How do you make fear work for you?
That’s a question I’ve been thinking about lately as our entire civilization is now unmoored, drifting aimlessly in uncharted water and buffeted about by one bad headline after another. The virus triggered a global cascade of anxiety, vulnerability and yes, fear.
But fear is not a destination. It doesn’t have the final say over our lives. Fear represents a decision point: Do I submit to it, or do I scale over it?
Ten years before the last pandemic, two Harvard psychologists proposed a novel theory about fear and anxiety. They wondered: Is there an inflection point where fear actually brings out the best in us? What came to be known as the Yerkes-Dodson law, their research proved that there is indeed a bell shape curve of optimal anxiety. Too little fear, and your performance is subpar, and too much, your greatness is hampered. Bottom line: You need a healthy dose of fear to perform at your best.
So the key is not to expunge fear from your life, but to deploy it in pursuit of your goals. To use it as a catalyst, not as a hindrance. To do so, start by defining what you absolutely need as narrowly as possible, so that whatever threat you face, you know that at the end of the day, you will be just fine. Then you can face your fear and take risks without being overwhelmed with the fear that your failure could jeopardize everything.
I interviewed Betty Liu recently. Before being named Executive Vice Chair of the New York Stock Exchange, she had a remarkable career in journalism and has interviewed pretty much everyone on your business titan wish list. As an unapologetic Elon Mask fan, I asked her, “What’s the most interesting thing Elon Musk taught you?”
Betty told me the time she said to Elon, you seem so fearless, you’ve launched several companies, raised billions, lost billions. Are you ever fearful?
His reply was fascinating.
Musk: “Are you kidding me? I’m one of the most fearful people in the world.
“I do wake up every day fearful, but the fear that really drives me is the fear of regret. I’m really afraid that I’m going to regret not having done something, and so that’s what drives me.”
He’s on to something.
A hospice nurse wrote a fascinating book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departed, in which she identified the number one regret shared by the most people. They regretted they lived someone else’s life and let fear impede their dreams.
The next time you face a daunting challenge, or enter a period of unknown, and feel you’re not up to the task, remember those lost souls who came before you: Failure didn’t even make the top five list.