“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
“Fear is only as deep as the mind allows.”
You have nothing to lose.
Everything you have will be lost or taken away from you eventually. But this fact is not a depressing premonition or a frightening omen; it is actually a phenomenal blessing. It means that the only true thing of value in your life is you. Glorious you.
This is not to say that your friends and family members, your life’s work, and the other things you value in life are not important. The point is that without you, the relationships between you and your loved ones, between you and your work, and between you and the things you value do not exist. You must exist in order for these relationships to exist. You are the most critical factor in the equation because it is only yourself that you can truly control. This means that in order to maintain or generate anything of value in your life, whether it is a personal relationship or a professional accomplishment, you must put value into yourself first. The problem is that somewhere along the path of life most people forget that they really have nothing to lose. They stop investing in themselves and they start putting all of their stock in material objects, banal experiences and faceless people. Instead of having big ideas and pursing wild dreams, these people live as though they are wading through cement. But why? Why do so many people stop enjoying life carefree and start sinking into the sludge of the status quo? The answer is fear.
Fear is and always has been the greatest impediment to enjoying life and gaining influence. Fear is a paralyzing venom that sedates the human spirit. At first, when we are young, acute feelings of intense fear are instructive. These feelings alert us of new dangers and remind us of previous painful experiences. When I was a toddler I stuck my finger in an electrical outlet and was electrically shocked into a crying, pee-covered mess. From that moment on, my fear of being electrocuted kept me from sticking my fingers, or anything else, into an electrical outlet ever again. In this way, fear is crucial to our survival; it engages our mind and body in a fight or flight response that helps us stay alive in extreme circumstances. However, as we grow older, the usefulness of our fear response begins to fade. We come to know that fire will burn our skin and running with scissors can result in a missing toe. Fear plays less and less of a role in our ability to survive and thrive. Instead, our rationality starts to instruct our decision-making. I no longer have to feel fear as a reminder to not stick my finger in an electrical outlet. My rational mind knows what will happen if I do so and it knows why it will happen (ion currents in my body causing nerves to fire). As our minds develop, our rational understanding of the universe becomes our new guide for survival…or at least it should.
Yet, so many people keep fear in their lives. In fact, most people search out new things to fear as they grow older. They start to fear abstract things such as failure, fatigue, sickness, ridicule, rejection, being left behind or being left out. The acute feelings of fear they used to experience in order to stay alive are replaced with a generalized anxiety about what they have and what they don’t have; who they are and who they are not. So what is the root cause of this anxiety? The cause is a deeply rooted fear of loss. Our fear of loss is manifested in a variety of ways, most often as a kind of vague anxiety about losing an opportunity or missing out on an experience, losing something material such as a house or an investment, losing a relationship or losing your health. The reason this fear is so intense is because it is intensely connected to our fear of death — our loss of everything on this earth. Overcoming this fear is crucial to enjoying life. It is important to understand that the weight of living life chronically anxious is much heavier than the weight of facing an acute fear directly and immediately. Constant worry will dampen your passion and contort your days into a twisted mess. Like a toddler digging out the insides of a pumpkin on Halloween, fear will slowly scrape out your soul until your insides are completely hollow.
So why is the fear response so difficult to surmount? There are two reasons; one, fear itself is complex and nearly impossible to define; and two, fear is controlled by a primal part of the brain that is thoroughly connected to almost every other part of the brain. Over the centuries, defining fear has proven to be elusive, even by today’s scientists. While there is much agreement as to the physiological effects of fear, the neural pathways and connections that bring upon these effects are not well understood. To date, one small area of the brain stands out as a sort of fear command center — the amygdala. The amygdala is the name of the collection of nuclei found in the anterior portions of the temporal lobes in the human brain. These nuclei receive projections from frontal cortex, association cortex, temporal lobe, olfactory system and other parts of the limbic system. In return, it sends its afferents to the frontal and prefrontal cortex, orbitifrontal cortex, hypothalmus, hippocampus, and brain stem nuclei. Mapping out exactly how the amygdala is involved in fear is difficult because fear itself is a mixture of feelings (labels we consciously give to unconscious emotions), emotions (measurable physiological and neurological reactions), and memories.
