How Tim Ferriss Learnt to Tackle His Fears

“Typically, people don’t overcome their fears because the fears are nebulous and undefined.” ~ Tim Ferriss

Your mind is your greatest asset. Tom Ferriss’s mind has gone toe to toe with bipolar depression. Bipolar depression causes extreme shifts in mood, energy, thinking, and behavior. Having been to the center of darkness enough times to threaten his future, he chose to find a way to manage the extreme ups and downs.

For better or for worse. For richer or for poorer. In sickness and in health. Until death do we part, fear will forever be along for the ride. From the uber successful to those just starting out, there is no one, not a single human being, for whom fear has not manifested in one form or another.

Fear has its purpose. A purpose as old as the ages. That purpose is survival. Fear is why we exist today. Without a healthy dose of fear, our ancestors would have adopted all the carnivorous animals as pets and ended up as pet food. They would have eaten the poisonous berries because they were just too pretty to resist and hugged each and every person carrying a deathly contagious disease because to be human is to be socially inclined. Fear is part of our genetic inheritance.

What fear we don’t get from our genetics, we get from conditioning. Conditioning is why two people can have two extremely opposing views of the same experience.

Fear conditioning is a form of classical conditioning, the type of associative learning pioneered by Ivan Pavlov in the 1920s. It involves the repeated pairing of a non-threatening stimulus such as a light, called the conditioned stimulus, with a noxious stimulus such as a mild shock, called the unconditioned stimulus, until the animal shows a fear response not just to the shock but to the light alone, called a conditioned response.

Fear itself is not the enemy says, Seth Godin. Paralysis is. It is the paralytic effect of fear and the conditioned response to stressful events in one’s life that Tim Ferriss’s approach seeks to conquer.

Ferriss’s journey led him to Stoicism where the teachings of Seneca caught his attention. It started with the quote “We suffer more in imagination than in reality.” The quote led him to Seneca’s letters where he learned of the practice of “premeditatio malorum.” The premeditation of evils. The exercise involved detailed visualization of worst-case scenarios with the aim of taking action to overcome fear-induced paralysis.

Fear-setting, a simple yet powerful three-paged exercise was born of this journey.

Fear-Setting

Page 1 — What if I …?

The first page of the fear-setting exercise is titled What if I …? and is divided into three columns. Define, Prevent, Repair.

Define — List whatever you fear, whatever is causing you anxiety/tension, whatever you’re putting off/resisting.

Prevent — List what you could do to prevent or decrease the likelihood each of the fears you defined from happening.

Repair — List what you can do or who you can ask for assistance should the fears you defined actually come to life.

When working on this page, Ferriss reminds us to keep an important fact in mind. Our fears are not unique. Someone somewhere has experienced them and figured out how to prevent them and or repair them. If they can, so can you. Should you get stuck, seek them out for inspiration.

Page 2 — The Benefits of an Attempt or a Partial Success

The second page of the fear-setting exercise channels the power of positive thinking by reframing the fear.

I have written before on the brain’s bias for negativity which makes us more comfortable talking about all the bad things that could go wrong as a result of our actions. Fear-setting looks at the other side of the coin. The benefits of trying and of achieving a partial success.

Page 3 — The Cost of Inaction

The third and last page of the fear-setting exercise looks at the cost of doing nothing. Of maintaining the status quo.

On this page, you will list what all the ways, emotionally, financially, physically, mentally, spiritually, in a span of six months, 12 months, three years, what the price of staying as is would cost you.

When it comes to overcoming fear, exposure works better than avoidance. You can’t, however, expose yourself with any degree of success to something which you cannot clearly define. Fear-setting is an exercise in defining fear at its true source. The mind. Of identifying and breaking the invisible barriers of fears that are more yelp than bark or bite.

“You actually do live a fuller life when you face your fear,” says Dr. Srini Pillay, a Harvard psychiatrist. Ferriss says “I can trace all of my biggest wins and all of my biggest disasters averted back to doing fear-setting at least once a quarter.”

Become the person you’ve always dreamed about in your bold and wild mind. Use Ferriss’s fear-setting exercise to train your mind to act more courageously in everyday life. Not to eliminate fear in the hopes of becoming fearless but with the goal of fearing less and boldly acting when you should act.

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