Fear Setting: How to Do Great Big Things

My alarm beeped. I jolted awake as the early morning San Francisco sunlight cut through the fog and poured through the open blinds.

I groggily pulled my bath towel snug around my shoulders in a futile attempt to guard against the cold of my heatless room.

I rolled over, my head on the edge of my backpack, taking an inventory of my aches and pains as the chemical odors of the new carpet assaulted my nostrils.

My back was smarting – I had developed a stinger overnight – as was my hip. My washcloths hadn’t done much to provide a cushioned sleeping experience.

An attempt to check the time suggested my empty backpack had done my neck no favors as a pillow, either.

I grabbed for my laptop and wrote down some of the saddest words I’ve ever put on a page:

“I’m feeling as if I’m on some sort of sick vacation with no friends and no endpoint. I’m sure I’ll wish for this time back when I have limited hours to explore the city, but right now all I feel like doing is laying here, uncomfortable but safe.”

This was me in the summer of 2013. How did I end up in an empty room with no bed, no pillow, and no blankets? And why is it an image I return to again and again?

The answer has several parts. First, we’ll need to back up twenty years.

A fear-based life

Some people have daily physical or mental hurdles they must overcome. They do a lot of pre-work – exercise, eating right, meditating, or even taking medication – not as a lifehack, but to be functional.

Fear is one such hurdle for me.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a fear-based person. Some things I’ve dreaded since childhood, in no particular order:

  • Going back to school. I cried every first day of school in elementary school, and I didn’t feel much better about it in the years that followed. I still hate scheduled, big block commitments to the point that going to an office each day felt like a Whole Thing. Don’t even get me started on meetings.
  • Getting hit by the ball. I came by this one honestly – a broken nose from a pitch at age 11 – and I would either get or fake stomachaches and various injuries to get out of perceived danger for years afterward. I can’t tell you how much of my parents’ time and money I wasted due to this one. Sorry, guys.
  • Being made fun of and other forms of social rejection. I was a small, nerdy kid. To avoid being picked on, I developed a sarcastic sense of humor and a pragmatic (read: pessimistic disguised as reasonable) perspective. It’s hard to make fun of someone being reasonable, especially when they can level you with a comeback if you try.
  • Riding a bike. I still don’t know how. Whoops!

Suffice to say that I’m a long-time fear connoisseur. I’ve experienced many of the flavors – tasted the rainbow, as it were – and can say with confidence that they all suck.

There are two kinds of fear, in my experience:

  • Daily fear – things that happen all the time but cause trouble in anticipation. Awkward encounters, meetings where you might be cold-called in front of a crowd, and tasks with the risk of public failure all count here.
  • Macro fears – fears of making a mistake that ruins your life or changes its direction for the worse.

Daily fear was the most significant driver of my behavior as a child and teenager. That fear led me to do all kinds of dumb stuff – goofing off in classes to fit in, shirking homework assignments, avoiding social situations in which I might be made fun of, and dozens of other things.

I’ve done a lot of work on this in my adult life. Fear generally doesn’t influence my daily decisions anymore. It hasn’t gone away, but I can usually feel the fear, acknowledge it, and trudge on anyway.

As I get older, macro fear is what comes knocking more often. Opportunity cost doesn’t seem real as a child, but it becomes increasingly apparent and scary as you get older. The stakes also get higher as you choose who to marry, what jobs to do, and how to spend your free time.

Especially if you’re doing well, there’s a lot to lose by making the wrong choices. It only takes a handful of bad breaks to erase years of hard work.

This is macro fear – the kind that paralyzes you in a suboptimal situation. There’s too much riding on any one decision, so we postpone making them at all. Inaction feels safer and more reliable – after all, things aren’t perfect right now, but they’re not so bad. Why upset the apple cart?

But this is no way to live. Ceding control of your direction to inertia or other outside forces doesn’t decrease your fear of something terrible happening to you – it increases it.

Bit by bit, letting fear take the wheel makes your world smaller. A life without control is scarier and much less enjoyable than a life of well-intentioned but suboptimal decisions.

