At age 75, actor Henry Fonda was still throwing up before getting on stage.
How is it that this legend—with a 50-year career starring opposite Bette Davis, Lucille Ball and Katherine Hepburn—was still afraid of doing his job?
Author Steven Pressfield warns that, for the creative, this fear never goes away. “The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day.”
What a great image, right? To feel the fear each day and valiantly move forward?
I think that’s crazy.
Don’t get me wrong, courage is an essential skill while you’re faking it until you make it. But I don’t want to live the rest of my days feeling like I’m going to lose my lunch. Let’s take off the training wheels.
What’s Courage Got to Do With It?
There are things you should fear. Running away from an axe murderer is a winning strategy.
But true danger is rare. You’re more likely afraid of garden-variety catastrophes like failing to make rent, or screwing up your kids.
Some mornings it takes courage just to get out of bed. It takes courage to stand up to a bully, to talk to that beautiful guy at the bookstore, and to step into a pitch meeting.
Courage allows us to “do it anyway.”
But I don’t want to be proving my bravery every time I get on the phone with a client. I would much rather transcend my fears, and you know what? With many, I have.
As a teenager, I was scared to death of talking to girls; now I get joy talking to anyone.
Fears? We can beat them.
Why We Fear What We Fear
Jimmy was a bacterium who lived millions of years ago and who was smart enough to run away from bigger bacteria before becoming dinner. He was lucky enough to find a real sweet lady bacterium and passed that genius behavior onto his kids. You are a direct descendent of Jimmy, 500 million generations removed.
Grandpa Jimmy gave you life, but he also taught you fear.
As complex life evolved, so did our fears and responses. Birds learned to flap away from loud noises and monkeys mastered swinging in trees to thumb their noses at predators.
Fear gets a harsh rap within the self-help club, but let’s acknowledge that if our ancestors had no fear, they’d have tried to hug a mountain lion.
Some fears are still useful, like the only two we’re born with: of falling and of loud noises. This helps us avoid cliffs and go inside and make hot cocoa in a thunderstorm.
Most fears are not so relevant today. We’re afraid of looking stupid and we seek to conform because, for early humans, being part of a tribe was the only way to survive and make babies. At that time there were, like, three eligible bachelorettes in the tribe.
But in a modern city of, say, 5 million people, getting rejected by one woman at the bar won’t hopelessly tarnish your reputation and prevent you from mating, even though it feels like your stomach is trying to escape via your knees.
Unfortunately, evolution hasn’t caught up with this whole fancy civilization thing. Thankfully, it has furnished us with this oddly large, rational brain that can override our lower, fear-based programming.
Put Fear in the Back Seat
Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert has a healthy relationship with fear. She thanks it for keeping her safe and alive in dangerous situations. She allows it to have a “seat in the car,” but not to drive. She puts fear in the back seat like the whiny baby that it is.
You can have the same relationship with your fear, and below I’ll show you 10 ways how.
Consider your first day on your first job. You probably had to pluck up your courage just to get out the door.
Then think about how you felt after six months on the job. Scared? Probably not. In fact, you might even be darn good at what you do. You might even enjoy it.
With enough time, the fear disappears. Courage is no longer required. You’ve become fearless.
You’ve seen videos of people picking up tarantulas, or someone with a boa constrictor casually draped around his neck. These people aren’t practicing courage; they’ve progressed to fearlessness.
Look, you’ll never banish fears from every corner of your mind, but why not strive to “back seat” most of them? Here’s how:
10 Ways to Cultivate Fearlessness
1. Know what keeps you up at night.
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will run your life and you will call it fate.” —Carl Jung
Go out into the woods with a bow and arrow. Pick a target, blindfold yourself, and shoot. Did you hit the mark? Of course not. You can’t hit a target that you can’t see.
If you want to overcome your fears, you need to know ‘em.
Oh, you’re not afraid of anything? If you believe that, then you’re likely not aware that judgmentalism, anger and many negative emotional habits usually mask fear.
The first step on this journey into fearlessness is to look inside and ask what keeps you up at night.
2. Face fear head on.
“Let difficulties know that you too are difficult.” —A.P.J. Abdul Kalam
Knowing your enemy is Step One, but many who know their hang-ups go to great lengths to avoid them.
Psychologists have catalogued many strategies we use to avoid our fears. Some greatest hits:
- Avoidance takes place when we tell friends “I’m just tired” on Saturday night to avoid our ex and the open wounds of that betrayal.
- Repression happens when our brains cause us to bury traumatic experiences, like physical abuse.
- Projection occurs when we complain about another’s behavior only to deflect from the same flaw in ourselves.
- Anxiety develops when we try to control every aspect of our lives instead of dealing with root issues.
In all cases, the solution is the same: to bring that fear into the light. Face it head on.
3. Get clear on your “why.”
“If you have a very clear vision of where you want to go, then the rest of it is much easier.” —Arnold Schwarzenegger
When have a rock-solid reason for tackling a challenge, and when that motivation is stronger than your fear, fear goes into hiding.
Imagine you hate public speaking, but you need to pitch a room full of investors to land a million-dollar contract. Now imagine that your child needed a million-dollar operation to survive.
Would you give the best damn presentation of your life? You bet. And I’d wager that your speaking fear would vanish.
When you want something as bad as air, fear magically takes a hike.
4. Spend time with fearless people.
“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” —Jim Rohn
Jim Rohn’s words have been repeated a thousand times—and they’re worth saying again, because this point is critical to your ultimate level of success.
