Hike in Zion National Park

What Fear Can Teach You About Yourself – Part 2

In Lifestyle Experiments, North America by Daniel S. JohnsonLeave a Comment

A few weeks ago, Part 1 of this post introduced two types of fear:

  1. Fears that help ensure our survival
  2. Fears that are manifested to blindly protect the ego

The second category, which I called “ego fears,” is problematic because of the way our body responds to stress. By default, threats to our ego are treated in a similar manner as threats to our mortality. Due to the brain’s inability to evolve as fast as our societies, physiological responses originally reserved for mortal emergencies, like being attacked by a bear, are now allocated to such experiences as interviewing for a job or talking to strangers.

I thus created a series of lifestyle experiments to address some of my own wide-ranging ego fears. The challenges I posed in Part 1 were tied to my fear of social awkwardness. Part 2 tackles an equally detrimental class of apprehensions related to worries about misusing the resources available to me — specifically that of time.

Fear of accomplishing less

The four sub-fears I decided to test were the fear of missing out, fear of pointless time investment, fear of not planning ahead, and fear of creative commitment.

As in Part 1, I put into words the assumption at my fear’s core (my “fear-ssumption”), crafted a challenge that would goad me into facing the fear head-on, and then analyzed my experience and what I learned from it.

1. Fear of missing out

Fear-ssumption: “If I don’t attend [insert this week’s ‘can’t miss’ event], my status in any relevant social groups will be affected and I’ll have to live with the regret.”

Challenge: Skip the Man burn (the main event at Burning Man).

Result: It’s commonly assumed that more choices are inherently better than fewer choices. We’ll make the decision that yields our highest satisfaction either way, so we might as well maximize our options, right?

The fear of missing out (a.k.a. FOMO) is an argument against this theory. More choices would be intrinsically better if humans were perfectly rational. Unfortunately, this is far from true. We’re kind of terrible at predicting what will make us happy in the future, and even if we do make the “best” choice, we can still be plagued by regret and questions of, “What if?” by the simple existence of paths not taken.

In my own experience, FOMO has instigated anxiety about skipping events on many occasions — events which were most often later revealed to be inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. It also encouraged my formation of unreasonably high expectations (and potentially high disappointment) for the events I did go to. I was tired of this unhealthy presence in my social life and decided I would create a challenge for it during my August 2016 trip to the Burning Man arts festival.

A lot of sub-events happen during Burning Man, but the singular occasion that draws virtually all 75,000 attendees together in one place is the burning of the titular wooden effigy on the penultimate night. The Man burn has historically featured fireworks shows, hundreds of fire-spinners performing choreographed routines, and giant gasoline explosions. Certainly, if there was one “can’t miss” moment of the week, this was it.

Thus, as my friends readied themselves and biked out to join the swelling crowd at the center of the festival grounds, I biked in the opposite direction and tried not to think too hard about what I was about to do. I’d affirmed earlier in the week that one of the more effective ways to combat fear is to approach it playfully — to weaken its hold on you by joking about it. This intention, combined with the solitude I was granted as I skipped the climactic burn, lent itself to challenging an additional (albeit slightly more reasonable) fear of mine:

Exhilarating? Yes. Terrifying? Also yes. (Note the fireworks signifying the start of the Man burn in the background.)

I then re-dressed, biked back to my friends’ camp, and sat down in their sitting area to meditate until they returned. As I closed my eyes and attempted to clear my head, I kept expecting a sudden surge of FOMO about missing the Man burn (which was still audibly proceeding a half mile away). But the oppressive regret never came. On the contrary — I felt liberated. I had traded the task of getting to the burn on time and contending with the massive crowd for a serene meditation session and the chance to cross “naked fire-spinning” off my bucket list.

A crucial part of conquering FOMO (and any other trepidation) is the ability to poke fun at it. In my case, I’d almost literally invited it to kiss my ass.

It made me recall situations where I’d felt anxiety or regret about a social gathering I’d missed, or was compelled to go out even when I knew I should probably stay home and save money…and suddenly all the needless stress and cognitive dissonance just seemed amusing. I sat there alone amidst a sea of pillows and cushions in my friend’s camp — crossed-legged, eyes shut, and grinning like a fool — and felt confident that FOMO would be a little easier to cope with in the future.

2. Fear of pointless time investment

Fear-ssumption: “If I waste 15-20 minutes on meditation and another 20 on writing this morning, I’ll have less time to accomplish the short term task of X, which will put me behind with Y and Z, and then the day will be over and I’ll have accomplished nothing.”

Challenge: Meditate at least 15 minutes and write at least three pages a day on every day of my one-month U.S. road trip.

Result: The main side-effect of this fear is that it compels me to downgrade certain repetitive tasks that are crucial to my long-term goals. Despite my rational certainty that daily meditation and free-writing are essential if I want to regulate my emotions and develop my writing ability, it’s easy to justify skipping them in favor of shorter-term tasks that seem more important now but contribute almost nothing to my overall development.

