If purpose plays a huge role in our working lives, so does fear. And it seems many of us are in a strange position with fear. Given the choice, none of us would want our lives to be limited by it. And yet our lives very often are limited by fear—and as you write in Fear Less, we do have a choice. That all seems a bit backwards.
I think there's a few responses to that. Fear is inherent and natural. However brilliant we get at managing it, we will regularly feel or have the potential to feel fear. It's an absolutely necessary part of our human psychology. Fear’s just a warning signal. And when that warning signal comes on, we don't turn the hazard lights off quickly enough. In other words, fear is something that we have to respond to. And we quite often don't.
It's important to make the distinction between what I call “in-the-moment fear” and “not-good-enough fear.”
In-the-moment fear is if you were driving too fast into a corner and you have that prick of adrenaline—that’s a stimulus response to fear. The response system that generates fear stimulus response is the amygdala. It's part of our brain that has never had a full upgrade. We’ve developed the prefrontal cortex, learned to reason and grappled with the meaning of life, but the amygdala’s still operating on the old system to help us survive.
For that old-fashioned, in-the-moment fear, you can train yourself to manage it. There are tried-and-true techniques. This is what I do with penalty kicks, free throws, golf swings.
But then quite often we don't actually realize the role fear’s playing in our lives because it’s the other type: the “not-good-enough fear.” That’s very sneaky and pervasive. It shows up in distorted ways. It might be wanting to withdraw. Or anger. Or feeling critical, ashamed, or jealous. All of those things have fear at their root. But we don’t always see that.
You have to make an effort to step out and press pause and then make a different choice. And that's why in the book, I make that distinction between the stuff that you can do in a technique manner, and the stuff that's actually a shift in perspective.
Fear seems so deeply personal and individual, yet you highlight the role of other people and environments in overcoming fear. That it’s not just about us.
It’s important to realize fear isn't something that just happens within our own skin and mind. Fear is recycled and generated in the cultures we live in. We have powerful messages and narratives around fear. You have to intentionally break it, turn it down, step away from it. But we quite often don't.
Fear ricochets between people, for instance. If I point out something to you that gives you a little fear stimulus and you accept that and ricochet it back, it becomes an energy in the environment. And then that's shared and ricocheted and ping-ponged between people. And it just keeps growing. This fear isn’t a solid object. It's more like a fog that's just among us. And we don't really realize how thick it is.
So other people can magnify fear; but they can also help us reduce it. The ability to be truthful, vulnerable about what you feel—that helps diminish fear, the sense of protection and intimacy. And by intimacy I mean realness and being able to show up without a mask on, not the kind we've come to understand that happens in families and between partners. A sense of psychological safety or belonging or identity.
You mentioned showing up without a mask on. A line of yours that stuck out to me is that “we're so often performing at life rather than living life.” Yet a huge number of high performers, as they’re often called, might wonder if that's such a bad thing.
History has shown that performing in that way can get you results. And I can't tell you how many CEOs or high-performing athletes I've worked with that have lived that way.
But the problem with it is that the cost is too high to the individual. So you can get a result, absolutely. You can continue winning like that. But there is too much rent to pay psychologically.
Because if you can never actually step out of that identity as a high performer, which can get really close to perfectionism, you’ll find that your joy is stolen, your experience of success is really vapid and quick. You’ve got to be back on the treadmill, in the gym, the next day. You can't achieve anything that feels complete.
So no doubt about it, you can win that way. But my argument is that the cost is too high. And it's unnecessary because you can win a different way.
I describe it as winning deep versus winning shallow. If you're winning deep, you're doing it for the sake of the adventure. You're winning to see what you've got, to test your mettle.
Winning deep is much more oriented to how I imagine some of the earlier adventurers, the athletes who I see now who genuinely seem to still enjoy it. It doesn't mean that there won't be high stakes or the response to high stakes. And it certainly doesn’t mean there's any less blood, sweat, and tears in it. But it's a different energy. It's not winning to avoid failing—that’s what winning shallow is.