Chapter 04: Overcoming Fear
When we think of the archetypal warrior, we will almost certainly be sure to think of someone that is brave, courageous and seemingly fearless. This is the kind of person that will walk into the line of fire. That will speak out against injustice, that will take on enemies that are much greater than them.
In our personal lives, there are no real dragons to slay. Rather, they take on many other forms, whether they be illness, whether they be debt, or whether they be the struggle of going to the gym every day…
How to Use ‘Fear Setting’
If you’re a fan of reading self-help literature then chances are that at some point you will have written down your goals. This is something that almost every guru seems to advise and that many claim can help you to accomplish your dreams by better defining and visualising them.
But in Tim Ferriss’ 4 Hour Workweek this advice is turned on its head somewhat. While Tim doesn’t necessarily have a problem with goal setting per-say, he also recommends doing essentially the opposite by ‘fear setting’. And he claims it can do a great deal more than goal setting when it comes to realising your aims and getting more from life…
What is Fear Setting?
The general idea behind fear setting is that you’re defining the fears that are holding you back so that you can face them. In most cases Tim postulates that after doing this you’ll find that your fears are actually relatively unfounded and thus will move forward and past them. Normally our fears are of ‘irreversible’ negative outcomes, but actually these are rarer than you might think…
So what you do is to write down the absolute worst possible outcomes for doing whatever it is you want to do, and then write down all the ways you’d cope with the situation or possibly reverse it.
An Example: Changing Career
Let’s take changing career as an example. This is something that a lot of people want to do, but feel held back by fear of the potential repercussions. By defining those fears though, you can minimise their potency.
So if you were going to write down the worst possible outcomes for changing careers, it might well look something like this:
I might leave my job only to fail to find another job
I might be unable to pay the mortgage and thus be forced to move home
This could upset my partner so much they leave me
I might get the job I think I want and find out I hate it more than my last job
I might apply to other jobs only to get rejected by everyone and end up damaging my ego
These are all real concerns, but now if you think about all the ways you can manage risk and reduce the impacts of those negative outcomes you’ll find your fears aren’t all that founded…
I can look for jobs without leaving my current job to avoid the risk of unemployment. No one has to know.
This will also be a lot less reckless in the eyes of my partner.
Alternatively I could speak to my boss about my problems and see if there are other positions within my organisation.
If I do end up out of work I could always speak to my old boss about getting my job back/work in a supermarket while I look for other work/work for Dad/live off of savings for a couple of months/move back home with the parents!
If my partner leaves me for trying to become happier then I need to reassess that relationship
If I don’t like the job I find next then I will feel more confident about job hunting again in future.
If I struggle to get accepted by anywhere I can work on my interview technique/improve my CV/seek career guidance. All of which will be useful experiences anyway.
As you can see then, the very worst scenario is probably not as bad as it seems – it may just mean living out of savings for a while or taking a small step backwards in order to take two forwards. Likewise, as there are so many ways to minimise the risk of things going wrong, it’s actually quite unlikely you’ll end up in those positions anyway.
In The 4 Hour, Workweek Tim also gives one other piece of advice that I feel is very relevant here: don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness. Take that attitude and outline your fears and you’re on track to a happier version of yourself as well as to accomplishing much more.
Stoicism and the Warrior Mindset
Tim Ferriss’ ideas might seem unique but actually, he says himself that he is inspired by ancient philosophy and specifically, by the ideas of the ancient Stoics. Stoicism is a school of philosophy that dates all the way back to the 3rd Century BC. Its principles were founded and practiced by historical characters such as Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius.
And in many ways, Stoicism was an early approach to a ‘warrior mindset’. It was all about mental hardiness and about learning to expect and then live with things going wrong. In fact, many of us describe someone who is brave and courageous as being stoic.
So, what precisely does it involve?
The Power of Pessimism
If we tell someone that we don’t think things are going to work out as we hoped, then they’ll often tell us that we need to be ‘more optimistic’.
There’s even a song that tells us to ‘accentuate the positive’ and ‘eliminate the negative’. The general consensus is clear: being positive is a good thing and being anything other than positive is unacceptable.
But is this really the best way for us to approach our problems? Or is it perhaps actually quite damaging to constantly be blinded by optimism? Does it leave us vulnerable to disappointment and potentially easily caught off guard? Is expected life to be constantly ‘sunshine and rainbows’ the precise opposite of a warrior mindset?
Wouldn’t a warrior accept and embrace the fact that life is going to be hard? And then toughen themselves up to deal with it?
That’s the view held by stoics at least and when you delve into the philosophy a little, you might find that they actually make a very good case for pessimism.
The Central Ideas of Stoicism
The general gist of stoicism is not to try and ‘shut out’ negativity and pretend that bad things don’t happen but rather to embrace it and even to use it as a tool. Hope, according to the stoics, is the enemy, precisely because it means we’re unprepared for things going wrong and we’re likely to be disappointed.
Instead, stoicism advocates the notion of gritty realism – of recognizing the negative aspects of life and accepting that a lot of what happens is out of our control and is probably not going to be very pleasant!
Using Stoicism in Your Own Life
This might not sound like a particularly helpful stance to take on things, but then that’s because most of us are highly trained into only accepting positive viewpoints. This is the general conceit of countless self-help books and even Hollywood films. Dream big and you can get what you want! In fact, it’s pretty much the driving force behind capitalism.
But the Stoics take the opposite approaChapter They prepare for the storm. They learn to enjoy life even when things aren’t going their way and they recognize hardship as challenge and an opportunity for growth.
