How To Deal With Fear

Photo credit:  Simon Wijers

Photo credit: Simon Wijers

There are times in my life and work when I’ve felt a familiar question come up like an itch that won’t go away.

“What’s next?” goes my restless brain.

What’s next for your work? What’s next for your business? What’s next on your bucket list?

Recently, I asked around and found that a lot of people ask themselves that question, too.

The End of The Line

The problem is “what’s next?” means we may be at the end of the line, that the train is at the station. It’s stopped. And, perhaps, it's time to hop a new train or find a taxi.

Either way, it means that change is a ‘coming.

Yet, “change” conjures all kinds of fear. For example, fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of change, fear of new beginnings . . . you name it. 

I recently ran a survey asking people several questions around “What’s Next?” and got more than 60 responses. Almost every one of them cited fear as the main obstacle. It's the thing that keeps them from hopping trains or flagging down taxis.

Fear has a job to do and it does it well: to keep us safe. It is a fortified wall that keeps us from the new, the different—and the thing that gets our heart pounding.

Fear is a fortified wall. It keeps us from stretching towards what gets our hearts pounding. (Tweet that!)

How Bold Leaders Cope With Fear

Yet, it is something we all experience – even the highly accomplished.

Imagine me lunching with a few amazing people as we consider the topic of fear. In this imaginary tableau, I'm asking them how they’ve dealt with fear as it stands in the way of their next step in work, business and life.

Below are actual quotes—even if we didn't break bread at that cool restaurant.

1.     Richard Branson. "Fear of failure can be crippling. It can leave people never wanting to try new things, explore opportunities or desire better circumstances. No failure means no risk, which means nothing new. What a boring and dismal way to live and do business. There were countless times during our record-breaking hot-air balloon trips when I wondered whether we were going to make it back down to Earth alive, But every time, I learned lessons from making mistakes during previous trips and was able to adapt. It's important to pick yourself up, retrace your steps, look at what went wrong, and learn from your mistakes. If you can learn from the experience, you should be able to avoid making the same errors next time. This is the key to bouncing back, and ultimately the secret to success. Failure is one of our greatest learning tools."

2.     Arianna Huffington. In Arianna’s book, On Becoming Fearless, she writes “fearlessness is not the absence of fear. Rather, it's the mastery of fear. Courage, my compatriot Socrates argues, is the knowledge of what is not to be feared. Which is to say, there are things we should be afraid of - we want to stay alive, after all. We will never completely eliminate fear from our lives, but we can definitely get to the point where our fears do not stop us from daring to think new thoughts, try new things, take risks, fail, start again, and be happy.

“Fearlessness is about getting up one more time than we fall down. The more comfortable we are with the possibility of falling down, the less worried we are of what people will think if and when we do, the less judgmental of ourselves we are every time we make a mistake, the more fearless we will be, and the easier our journey will become.

“I have my own key to overcoming fear. I look for the still center in my life and in my self, the place that is not susceptible to life's constant ups and downs. It doesn't mean that I don't lose my head and that I wouldn't rather have success and praise than failure and criticism, but it does mean that I can find my way back to that center, that secure structure of inner support, so that all my negative emotions, and especially my fears, become opportunities to achieve fearlessness. If we can find that greater inner freedom and strength, then we can evolve from a fearful state of living to a state of freedom, trust, and happiness.

"We have so much potential, yet we hold ourselves back. If my daughters, and women of all ages, are to take their rightful place in society, they must become fearless.”

3.     Kim Chambers. I recently learned about this amazing woman from a favorite podcast called Challenge Your Thinking. Kim is the world’s most accomplished open water swimmer and was the first woman to swim from the Farallon Islands to San Francisco—through shark-infested waters. Here’s what she says about fear:

“Fear can make you grow. Human nature is to say no to things that scare us, but I’ve found that’s where the growth is. But using fear to learn about oneself is not about having a death wish. I love my life and I feel so full of life when I’m in those scary moments. Everybody is afraid, but it’s in those moments that you jump in (literally and figuratively), that you learn what you are capable of.” 

4.     Elizabeth Gilbert. Elizabeth’s newest book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, is full of amazing wisdom, much of it centered around pushing through fear:

“My fear wants me to stop, because my fear wants me to be safe, and my fear perceives all motion, all inspiration, all work, all activity, all passion whatsoever as potentially life-threatening. My fear wants me to live a smaller life. The smallest imaginable life, ideally. My fear would prefer that I never got out of bed.

“Your fear is the same. Exactly the same as mine. I guarantee it.

“Listen, we all need fear, evolutionary-speaking — obviously. Don't leave home without a good healthy fear reflex, or you may find yourself wandering drunk through dangerous neighborhoods at 3am, or riding your bike through city traffic with earbuds in. (You guys, seriously – what's with people riding their bikes through city traffic with earbuds in?) In these situations, your fear may indeed save your life.

“But your fear must be kept in its place. (True emergencies only, please.) Your fear must not be allowed to make decisions about creativity, passion, inspiration, dreams. Your fear doesn't understand these things, and so it makes the most boring possible decisions about them. Your fear mistakes creativity and inspiration for saber-toothed tigers and wolf packs. They aren't. Creativity and inspiration are the vehicles that will transport you to the person you most need to become.”

What do you think about these nuggets of wisdom on fear? I’m hoping that their words inspire you to hold the question “What’s Next?” more closely in your hand and think about what’s possible for your next step.

Hard things are worth doing no matter how scary they are. (Tweet that!)

“The obstacle in the path becomes the path. Never forget, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition.” - Zen Parable

I would love your thoughts in the comments. Please share in the comments. Thanks!


Additional Resources:

"Richard Branson: This Is How You Overcome Your Fear of Failure", by Jessica Stillman,

"The Best Way to Deal with Fear of Failure", by Gary Vaynerchuk,

Arianna Huffington’s book On Becoming Fearless

Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear