months.
My fears were very real and penetrated deeply. They could have kept me in my place. But instead of letting my fear deter or paralyze me, I found ways to better understand and channel it. Fear became my fuel. It became a source of motivation that drove me to work harder and be better.
If we make fear our ally, we can gain the courage to pursue the uncertain paths that allow us to grow. And because growth is exciting and fulfilling, there is a positive feedback loop. Instead of consistently allowing our fear to paralyze us, we build the habit of choosing courage over comfort. To do this, we need to learn how to better understand and channel our fears.
Transforming Our Relationship with Fear
Biologically, fear exists to keep us safe. When we perceive danger, fear kicks in and allows us to adapt and survive. When we were hunter-gatherers at war with a neighboring tribe and living in the middle of a jungle with predators, fear kept us alive.
But in the modern world, most of us no longer need to make life or death decisions on a daily basis. In this new reality, we need to cultivate a more nuanced relationship with our fears. If we don’t learn to separate the fear of not being good enough from the fear that stops us from walking down a dark alley late at night, we are screwed.
If we treat the taking a vacation, starting a business, or leaving a stagnant partner as a life or death decision, we’ll struggle to find the courage to take action.
We’ll be paralyzed by fears and fail to make the decisions that will improve our lives. We’ll remain in deeply unfulfilling jobs, stay in mediocre relationships, and never start our passion projects. We’ll have midlife crises. We’ll become bitter. We’ll look back when we’re 100 and say, “What if?”
To transform our relationship with fear, we need to look at it in the face. We need to challenge it. We need to call it out on its bullshit. And once we do that, we can use it as fuel to live the narrative that fulfills us.
Because fear is rooted in our biochemistry, our cultures, our childhood experiences, and the stories we tell ourselves, there’s no single solution that works for everyone. Below are three ways that have helped me.
What’s the worst-case scenario?
In a prior role, I asked for a raise and was rejected. The rejection produced a number of unhealthy emotions, including self-doubt and resentment. I feared asking again because of the pain I felt from the first rejection. For months, I let negative feelings live inside me.
But how useful was that? It made me less happy and more bitter. I finally broke the unproductive narrative I was telling myself by asking one question, “What’s the worst-case scenario if I ask again?” I wrote down the worst cases.
- I will have so much anxiety that I die.
- They will fire me.
- They will call me a greedy bastard.
- They will lose respect for me.
- They will say no again.
Realistically, the worst-case scenario was receiving another “no.” Yet, even in that case, I’d still have food, shelter, friends, and family. I’d still have good relationships with my colleagues. I’d still be able to do good and meaningful work. Also, I’d have the opportunity to ask for a clearer understanding of what I had to do to make that “no” a “yes.” I would be okay.
I asked for a raise the next day, and I got it. Whether you want to ask for a raise, leave an unhealthy relationship, or travel to a place you’ve never been, ask yourself, “What’s the worst-case scenario?” Literally write down the worst things you can imagine.
Writing will help you clarify the muddy and ambiguous fears that drive you. Most of the time, it’s not nearly as bad as you think.
What do I miss out on if I don’t do this?
Most of us fear losses more than we desire equivalent gains. So when we make a decision whether or not to do something, we focus on the risks and underweight the potential benefits.
For example, imagine you live with your partner. You’ve been together for 5 years and had a lot of great times, but you’re not happy. When you think about leaving the relationship, you’ll often focus on the downsides. I’ll have to sleep alone at night. I’ll have to learn to date again. I’ll have to figure out how to pay the electricity bill. And so on.
This is scary stuff so you stay in the relationship under the premise that things will work themselves out. But what if you asked yourself, “What do I miss out on if I don’t do this?”
You might begin to see a new world of exciting possibility. Perhaps you’ll have the time and space you need to finally start your own business, travel the world, and find someone who elevates and fulfills you.
This question is powerful because it allows you to visualize the future you’re missing out on. It allows you to replace fear with the story of success that will drive and excite you.
Finding courage in our mortality
Every time I write and publish an article, I feel fear. I fear that no one will find what I say valuable. I fear that I’ve sat at my computer toiling over words for days for no reason. I fear that I’m not spending my limited time wisely.
But I still write and publish my work. I write because I enjoy it. I write because I know I’ll look back when I’m 100 and be pumped that I spent so much time writing. The rest doesn’t matter.
Life is too short to not do the things you enjoy. It’s too short to deal with shitty bosses or people who bring you down. It’s too short to do things you hate and delay pursuing the things you care about. It’s too short to spend your youth in misery so that you can prepare for a retirement that you may never get to enjoy.
At some point, our time here will end. It’s life’s only guarantee. And instead of getting down about our mortality, we can use it to find the courage we need to overcome our fears and focus on the things that matter most.
Steve Jobs echoed this sentiment in his commencement speech to Stanford graduates in 2005,
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”
Like Jobs, we can use our mortality as a tool. When we deeply internalize the brevity of our time here, fear falls away. We quickly realize that the only real risk is staying in the comfort of a mediocre present at the expense of a badass future.
We realize that we should start that book we’ve been dreaming of writing. We should talk to that girl we think is cute. We should make the career jump. We should leave the unfulfilling relationship. When we frame opportunities with our mortality in mind, it becomes humorously clear that the only real risk is not taking action.
Will fear cripple or fuel you?
Two months ago, I published a list of 110 things I want to do before I die. The 86th item on the list was “shave my head and grow a beard.” I had wanted to do this for about a year. But every time I got close, I let fear win.
Unconsciously, I feared that people would view or treat me differently and that looking different would somehow change who I was. So I continued to get the same haircut and shave every few days. My fears were irrational, but I still felt them. And if I didn’t address them, I wouldn’t be able to check number 86 off the list.
So I walked through the worst-case scenario exercise. And it worked. It helped me look my fears in the face and call bullshit. It gave me the courage to take action. The next day I shaved my head and started growing the beard. It was liberating. And as any outsider could predict, it worked out just fine. I was still me and able to live my life as usual.
Did living with a shaved head and a beard change my life and lead to lots of growth? Of course not. But that’s not the point.
The point is that learning how to understand and channel your fears starts with the small things. It starts with the decision to shave your head or keep the same haircut, to talk to the cute girl or continue standing with your friends, to ask for help or go at it alone.
Because when we learn to address the fears preventing us from doing the small things, we are better equipped to address those same fears preventing us from doing the things that will make a big difference in our lives. You’re better equipped to leave your unfulfilling relationship or job, pursue the business idea that’s been sitting around for years, or take that trip you’ve always wanted to go on with your family.
Overcoming fear is a muscle. And if you don’t consistently use it and strengthen it, you’re screwed. Because no matter who you are or what you achieve, fear will still exist in your life.
Along the way, it will either serve you or stunt you.
It will kill your dreams and keep you in a mediocre life or motivate you to achieve something worth talking about.
It will be a catalyst for rewarding change or the relentless killer of growth and fulfillment.
It’s up to you to decide.