“Do one thing everyday that scares you” – Eleanor Roosevelt, on how to lead a full life
It makes us dread getting out of bed in the morning. It makes our hearts pound, face pale and palms sweaty. It makes us procrastinate. It makes us reeaallly good at making excuses for ourselves.
Off the top of my head, I can name fears that I encounter on a regular basis:
The fear of change
The fear of failure
The fear of ostracization
It seems the more you push yourself to grow and improve, the more bouts with fear you are likely to have.
I do take comfort in one piece of knowledge: the people I admire the most, those who are, in my opinion, living remarkable lives have unanimously testified that their most rewarding experiences have come out of the most uncomfortable, stressful and indeed, fearful situations. I keep this thought in the back of my head whenever I’m faced with new challenges that scare the living crap out of me.
As somebody who really does try to take Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote to heart, I’ve wondered: How do we manage fear? And more importantly, how does our relationship with fear tie to the path of a remarkable life?
Extreme Case Study: The Survival Story of Aron Ralston
In 2003, Aron Ralston, an avid mountaineer and outdoors enthusiast, had gone trekking alone in the Blue John Canyon, a well-known canyon range in southern Utah. Repelling down a rock face in a narrow corridor, he accidentally shifted a 800-pound boulder which crushed and trapped his right arm. Unable to move himself or the rock, he soon ran out of food and water and was faced with certain death in the elements. What Ralston decided to do next would go down in history as one of the most amazing stories of survival in mountaineering.
Ralston made the decision to amputate his trapped arm to free himself. Realizing that he would not be able to cut through bone, he snapped both arm bones with his own body weight. He then applied a tourniquet and cut through the flesh in his arm with his dull utility knife. With his arm in a makeshift sling, bearing through pain, blood loss and dehydration, Ralston then rigged his rope and rappelled down the canyon. He hiked 8 miles back to civilization.
In every sense of the word, this was no doubt a feat of superhuman perseverance. When the Ralston’s story hit the newsstands, it was sensational. There is something in Aron Ralston we all envy, respect and desire: the ability to conquer fear.
The account of Ralston’s survival roused questions in myself: “If I were in a similar situation, would I have the mental fortitude to do the same thing?”. “Would I be able to look death square in the eyes and tell it to go fu*k itself?” Ralston certainly did.
On how he prevented fear from overriding his capacity to make and execute a tough, lifesaving decision, Ralston says:
“When fear and panic rear up, the most vital response is to take action and implement strategies to manage the situation in a calm and deliberate manner. This is the major similarity between the close calls I have had: I was successful in moving through the paralyzing effects of fear to take action for the better. The saying goes, “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.
Fear is always the overriding thought and emotion when your life is on the line, and it is something I have learned to respect, avoid, and manage. I do not go out on a trip intending for it to bring me to that state of fear. I am not seeking those experiences to feel the rush; rather I try to mitigate the risks — but my motivation for adventure is to learn about myself.
Basil Maturin wrote, ‘No one knows what is in him till he tries, and many would never try if they were not forced to.’”
Why Force Yourself to Face Fear?
Ralston faced a horrible duality: to maim himself or to die. Fortunately, 99% of us will never have to face the set of choices. But the skill of overcoming fear is no less relevant to anyone of us. “Learning how to handle our fear liberates us,” says Dr. Dr. Susan Jeffers, clinical psychologist and author, “those who can overcome their fears can forge their own realities.”
Translation: Fear is normal- taking action in spite of it is the key to living by your own terms.
Practical Tactics for Dealing with Day-to-day Fears
This is a powerful exercise I borrowed from the The 4-Hour Workweek on rationalizing & neutralizing fear. I do this regularly whenever I feel like running away with my tail between my legs.
There are three parts to this exercise, which you should jot down on a notebook. In a nutshell:
i) Define the worst case scenarios, the absolute nightmare that might happen if you did what you’re planning to do.
ii) If these scenarios were to become a reality, what steps could you take to reverse or repair the damage?
iii) Now list the more probable outcomes and benefits, both temporary and permanent, if you took action.
iv) What are you waiting for? If you don’t have a good answer for this, it’s go time.
Most often times than not, we quickly realize that these “nightmare” scenarios aren’t all that bad nor all that likely. Being a sucker for procrastination myself, I’ve beaten myself over the head whenever I arrived at the last question: What the hell am I waiting for?
2. Contemplate your own death
No lighting of incense required! This can be as much of or as little of a metaphysical exercise as you want it to be. Most of us live with this ego that we’re going to live forever, even though intellectually we know it isn’t true. Thinking about your own death puts everything into perspective.
Notable people who practice this? Steve Jobs addresses a Stanford graduating class in one of my favourite speeches of all time:
“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: ‘If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.’ It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.
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. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
3. Always, always take action
Fear sucks. But the feeling of helplessness and relinquishing control of your future… that’s worse. Taking action in the face of uncertainty may be the only way of turning fear into focus.
Waiting for a “better” time to write your book, build a business, take on that bucket list item? That time may never come… unless you took action today.
*To learn more about Aron Ralston, you can read his book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place.
Housekeeping and Value Giving
Winner of the signed 4-Hour Body Contest: John Pan from Tampa Bay, Florida! Good luck with your 4-minute mile!