You can let fear consume and paralyze you; or you can use the emotion as a motivator. There are three evolutionary responses to fear: freeze, flight, or fight. I would much rather fight my fears than run away from them. I often tell myself and my students that you should head in the direction of situations that make you uncomfortable. Don’t be afraid of stepping on other people’s toes. Don’t be afraid of confrontation. Don’t be afraid of criticism. Don’t be afraid of judgment. Don’t let fear dictate the life you want to have with the people you want to have. Most of my students agree, but very few adopt this mindset. There’s a passage in the book Letters from a Stoic, a compilation of letters written from Seneca to his good friend Lucillius, that talks about how some people attend lectures or preaches for entertainment. They believe hearing these sermons makes them more moral. Yet, how can you attain morality without action? How can you change your life without execution? We must not confuse passive consumption with active change. Listen to other people, reflect on their wisdom, and implement changes in your life. Without action, it doesn’t matter how many books or how many inspirational videos you watch.
One of my business students, inspired by her two-day workshop on leadership and growth, asked me what my biggest fears were. I gave her an entire list of things, spouting nonsense about how fear is a motivator and shouldn’t be an inhibitor—to a certain extent. Fear is a signal, and you need wisdom to interpret its nuanced indications. While thinking out loud, I was able to understand that there are two main types of fear: physical and psychological. Physical fear is fun for me to overcome. I embrace the challenge, thereby sharpening my courage, pain tolerance, and fortitude. Afraid of heights? I spend more time in the scariest rollercoasters in the world so that I build up a tolerance and get used to the adrenaline. Afraid of live fish? I go fishing, and with each bare-handed grasp grow more comfortable holding a slimy fish. Afraid of insects? I chow down a whole bag of nasty mixed fruit de terre bug-eyed crunchy creepy-crawlies in Thailand. Afraid of rodents? I lay traps around the house and stare at the dead mice until I reach the point of desensitization. I’m pretty adept at overcoming physical fears. But that’s not really what the question is about, at least for me, the question is “What are my greatest psychological fears?” And how have these fears shaped the person I am today—for better or worse?
I fear irrelevance. I fear not leaving a legacy. I fear becoming a slave to money, fame, ambition, love, knowledge, sex, pleasure, hope, fear—everything in moderation. I fear my own selfishness and self-centeredness. I fear only living for myself and my own purposes. I fear living another person’s life. I fear living a life living up to another person’s expectations. I fear not living authentically and true to my nature. I fear not making any impact on people or the world before my time ends. I don’t mind being forgotten, but I do mind, not leaving anything behind for the next generation. My mind often wanders to the end of time, and I come to the epiphany that nothing we do really matters. I spiral into an existential dread, but recently I’ve been able to change my thinking and attitude. Thinking about that far in advance is not a very useful exercise in action. It’s much more productive to think about how I can live my life and inspire those closest to me—family, friends, lovers, students. The only thing I have to think about is the next crop, the next generation. How can my life be an example for the up and coming? That’s probably the only thing I can leave behind: my life as an example, a case study.
I fear the day I am unable to look at myself in the mirror. I fear not living a life of passion and enthusiasm. I fear not loving life. I fear commitment at times. I fear regret. I fear incompetence. I fear ridicule. I fear public embarrassment. I fear rejection, more than I can admit. I fear not achieving financial independence. I fear not having anyone around me when I’m sick or on my deathbed. I fear losing all my photos in my photo album. I fear losing my close friends and family. I fear not finding meaning in life. I fear that this is life. I fear trying my best and still not achieving my goal. I fear failure. I wonder, “Is this me, or are these universal?”