The most exciting study that has ever been done on the function of the amygdala in the fear response was conducted by a former colleague of mine at the University of Iowa, Daniel Tranel. Dr. Tranel, a professor of neurology and psychology, has been studying a woman for a number of years who is one of very few people known to have damaged the amygdala on both sides of her brain. To determine the impact of this rare condition on the fear response, Tranel and his colleagues exposed the woman to things that normally induce a fear response in people, including spiders, snakes, and gruesome film clips. They used questionnaires to assess whether she experienced the symptoms of fear over a three-year period and also asked her to rate the level of her emotions at random times for a three-month period. The woman reported feeling no fear on the questionnaires and rated herself as completely fearless during her emotional experiences. If you are still not convinced that this woman doesn’t feel fear, consider this: she was held up at gunpoint and at knifepoint and was almost killed during a domestic incident yet reported experiencing no fear during those life-threatening situations. But here’s the kicker — she could still experience other emotions such as joy, anger, and sadness, and she was aware that her inability to be afraid was abnormal (i.e. she’s not crazy).
Similar studies have been done on rats with amygdala lesions. Watch the first 15 seconds of the below video. This is how a healthy rat without an amygdala lesion responds to a mechanical cat guarding a small piece of food:
Now watch how a rat with an amygdala lesion responds to the mechanical cat:
So how can you mute your amygdala? How can you desensitize yourself to fear, but not become completely numb (i.e. still experience other positive and productive emotions)? You may not be able to literally shut down you amygdala, but you can perform a kind of psychological excision on this region of your brain. The very first thing you must do is realize that you do not need fear in your life for anything. It is never useful. It is poison. You don’t need it for motivation, you don’t need it as a moral compass, and you don’t need it for survival. Next, realize that fear is probably affecting your daily life in a thousand different ways. Every decision you make comes down to a judgement between two or more different consequences. Most people go through life choosing the consequences they fear the least rather than the consequences that could benefit them the most.
The solution is incredibly simple; change your perspective. Start approaching things with a “nothing to lose” attitude and watch your life open up in all directions. This doesn’t mean that you ignore the fact that if you jump out of an airplane without a parachute that you are going to hit the ground pretty hard. It means, for example, that you don’t let the fear of losing your house, your car, or your 401K keep you from pursuing a different career or starting your own business. Rather than being pushed around by your problems and the things you are afraid to lose, let yourself be pulled by your passions. Opt for the consequences that could bring you everything your heart desires, rather than those that involve the least amount of risk. Take fear out of the equation and you will find new ways to enjoy life and gain influence.
Here are 5 ways to enjoy life fearlessly:
1. Listen To The Bells – Use Fear As A Guidepost
Your ability to feel what we call fear can be incredible useful. The problem is that most people fear feeling fear. Once you understand this, you will truly understand the meaning of the adage, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” Instead of fearing your feelings of fear, flip your perspective and invite them. View them as a personal alert system — a call to action. Most often, when you are afraid, it is simply your brain’s way of telling you that you need to prepare for something. But instead of preparing, most people worry. They glaze over in a haze of anxiety. They freeze up and actually do nothing. Understand: worrying is not preparation. Thinking about the actions you should be taking is not itself taking action. The next time you start to worry about something, look at those feelings as a series of blinking lights in your brain merely suggesting that you prepare for an upcoming event.
2. Turn The Tables – Channel Fear Into Productive Energy
Once you stop fearing fear, you will be able to analyze its source and channel the heightened state of awareness it induces into being productive. Consider public speaking, which is consistently polled as the number one thing the average person fears (somehow ranked higher than the fear of death). Paid professionals and coaches in this area train their clients not to eliminate fear, but to use it. First, they teach their trainees to recognize their fear as a siren alerting them that they need to take the necessary steps to prepare their speech and practice it. Next, they instruct their clients to channel their fearful energies into creating imaginative presentations and rehearsing these presentations exhaustively. Finally, they show their clients how to relieve the pressure that builds up right before stepping on stage or walking up the lectern. The trainees are instructed to funnel and release this pressure, like air escaping out of an overinflated tire, into feelings of excitement and enthusiasm directed at the audience. Approaching your fear as a guidepost and a source of energy is crucial to enjoying life and gaining influence. Rather than fearing fear, you are using fear, which eliminates the problem — the fear of fear itself.