The battle was waged, as always, between the instant-gratification-seeking Present Daniel and the wise but powerless Future Daniel. Rather than denying Present Daniel’s tendencies with a quaint but impotent affirmation like, “I’ll meditate and write every day because I know it’s good for me!” I instead tried to appeal to my present self by giving the long-term goal a short-term component: meditate and write on each day of my month-long western road trip. Thirty days wouldn’t grant me enlightenment or a Pulitzer Prize, but it would strengthen the meditation and writing habits and convince me that the daily 20-minute investment for each was both feasible and worthwhile. (Further incentive was that it would give me an experience I could write about here.)

So, between Sept. 15th and Oct. 14th, I produced at least three pages of writing on 25 of the 30 days, and meditated for an average of twenty minutes on all 30.

As expected, I continually had to fight the urge (particularly in the first two weeks) to skip my assignment in favor of activities that would be more immediately satisfying. My mind would constantly throw out creative justifications (“It’s beautiful out, and you’re sitting here in the back of your Jeep with your eyes closed?!” “You can write any time, you only have one more day left in Utah!”), and sometimes, like on the five days I failed to write, it would win. Slowly, however, my logical side accumulated a critical weapon in the struggle against my resistant emotional side: familiarity. Every successful completion of the routine, especially on successive days, brought my base-level self closer to internalizing several maxims that my higher-thinking self already knew:

  1. Meditation and writing are skills.
  2. They (like all skills) can be improved through consistent and deliberate practice.
  3. The enduring dividends paid on time investments like these make all the effort worth it.

It helped that I occasionally had meditation spots like this.

3. Fear of not planning ahead

Fear-ssumption: “If I don’t know in advance what the absolute best hikes, campsites, and sunset vistas are in each park I visit, I’ll get mired in a sea of mediocre experiences and my trip will be for naught.”

Challenge: Don’t do any online research about the parks I’m visiting on my road trip and instead rely purely on first-hand recommendations.

Result: In my experience, the fear of not planning ahead is a close cousin of FOMO. Both are exacerbated by an overabundance of viable options and a desire to pick the absolute best one. However, while FOMO generally crops up in relation to choosing between smaller events, the fear of not planning ahead is more prevalent when you’re preparing to embark on a venture with a lot of unknowns, such as starting a business or travelling internationally. In my own travels, this fear has led me to over-plan and focus more on maintaining total control of my trip than on actually enjoying it in the moment.

I therefore sought with this challenge to cut out what I knew could easily lead to option overload as I prepared for my road trip: prior online research. That meant trading in Yelp and “Top 10 Things To Do in ___” articles for improvised chats with baristas, park rangers, and fellow laundromat patrons.

In forcing myself to talk to actual people rather than Google, I had human experiences that fleshed out the places I visited, led to some wonderfully unexpected conversations, and produced such superb recommendations as a hidden hot spring in New Mexico and a Cirque du Soleil-esque marching band performance in Wyoming. Rather than finding myself in one depersonalized tourist stop after another, I had sequences of adventures that felt organic and completely my own. By the end, I’d affirmed my preferred method of travel: lay out a bare-bones route connecting the places I want to visit, and then fill in the rest with suggestions and side-quests as I go along.

The challenge also instilled the notion that “best” is always subjective — that is to say, your memorable enjoyment of an experience depends more on your perception and active involvement than its cost or appearance from the outside.

Top of a spectacular hike in Grand Teton National Park — recommended by a local friend the day before.

4. Fear of creative commitment

Fear-ssumption: “If I put aside all these minor pursuits and distractions and commit fully to this big idea, the path will not only be incredibly arduous, but there’s a good chance I’ll fail. And then I’ll be back where I started. If I don’t try, at least I can fantasize about the possibility of success…”

Challenge: Bind myself to writing and publishing a book within six months — i.e. by midnight on April 14th, 2017.

Result: I realized something about myself recently: I’m a chronic overachiever in relation to the quantity of pursuits I take on, and a chronic underachiever when it comes to committing to larger projects for the long haul. Put another way: I move a few feet in a thousand directions rather than a mile in one or two.

Something else I’ve noticed is that whenever I force myself to finally tackle a seemingly harrowing monster task (such as this blog post) for one reason or another — usually sheer exasperation about seeing it on my to-do list for so long — I find that it’s virtually never as painful as I imagined it would be. Once I simply begin the task and make 10-20 minutes of headway, the rest of the process seems to unfold on its own more often than not.

For almost a year now, the reigning king of all monster tasks on my to-do list has been the following item:

  • Compile notes and outline chapters for eBook

The eBook in question is the personal development book that I decided I would attempt to write. Since determining at the end of 2015 that writing is my core inclination, the question hasn’t been “if” I would publish a book at some point in my life, but “when.” Despite affirming what I wanted to write about and having no valid excuse for not starting immediately, “when” still seemed quite a ways off. Or at least it did, until I decided in October 2016 to impose an externally-reinforced deadline:

That’s a picture of me handing a stamped envelope to a close friend of mine. The envelope contains a check for $500 that I made out to the Family Research Council. The FRC is a horrendously intolerant anti-LGBT organization, and one of the most politically active hate groups in the United States.