Still, this is an intellectual argument, not an emotional one. You don’t logic yourself into being afraid, nor can you logic yourself out of fear.

I use a tool called fear setting to get around this limitation – using logic to allow fear to run itself ragged.

Enter fear setting

Tim Ferriss shared an early version of fear setting in The Four-Hour Workweek. I know; I didn’t remember that part either. But the fully fleshed-out version – with full reasoning for using the framework and the sample pages to complete – comes from his beautiful TED Talk a few years later.

In this talk, Ferriss describes how he used fear setting to extricate himself from a destructive business that was costing him all his time and happiness.

I’ve watched this TED Talk approximately one million times. I revisit it when I’m having trouble skirting macro fear to do something essential but terrifying.

I’ve used fear setting to evaluate nearly all of my big life decisions:

  • Taking and quitting jobs
  • Moving cities
  • Entering and leaving relationships
  • Pursuing creative projects

As Ferriss says in the video, it’s not a panacea. It won’t solve your problems for you, but it will help you identify where your fears are well-founded and where they’re not. This knowledge is critical if you hope to overcome irrational fear to do something bold and exciting.

There are three pages in the fear setting framework. I’ll share how I use each one.

Page 1: What if I….?

Fear setting page 1

The first (and most valuable) part of fear setting is a complete brain dump of all the things you fear most if you do the thing you’re considering.

That means spending the time – it’s usually the bulk of the time I spend on the entire exercise – getting every possible negative thing, every version of your fear, onto the page. There are three parts to this page.

Define

For each fear, you’ll want to write the thing you’re afraid of, a short description, and the perceived permanent damage that it would do if it came to pass.

The key is to catalog your fears as thoroughly as possible. Use the strongest arguments against doing whatever you’re considering.

I find it cathartic to convert nebulous worry and anxiety from my head into concrete statements. The swirling clouds of worry often look scarier than clearly delineated fears on a page.

It’s tempting to stop after you’ve hit the most prominent and substantial fears. I like to continue writing until I’m entirely drained of worries. You can stop once you’ve put every possible concern on the page and are racking your brain for others.

When I reach the end of my fear dump, I’m often surprised at how limited the long-term damage would be from even a spectacular failure. I tend to come up with lots of 2s and 3s of permanent damage. You won’t always have this outcome, but it’s reassuring to see that even your worst fears coming to pass won’t lead to death or dismemberment.

Prevent & Repair

Once you have your list of worries on paper, it’s time to do something about them. What could you do to prevent those bad things from happening?

I find myself coming up with ideas to both prevent and repair the damage concurrently. These strategies overlap and feed off each other.

My brain naturally clicks into problem-solving mode at this point. I’ve seen that at least some of my fears aren’t so bad and that I could take obvious steps to prevent them from coming to pass. By this point, we’re past the peak of the fear.

Page 2: What would be the benefits of an attempt or a partial success?

Fear setting page 2

We set up a steel man version of your fears in this process, but you’ll want to get a relatively weak version of success on the page. We don’t want to talk about what will happen if your cereal startup gets acquired for billions of dollars. Instead, we want to focus on good-but-not-great outcomes.

Things to include here might be:

  • Gaining new experiences that will help you in future endeavors
  • Making connections that could change your life for the better
  • Building skills or exploring new places

These are the kinds of things you don’t have to win to achieve. Even if your creative project never makes it to the mainstream or your move to a new city isn’t a rousing success, you’ll still get something out of it. You’ll learn information for next time or have a lifetime of memories to help you avoid future mistakes.

I often find that my goals in starting a new job or project are externally focused: I want to make money, build an audience, earn some success, etc. But the most powerful, life-changing things come from the attempt itself.

The people you know become your network. The skills you learn become your toolbox for dealing with whatever life throws at you. The self-knowledge you gain will inform every future attempt you make.

When you rate these benefits on their permanent life impact, you’ll find the benefits of even a partial success are usually extremely strong.

The kinds of projects that don’t hold up well to this kind of examination are those that require success to be worthwhile: taking a job primarily for the money, picking up a hobby to impress your friends, or dating a potential partner solely because they’re successful.