3. Stop The Reckoning Cycle – Maintain Your Fluidity
For most people, chaos breeds fear. The greater the chaos in a person’s life, the more out of control that person feels, and the more likely he is going to worry, freeze up, and eventually crumble under the weight of his fearful feelings and emotions. However, it is not the items on the individual’s to-do list that end up crushing him, it’s his emotions. Emotional upheaval can destroy a person faster than grueling physical labor ever could. Here is what usually happens – life gets complicated, we try to keep up, we start getting behind, we start thinking about how behind we are, we start to worry about the consequences (real or imaginary) of falling behind, we become less productive, we fall more behind, we worry more, we become even less productive, and the cycle continues until we are paralyzed with fear and are forced to face some sort of reckoning. This reckoning can be as extreme as a nervous breakdown or heart attack, or as mild as letting go of a project or backing out of an obligation.
The cycle of complication, keeping up, and reckoning does not need to happen. In order to stop things from spinning out of control, you must maintain your fluidity — you must prevent any kind of blockage from building up in your life. Think of your life as a river. The faster this river flows, the fresher the water and the more force it can generate. Worry and obsessive thoughts are like large boulders and mud in this river. Even the smallest grain of fear can build into a massive clump that will eventually block its flow. Once your river stops moving, it stagnates and turns into a murky swamp of confusion and anxiety.
4. Ride The Momentum – Relax In The Face Of Danger
Why do people continue to worry when they know it reduces the quality of their lives? They stop asking “How to enjoy life?” and start asking “How to get by?” The number one reason, which is as surprising as it is profound, is that most people truly believe that worrying about a problem is useful and that it shows the world they care about the problem. In reality, they are distracting themselves from the acute pain of dealing with a problem by slowly dolling out their anxious feelings like some kind of psychological penance. Intensely focusing on a problem without taking any action to solve it is never productive and does not prove that you care about it. Instead, it freezes you up and prevents you from doing anything useful whatsoever, no matter how motivated you are to overcome the obstacle.
For example, I used to be terrified of flying on commercial airplanes and even the slightest turbulence would cause my entire body to tense up. As soon as the airplane hit some choppy air, I would clench the ends of the armrests and my eyes would jump around the cabin spastically in search of an emergency exit. My breathing would become rapid and shallow and my mind would go blank until the bumps ceased. This was my sad little fear cycle until one day I asked myself, “How would this response actually help me survive if the plane was to go down?” The answer was that none of my physiological or neurological reactions would increase my chances of survival. In fact, my fear response would most definitely decrease my odds of surviving. Tensing my body and squeezing the armrests would actually result in greater injury upon impact than if I was relaxed and laying forward. I would be less likely to think clearly and act quickly due to the decreased levels of oxygen in my body (caused by my shallow breathing). My survival curve would plummet as my body became stiff and my mind became blank.
The average person’s response to fear is to focus intensely on the cause of the fear and to become more rigid. Instead, they should be flowing with the cause. Do you know which person is the most likely to survive an accident involving a drunk driver? The drunk driver. Why? It’s because the drunk is relaxed during impact. Due to the physiological state of his body and his decreased reaction time, the drunk person’s body limply goes with the momentum of the impact. There is no resistance. There is nothing rigid that can snap. This example does not make light of drunk driving accidents, but it does point out a common misconception. Relaxation is not the enemy of survival and it does not impede your ability to overcome a problem or threat. Now when I fly and the airplane encounters turbulence, I go with it. I imagine that I’m part of the fuselage and I’m riding on top of the choppy air, like a boat bouncing on the waves of a lake. I stay fluid and let the experience go through me rather than trying to block it. Staying relaxed and fluid, in both mind and body, is critical to preventing fear from paralyzing you.
