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Understand Your Fear

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  • April 21, 2013
  • Mark Schulman

Understand Your Fear

Jerry Seinfeld has a quote: “According to most studies, people’s No. 1 fear is public speaking. No. 2 is death. Death is No. 2. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

Have you heard the acronym F.E.A.R.: False Evidence Appearing Real? Misinterpreting fear as an illusion or lie is dangerous (though one interviewee in my book uses False Evidence Appearing Real in a context that is totally appropriate). Fear can be a reaction to an illusion we’ve created in our mind. But it’s the belief that’s key here. If we think our illusions are real, then the reactions are real and need to be treated as such.

Fear as an emotional reaction to something threatening is appropriate—a car careens toward you, someone holds a gun to your head. This isn’t false evidence; it’s factual evidence, and fear is designed to preserve your life. In other words, there are times when you should be afraid. In the context of this book, once you are clear on your goal, you need to set realistic expectations of what you want to achieve so your capability level is appropriate. Define your intended competence as specifically as you can. Align your expectations with reality. In other words, make sure that your expectations about your presentation, communication or performance are realistic and based on your actual competency.

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh refers to the book Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun, who says it’s all about evolution. “Ten thousand years ago, if you had 500 pairs of eyes on you and your back was against the wall, it was a very, very bad thing. Now, if you’re in this situation, you’re a leader; back then you were dead.”

Blind Climber of Mt. Everest and the Seven Summits, Erik Weihenmayer relies on his mind’s eye, since he can’t see with his real ones. “On one side you have the adventure of life and the excitement and the fun and the thrill—and on the other side you have the fear. You have the positive stuff pulling you one way, and the fear pulling you the other way. It’s then a question of which one is more powerful.”

Erik remembers how debilitatingly scared he was the first time he climbed the Khumbu Icefall. “I remember waking up early. I had a cup of coffee in my hand, and my hand was shaking like crazy. I couldn’t even hold the cup—you know how when you’re so scared you can’t pick things up. You pick something up, and it drops out of your hands, and you’re just losing your coordination. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I can’t even function. I can’t even tie a knot.’”

But there’s a point where you’re as ready as you’re ever going to be. And at that point, Erik says, fear can only sabotage you. “You’ve prepared; you’ve done everything you can. You’re ready. This is your moment. At that point, all those fears and doubts start to pour through your brain, because your brain wants to protect you. It’s a mechanism left over from when we were cavemen. That fear protects you from walking out and getting eaten by a saber tooth tiger.”

Just like Berkun says.

“It short-circuits you. It says, ‘Get off the mountain. Go down to the sunshine and sidewalks and hamburgers. What are you doing?’ You just have to accept that that’s the way the brain functions. It’s calling you away from adventure.”

If Erik had listened to his brain, he would never have summited Mt. Everest. He’s learned to take his fear and transmute it into focus and awareness—a hyper-awareness of his surroundings. Clarity.

“There’s a really cool Tibetan quote that I heard when I was on Everest: ‘The nature of the mind is like water; if you do not disturb it, it will become clear.’ Your mind can fill up with all these distractions—all these fears and doubts trying to pull you away. You over-think. So, when I’m climbing and I’m freaked out, I go into a Zen state, where I’m more awareness and focus than mud and distraction. Here’s an example: If I’m going into a massive rock with a whitewater kayak, my friends are talking to me via these radios, and they align my kayak up exactly right. But if we are a foot off or if the angle is just slightly off, I’m going to get hammered. So, when I’m going into that situation, I just keep my mind still, like water.”

He also listens to the advice of his friends, especially one Chris Morris who taught him to “con his brain.” Erik could either focus on the enormity of the mountain and the failings of the human body…or focus on success.

“I forced myself to sit outside my tent and envision myself crossing ladders—doing things right, going through the motions correctly in my brain. Ultimately, I’d see myself standing on the summit with my team. In my mind, I’d hear the flags blowing, we’d be hugging, tears would be coming out, and I’d be like ‘Wow, this is powerful.’” It’s a lesson in positive, self-reinforcement, doing things right in your mind, first.

Erik also talks about his alchemy theory, turning the negative (lead) into the positive (gold). “There’s a point where I felt that fear was no longer in control. ‘You can totally panic here, but that isn’t gonna help you coming down from a mountain in a massive storm, getting picked up and slammed back against a rock with your hands freezing. There are a million things going wrong. I could totally panic right now. What’s that gonna do for me?’ Out of necessity, I learned to take that potentially uncontrollable panicky thing that happens in my brain, and translate it into a sense of hyperawareness. I’m here, and I can do no wrong! This is a Don’t Fall Zone, so I’m not gonna fall.”

Erik keeps the focus on his goal. When you get caught up in distractions, you’re actually concentrating on all of the things that can derail and undermine your true purpose. Erik has developed the ability to translate his panic into hyper-awareness out of necessity, because he’s in life and death situations. It’s pretty humbling to compare my performance anxiety to falling down the side of a mountain. Having said that, fear of any kind can still seem insurmountable, even if the actual consequences are not life threatening. This is why processes like Re-minding (also mentioned in my book) can be so effective, getting us to laugh at our fears and forge ahead with true goals without creating panic about everything that can go wrong.

 

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