Page 3: What is the cost of inaction?

Fear setting page 3

The final page of fear setting is the linchpin of the whole system. You’ve jotted down lots of fears and devised strategies to avoid them. You’ve written out a surprisingly robust list of benefits of partial success. But no clear picture has yet emerged – the thing you’re considering still looks like a slurry of costs and benefits.

The cost of inaction page is an injection of wisdom from your future self.

Thinking about the problem you’re considering, what would be the costs of not pursuing it? Ferriss suggests answering for various timelines – six months, one year, and three years. I usually find those timelines unnecessary once I get thinking about the cost of inaction, the long-term trajectory becomes clear.

Filling out this page inevitably shows that inaction carries steep costs. You probably got excited about the benefits you laid out on the previous page. Now kiss those benefits goodbye. How does that feel?

This page is intended to be a kick in the ass. We’re usually pretty terrible at considering the second and third-order effects of our decisions. That’s why staying the course usually doesn’t sound so bad, especially if your other option is sticking your neck out for an uncertain payoff and tangible risks.

But a missed opportunity today can have long-term knock-on effects. By dedicating time and space to it, we uncover the hidden costs of inaction.

A more balanced view of fear

When we’re forced to define our fears, we’ll see that they aren’t always as well-founded as we might think. When we reveal the cost of inaction, we find that the scales are usually weighted in our favor when we act rather than withdraw. Add in a reasonable dose of optimism about a partial success, and you come away with a more balanced view of fear.

Fear setting doesn’t always suggest you should go for it. As Ferriss says in his TED Talk, some of your fears will prove to be very well-founded. Any tool that suggests an all-gas-no-brakes strategy isn’t a tool – it’s a blunt instrument unsuited to the task of high-stakes decision-making.

But the beauty of fear setting is that it allows you to process with clear eyes the real-world benefits and drawbacks of a big decision. We tend to play those up or down depending on our proclivities; fear setting forces us to find an equilibrium.

Of course, there will surely be benefits and drawbacks you didn’t see coming – but fear setting provides the most robust, balanced picture of any system I’ve ever found.

If you’re honest with yourself, the tool is ungameable – that is, you can’t engineer it to say the thing you want to say. If you pour your whole heart into each of the pages, you’ll emerge with a clear understanding of what you need to do and why.

Back to San Francisco

So, right. We now have our macro fear reduction tool ready to go, and we can fire it up any time we want. But remember at the beginning of this article when I woke up in a cold San Francisco apartment, sleeping on the floor without a bed or blankets? What the hell was going on there, and why do I think about it so often?

The reason for both is that I remember that time as an example of perhaps my most reckless choice ever. Let’s examine the facts:

  • I moved cross-country to a city in which I knew nobody except my manager. I had met her three times, including the day of my interview
  • I’d been to San Francisco exactly once, for work, and was there less than a day
  • I had never lived in a city before; I’d only ever been to a handful of them

I stayed in that cold room in my brand new apartment because I was afraid of going out in the city after dark (especially using public transportation) to return to my Airbnb. Instead of braving the city, I laid on the floor and watched videos on my phone until I passed out.

I’ve had a few moments in my life where I was knocked flat by fear, but this is among the most memorable. When I think about letting the fear of doing something new limit my behaviors, I remember how pathetic I felt, curled up in a ball on the floor as I waited for sleep to come.

More importantly, making that move is an obvious example of going for it and having many of my worst fears realized but still having things turn out OK. I didn’t like San Francisco very much – I left after 18 months – and the job had an unhappy ending, too.

But in the process, I got out of my home state, met a ton of new people, explored a new corner of the world, and started to create self-belief that I take risks when the juice is worth the squeeze.

My life has been a constant struggle between fear and progress, comfort and adventure. When I have a choice between the two, I use fear setting to push forward. The fear will never go away, but I will not let it dominate me.

Related resources:

Tim Ferriss’ original post on fear setting

The original (PDF version) of fear setting slides

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