5. Look Up And Out – Be An Avid Opportunist
Fear, like anything that crosses the path of the human mind, can be a potential tool for enjoying life. Consider the times in your life when you had to get something done in an impossibly short amount of time, or someone you needed for help didn’t follow through, or you were stuck somewhere unfamiliar and had to fend for yourself. You may have panicked briefly but then you realized there was no time — not even for worry. Necessity crowded in on you and you had to get work done and figure out problems quickly or suffer immediate consequences. So what happened? Your mind snapped to attention and you became extraordinarily energized and inventive. Moments like these provide a glimpse of the mind’s ability to consume any obstacle that gets in its way. The key is keeping your mind fluid so that you can channel its powers opportunistically. This kind of mental flexibility is critical to being able to strike when problems (aka opportunities) present themselves. Consider a storm cloud; electricity flows freely throughout the cloud, existing everywhere at once. Then suddenly, when an opportunity presents itself (e.g. a tree, a power line), the electrical energy in the cloud is channeled into a fierce bolt of lightning that strikes and consumes the opportunity. Your mind is the storm cloud and your focused efforts are the bolt of lightning.
This idea of opportunism, or leveraging your efforts towards the right thing at the right time, is an important aspect of enjoying life fearlessly. Once again, it all comes down to your mental perspective. Opportunism is tied to two important concepts: self-reliance and decisiveness. First, try to understand that everything you need in order to accomplish any task is already in your hands, or rather, in your mind. When you have a problem, it is not more external resources, people, or connections that you need. You do not need more knowledge from books, magazines, websites, lifestyle blogs, or cable news. What you need is more self-reliance. Look at what you have already and make a decision on how you can use it to quickly and effectively consume the obstacle.
6. Look Within – Practice The Art Of Self-Reliance
In The 50th Law, Robert Greene tells the story of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor who was marooned on a deserted island off the coast of Chile in 1704. All he had with him was a rifle, a knife and some carpentry tools. Selkirk explored the interior of the island and found nothing but goats, cats and rats, so he decided to sleep in a cave on the shoreline. After several weeks of laying around and catching fish, he became depressed and ill. He needed help, more supplies, and more survival knowledge. Then, one day, the shoreline was invaded by sea lions (it was their mating season) and he was forced to make a choice: stay where he was and be killed or move inland. Selkirk chose the latter and began to re-explore the forest on the island’s interior. As Selkirk explored, he saw things in a different light. He stopped sulking and realized he already had everything he needed. First, he built a series of huts out of the native woods. Next, by trial and error, he taught himself how to hunt goats and he domesticated the feral cats. These cats protected him from the large rats that were on the island and provided him with companionship. Finally, he made clothes out of animal hides by recalling knowledge that his father, a shoemaker and craftsman, had given him at a young age. Once Selkirk started looking at his problems as opportunities, his depression disappeared and he found ways to enjoy life on the island until his rescue.
7. Be Bold – Bulk Up Your Decisiveness
In the above story, its important to note that self-reliance was only half of what allowed Selkirk to seize the opportunities that existed on the island. The other half was decisiveness. Self-reliance is impotent without choice and action. In order to seize an opportunity, you must first make a decision. Yet, in today’s world, so many people are unable to make bold decisions that stick. This is due to the growing number of options that we have in nearly every aspect of our lives. These options soften our sense of urgency. Why commit when you can procrastinate and have the same opportunities at your fingertips tomorrow, next month, or ten years from now. The truth is your decisions dictate your options, and if you wait to long too decide, someone or something else will dictate your options for you. Decisiveness is like a muscle, if you don’t use it, it atrophies. Practicing your decision-making ability is critical to being successful in any part of your life. Studies in the fields of economics and motivational theory have shown that individuals who are better able to make and stick with decisions are more likely to be successful. The message: stop aiming and fire. You can always adjust course down the road. Instead of aim…aim…aim…fire, try fire…fire…fire…aim. Decisiveness is magic, it both eradicates fear and plants a seed of confidence in you that will grow regardless of the outcome. Practicing the art of self-reliance and bulking up your decisiveness will allow you to turn all of your problems into opportunities. Opportunities you can rapidly exploit.
Once you are able to turn the tables on your fear, you will start to invite it and actually seek out situations that would paralyze other people — but not you. You will remain fluid and relaxed, making bold decisions and taking positive action to redirect or resolve conflicts. This is an enormous advantage and will open up many new opportunities in both your personal and professional lives. Use the above methods to mute your amygdala so you can start enjoying life fearlessly. After all, what do you have to lose?