Put down your pitchfork and let me explain.

A few months ago, I was listening to a podcast and heard the story of a woman who had tried and failed to quit smoking on numerous occasions. An active proponent of civil rights reform, she finally came up with the ultimate solution to her smoking problem: she publicly swore to her friend and fellow activist that, if she ever smoked again, she would donate $5,000 to the Ku Klux Klan. Thirty years have passed and she hasn’t touched a cigarette.

This story came back to me as I thought of how I could challenge my fear of creative commitment, specifically in terms of committing to my book. Channeling the lady and her beautifully perverse usage of the KKK to kill her smoking habit, I found a list of U.S. hate groups, did some quick research to determine which one’s evil influence was trending these days, and the next thing I knew, I was writing out a check to the Family Research Council.

My first choice was the Westboro Baptist Church, but they don’t accept donations.

I then handed the envelope with the check to my friend and made sure he understood and swore to follow my instructions:

“Go to Amazon.com on April 15th, 2017 and search for a book authored by me (Daniel Scott Johnson). If the book exists, destroy this envelope immediately. If the book doesn’t exist, drop this envelope in the mail at your earliest convenience.”

Needless to say, I’ll have a book published on Amazon by April.

Looking out from Angel's Landing in Zion National Park

“The compulsion to do, and the tendency to derive your sense of identity and self-worth from external factors such as achievement, is an inevitable illusion as long as you’re identified with your mind.”Eckart Tolle

Time is a tricky subject. When used in the context of reminding yourself that life is short, it can motivate you to take risks and address fears that you might otherwise put off. Just as easily, a fixation on time can lead you to define your self-worth in terms of your efficiency and accomplishments, and that can be crucially demotivating in the face of larger challenges where time invested may not be rewarded with immediate success.

What I learned from the challenges above is that you should think more about how a fear may be holding you back than about the outcome you’re afraid of. When you sift through countless options in search of the one that would be the absolute best use of your time and energy, you run the risk of spending more effort agonizing over the decision than if you had picked an imperfect but workable option early on and corrected course from there. One of my favorite interpretations of this concept is Louis C.K.’s “70% Rule”:

“These situations where I can’t make a choice because I’m too busy trying to envision the perfect one—that false perfectionism traps you in this painful ambivalence…So my rule is that if you have someone or something that gets 70% approval, you just do it. ’Cause here’s what happens. The fact that other options go away immediately brings your choice to 80, because the pain of deciding is over. And when you get to 80%, you work. You apply your knowledge, and that gets you to 85%! And the thing itself…will always reveal itself to be more than you thought. And that will get you to 90%. After that, you’re stuck at 90, but who the fuck do you think you are, a god? You got to 90%? It’s incredible!”

Taken together with my challenges from Part 1, one consistent theme presented itself among all of my fears: self-doubt. Doubt that I could successfully approach strangers to start a conversation, or improvise if I made a less-than-perfect decision, or commit to writing a book.

I’ve accepted that doubt in our ability to succeed is a natural and unavoidable part of any endeavor that’s worth attempting. Just because self-doubt is unavoidable, though, doesn’t mean it’s inherently self-defeating. This is the moment when our vastly underappreciated power over perception comes into play — when we choose to accept doubt as part of the process, or we allow it to discourage us entirely.

When we give in to discouragement, we retreat inward and throw up all sorts of defenses and excuses to protect our ego. My aim with each challenge was thus to enhance my understanding of my doubts and to make retreat more difficult.

In presenting these challenges, I’m not advocating their exact imitation. Rather, I wanted to offer examples of a process that has increased my confidence and helped me take myself a little less seriously. If fear is a fog that feeds off uncertainty and convinces you that every obscured shadow belies a worst-case scenario, then questions and experiments are the industrial-sized fans that blow the fog away and reveal that the reality isn’t so scary — that even “worst-case” results can not only be survivable, but empowering. Lifestyle experiments have served me well as anti-fear artillery, and I think they also could for you.

If you do choose to adopt a similar strategy, it’s vital that the fears you challenge are your own. That in itself requires an honest evaluation of your behavioral tendencies and the apprehensions that are holding you back. There’s not much use in an extremely outgoing person challenging themselves to talk to more people; or, conversely, a shy and reclusive person asserting that they won’t speak to anyone. (If the thought of performing a challenge makes you uncomfortable and there’s no logical reason why you shouldn’t do it, you’re on the right track.)

Some aversions may be so deeply held that it might not have ever occurred to you that they could be challenged. You should never assume, though, that a behavioral trait is an unchangeable part of who you are — that you got dealt a certain genetic or situational hand and now you’re stuck with it. The most powerful universal force at your disposal is persistence over time. Any fear can be eroded to the point of inconsequence. All that’s needed is enough targeted work, and the understanding that the present, and your ability to act now, is categorically more powerful than anything in your past or your presumed future.

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