When you go through life feeling entitled to everything going your way, how can you expected to be happy? And how can you be expected to face challenges that are genuinely difficult?
So how does rejecting this incessant positivity help? How do you practically apply stoicism in your own life?
One suggestion from stoicism is something called ‘negative visualization’ – the idea that you visualize your fears rather than your goals. Instead of picturing things going perfectly to plan, instead, picture things at their very worst. Imagine how your plans can fail and picture what life would be like if all of your worst fears came true.
What this does is to first help you to prepare for those worst case scenarios. Once you know what your fears actually look like, you can then think about how you would cope in that, scenario. Often, you’ll find that this worst-case scenario is not as bad as you at first thought it would be. And in other cases, you’ll find that you can actually find ways to cope with that situation.
This removes fears that could otherwise hold you back and means that you aren’t blindly ignoring what could potentially go wrong.
If this sounds familiar then that’s because it’s precisely the same concept that helped Tim Ferriss to come up with his Fear Setting technique.
Be Content With the Scantiest and Cheapest Fare
In one of his letters to Lucilius, Seneca said:
Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: is this the condition that I feared?
The general idea here, is that you should not only visualize your worst case scenario, but also try living it. That might mean spending a week living off of minimum salary, it might even mean sleeping rough.
In either case, this teaches you not only that you can handle your worst fears – and therefore have less reason to be afraid – but also that you actually don’t need material possessions in order to be happy.
This is actually something that is very important to cultivate. It takes great discipline to part with your possessions and belongings but the result is freedom from fear and also from many physical restrictions. If you are weighed down by possessions and belongings, then you will not be able to move home freely. You will spend a lot of time cleaning and attending to things that do not help you further your goals. And ultimately, you will have much more to fear.
The more you own, the more you have to lose. This creates a sense of fear.
So, try to declutter and live a more focussed and minimalist life. At the very least, learn to detach yourself from physical possessions and remember that they are indeed ‘just things’. They are a means to an end and if you must sacrifice them, so be it.
Selling your widescreen TV or turning down a holiday in order to pay off debt or pay for your child’s tuition – those are warrior-like choices.
Wear Ugly Clothes…
Another classic stoic move is to wear ‘ugly’ clothes in order to teach yourself not to be ashamed. People might stare at you, but this will simply teach you that it doesn’t matter at all what others think – only what you think.
This is an important aspect of the warrior mindset: caring what other people think makes you vulnerable to peer pressure and to vanity. Sometimes, to do what must be done, you must be willing to sacrifice your reputation.
Just as in our example about admitting that you broke the vase…
Expect the Worst
Stoics argue that we curse when we’re angry and that this anger is our own failing – our own stupidity.
Think about the last time you swore with anger. Chances are that it was not because it rained or because you found you were in debt. More likely, it was because you dropped something on your toe, or because you broke your favorite possession.
The point is that the anger comes from the surprise, not the disappointment. You don’t swear when it rains because you know that rain is a possibility.
Therefore, if you are angry, this then suggests that you didn’t expect whatever happened to you and this is arguably your own fault. If you accept that bad things happen and if you accept that sometimes things won’t go to plan, then you will have no need to be angry – because you will have accounted for it and prepared mentally for it.
Now, when your partner cheats on you, or when a service provider doesn’t deliver a good service, you will think of it as being simply a part of life – just like the rain.
Control Your Reaction
Stoicism means submitting to the fact that you have scant-to-no control over reality. But at the same time, it also means taking solace in the knowledge that these outside factors can’t hurt you – only your reaction can.
You can’t, control what happens to you but you can control what you make of that event and your own interpretation of it. Being mentally prepared for things that could go wrong is one good example of this in action. Likewise though, you might also simply decide not to let things affect you – to take a step back from them and to deal with the consequences rather than thrashing against things that you cannot change. This is something we’ll be addressing more closely in upcoming chapters: mindfulness and the ability to decide how you want to react to the things going on around you.
But simply by remembering that tough things happen and it’s your job to deal with them, you should find you can
I actually think that Rocky Balboa is one of the great modern stoics – and one of his more recent famous quotes summarises the ideas of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius perfectly:
The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place… and I don ́t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently, if you let it. You, me or nobody, is gonna hit as hard as life. But ain’t about how hard you hit… It’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward… how much you can take, and keep moving forward. That ́s how winning is done.
Here’s a quote from fiction a book I wrote several years ago. This line was spoken by a reckless character in the story and was never meant to carry much weight. But I found that as I thought about it, it was actually surprisingly true:
Those that fear death, fear life.
It is true that if you live life in fear of death, then you will be permanently cautious. You will not take risks and you will not live life to its fullest as a result.
So, what is the solution? Do we put death ‘out of our mind’. No: it would be better to come to terms with it and in stoic fashion, simply accept it as a reality. And this mirrors the way that the Samurai would approach their lives too. Here is a quote from Edo samurai DaidojiYuzan, which can be found in the book Code of the Samurai:
One who is a samurai must before all things keep constantly in mind…the fact that he has to die. If he is always mindful of this, he will be able to live in accordance with the paths of loyalty and filial duty, will avoid myriads of evils and adversities, keep himself free of disease and calamity and moreover enjoy a long life. He will also be a fine personality with many admirable qualities. For existence is impermanent as the dew of evening, and the hoarfrost of morning, and particularly uncertain is the life of the warrior…
Remember your goals and your vision. Work toward them. Stick to your code. Try to make a difference and focus on what you leave behind. That might mean protecting your family even when it means putting yourself at risk, or it might mean taking chances in order to chase after a bigger goal.
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