If you want to overcome a fear of flying, spend time in a cockpit. To get over scary rejection, hang out with friends who get electrified by talking to 100 strangers a day.
Babies learn by watching. We don’t grow out of this when we age. When someone models fearlessness, our brain takes notes. Chill out, brain.
Observation pulls into play “mirror neurons,” cells that fire when we watch others. Our brains learn by mental rehearsal, so when you want to overcome a fear, go watch someone do what you fear the way a cat casually plays with a mouse.
5. Watch videos of people doing what scares you.
“One minute of video is worth 1.8 million words.” —Forrester Research study
We can watch people in real life, but we can also become a fearless badass from the comfort of our own iPad screens.
If you have a phobia of spiders, let’s say, you can get on YouTube and dive into some videos of people handling spiders. Will this be excruciating? Definitely, at first! And yes, it will require courage to even type “spiders” into the search.
Push through the initial discomfort. Sit with it. Breathe. A video can’t harm you. After a while, your brain and body will realize that there is nothing to fear, and you won’t need courage to deal with spiders. You’ll be fearless with them.
A word of caution: Traumas can be severe and some should only be approached with a skilled therapist.
6. Practice worst-case scenario thinking.
“Nothing should ever be unexpected by us… Is there anything that fortune won’t knock off its high horse if it pleases her?” —Seneca
How do you get over a fear of the worst happening? Rehearse the worst!
The Stoics had a practice, premeditatio malorum—“the pre-meditation of evils.” It works by imagining all the terrible stuff that might happen to you so you can prepare for it.
Why spook yourself like this? Isn’t it true that 99% of what we worry about never comes to pass? Yes, and I’m not suggesting that you ruminate on these potential calamities and let constant worry sap your energy. Instead, calmly prepare for the worst, with a time limit on worry.
Habits expert Neil Fiore calls this “the work of worrying.” Worrying is valuable because it prepares us for danger. If you’re fearful of something, sit down, write down your fears, and come up with a plan to deal with any worst-case scenario.
When you’ve cut calamities off at the pass, you can let go of your fears about them, and you’ll redirect your focus and power to the task at hand.
“If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere.” —Frank A. Clark
Isn’t it amazing, the lengths some of our co-workers go to in order to avoid extra responsibility? In the time they spend complaining, they could, you know, actually finish the work.
When researcher Carol Dweck gave children a problem to solve, most buckled and bellyached, but some salivated at the difficult challenge. Why?
She found that the eager ones had something called a growth mindset—an understanding that failure is a necessary step on the road to mastery. These kids’ curiosity overpowered their fear of embarrassment.
Cultivating a growth mindset is a miracle way to overcome any fear. When the obstacle is the way to become our higher selves, we start to eat obstacles for breakfast and ask for seconds.
Recently I’ve gone crazy—by actually giving thanks daily for my biggest challenges. I relish the role they play in creating the person I’m becoming.
When we live with a growth mindset, fear does not exist.
8. Be grateful.
“I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment.” —Viktor Frankl
Author and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl recalled a morning that he and fellow prisoners were forced to march in the icy wind through puddles to a day of ditch digging.
In the midst of despair, he thought of his wife, heard her voice, and saw her smile. He had nothing left in the world, yet was overcome by love and appreciation for her image.
Feeling grateful, his despair not only left, but he felt blissful… fulfilled.
This is because it is impossible to feel fear, anger, frustration or any negative emotion when our minds and hearts are already full-up with gratitude. Make even five minutes daily to feel it, and fear gets shut outside.
9. Be public.
“What happens when people open their hearts? They get better.” —Haruki Murakami
For tens of thousands of years, humans needed “the tribe” to survive. To be cast out might get you eaten by a narwhal or starved to death. No wonder, then, that one of our largest fears is to be shunned.
It’s why so many of us sadly adopt a “fixed mindset” that places looking good above growth.
We completely transcend fear of being “found out” by sharing everything, always; by being vulnerable.
Rapper Childish Gambino weaves a great story about a bus ride back from summer camp, when he professed his love to a girl and she blabbed it to everyone.
“So I learned to cut out the middle man, make it all for everybody, always,” he says. “Everybody can’t turn around and tell everybody, everybody already knows, I told them.”
It’s a brilliant way to deal with the fear of being “found out.” Beat ‘em to the punch: Share your fears with the world—be vulnerable—and the truth can’t hurt you any more.
10. Do your research.
“Ignorance is always afraid of change.” —Jawaharlal Nehru
We fear what we don’t understand. Hardcore bigots have the least exposure to the people they judge. Politics is polarized because neither side talks to the other.
We fail to apply for a new job, put up our hand, speak in public, try weird food, or visit exotic places because the unknowns might lead to danger.
But most fear is flimsy when we look at it close up. Do a bit of Googling and we find out that we can fund the business for 5% of what we imagined, that we’re overqualified for the role, or that broccoli does, in fact, taste delicious. Who knew!?
Knowledge is the antidote to fear.
Yes, you can approach life as never-ending Labors of Hercules, to be fought courageously.
But me? I’d rather not get sick every time I have to get up on stage.
I know of at least 10 ways to overcome fear, and now so do you. Set yourself on the path of fearlessness and watch your life start to flow.
I’d love to know what keeps you up at night, and how you’re working to sleep better. Let me know in the comments below.
Photo by Blake Cheek / Unsplash