I do an exercise called “fear-setting” at least once a quarter, often once a month. It is the most powerful exercise I do.
Fear-setting has produced my biggest business and personal successes, as well as repeatedly helped me to avoid catastrophic mistakes.
The above TED talk gives you an overview, and the below text provides more detail, step-by-step instructions, and real-world examples. For the three exercise slides from the TED presentation, please click here.
“Many a false step was made by standing still.”
— Fortune Cookie
“Named must your fear be before banish it you can.”
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Twenty feet and closing.
“Run! Ruuuuuuuuuun!” Hans didn’t speak Portuguese, but the meaning was clear enough—haul ass. His sneakers gripped firmly on the jagged rock, and he drove his chest forward toward 3,000 feet of nothing.
He held his breath on the final step, and the panic drove him to near unconsciousness. His vision blurred at the edges, closing to a single pinpoint of light, and then . . . he floated. The all-consuming celestial blue of the horizon hit his visual field an instant after he realized that the thermal updraft had caught him and the wings of the paraglider. Fear was behind him on the mountaintop, and thousands of feet above the resplendent green rain forest and pristine white beaches of Copacabana, Hans Keeling had seen the light.
That was Sunday.
On Monday, Hans returned to his law office in Century City, Los Angeles’s posh corporate haven, and promptly handed in his three-week notice. For nearly five years, he had faced his alarm clock with the same dread: I have to do this for another 40–45 years?
He had once slept under his desk at the office after a punishing half-done project, only to wake up and continue on it the next morning.
That same morning, he had made himself a promise: two more times and I’m out of here. Strike number three came the day before he left for his Brazilian vacation.
We all make these promises to ourselves, and Hans had done it before as well, but things were now somehow different. He was different.
He had realized something while arcing in slow circles toward the earth—risks weren’t that scary once you took them. His colleagues told him what he expected to hear: He was throwing it all away. He was an attorney on his way to the top—what the hell did he want?
Hans didn’t know exactly what he wanted, but he had tasted it.
On the other hand, he did know what bored him to tears, and he was done with it. No more passing days as the living dead, no more dinners where his colleagues compared cars, riding on the sugar high of a new BMW purchase until someone bought a more expensive Mercedes. It was over.
Immediately, a strange shift began—Hans felt, for the first time in a long time, at peace with himself and what he was doing. He had always been terrified of plane turbulence as if he might die with the best inside of him, but now he could fly through a violent storm sleeping like a baby. Strange indeed.
More than a year later, he was still getting unsolicited job offers from law firms, but by then had started Nexus Surf,5 a premier surf adventure company based in the tropical paradise of Florianopolis, Brazil. He had met his dream girl, a Carioca with caramel-colored skin named Tatiana, and spent most of his time relaxing under palm trees or treating clients to the best times of their lives.
Is this what he had been so afraid of?
These days, he often sees his former self in the underjoyed and overworked professionals he takes out on the waves. Waiting for the swell, the true emotions come out: “God, I wish I could do what you do.” His reply is always the same: “You can.”
The setting sun reflects off the surface of the water, providing a Zen-like setting for a message he knows is true: It’s not giving up to put your current path on indefinite pause. He could pick up his law career exactly where he left off if he wanted to, but that is the furthest thing from his mind.
As they paddle back to shore after an awesome session, his clients get ahold of themselves and regain their composure. They set foot on shore, and reality sinks its fangs in: “I would, but I can’t really throw it all away.”
He has to laugh.
The Power of Pessimism: Defining the Nightmare
“Action may not always bring happiness, but there is no happiness without action.”
— Benjamin Disraeli, former British Prime Minister
To do or not to do? To try or not to try? Most people will vote no, whether they consider themselves brave or not. Uncertainty and the prospect of failure can be very scary noises in the shadows. Most people will choose unhappiness over uncertainty.
For years, I set goals, made resolutions to change direction, and nothing came of either. I was just as insecure and scared as the rest of the world.
The simple solution came to me accidentally four years ago. At that time, I had more money than I knew what to do with—I was making $70K or so per month—and I was completely miserable, worse than ever. I had no time and was working myself to death.
I had started my own company, only to realize it would be nearly impossible to sell. This turned out to be yet another self-imposed limitation and false construct. (BrainQUICKEN was acquired by a private equity firm in 2009.)
Oops. I felt trapped and stupid at the same time.
I should be able to figure this out, I thought. Why am I such an idiot?
Why can’t I make this work?! Buckle up and stop being such a (insert expletive)! What’s wrong with me? The truth was, nothing was wrong with me. I hadn’t reached my limit; I’d reached the limit of my business model at the time. It wasn’t the driver, it was the vehicle.
Critical mistakes in its infancy would never let me sell it. I could hire magic elves and connect my brain to a supercomputer—it didn’t matter. My little baby had some serious birth defects. The question then became, How do I free myself from this Frankenstein while making it self-sustaining? How do I pry myself from the tentacles of workaholism and the fear that it would fall to pieces without my 15-hour days? How do I escape this self-made prison? A trip, I decided.
A sabbatical year around the world.
So I took the trip, right? Well, I’ll get to that. First, I felt it prudent to dance around with my shame, embarrassment, and anger for six months, all the while playing an endless loop of reasons why my cop-out fantasy trip could never work. One of my more productive periods, for sure.
Then, one day, in my bliss of envisioning how bad my future suffering would be, I hit upon a gem of an idea. It was surely a highlight of my “don’t happy, be worry” phase: Why don’t I decide exactly what my nightmare would be—the worst thing that could possibly happen as a result of my trip?
Well, my business could fail while I’m overseas, for sure. Probably would. A legal warning letter would accidentally not get forwarded and I would get sued. My business would be shut down, and inventory would spoil on the shelves while I’m picking my toes in solitary misery on some cold shore in Ireland. Crying in the rain, I imagine. My bank account would crater by 80% and certainly my car and motorcycle in storage would be stolen. I suppose someone would probably spit on my head from a high-rise balcony while I’m feeding food scraps to a stray dog, which would then spook and bite me squarely on the face. God, life is a cruel, hard bitch.
Conquering Fear = Defining Fear
“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?”
Then a funny thing happened. In my undying quest to make myself miserable, I accidentally began to backpedal. As soon as I cut through the vague unease and ambiguous anxiety by defining my nightmare, the worst-case scenario, I wasn’t as worried about taking a trip. Suddenly, I started thinking of simple steps I could take to salvage my remaining resources and get back on track if all hell struck at once. I could always take a temporary bartending job to pay the rent if I had to. I could sell some furniture and cut back on eating out. I could steal lunch money from the kindergarteners who passed by my apartment every morning. The options were many. I realized it wouldn’t be that hard to get back to where I was, let alone survive. None of these things would be fatal—not even close. Mere panty pinches on the journey of life.
I realized that on a scale of 1–10, 1 being nothing and 10 being permanently life-changing, my so-called worst-case scenario might have a temporary impact of 3 or 4. I believe this is true of most people and most would-be “holy sh*t, my life is over” disasters.
Keep in mind that this is the one-in-a-million disaster nightmare.
On the other hand, if I realized my best-case scenario, or even a probable-case scenario, it would easily have a permanent 9 or 10 positive life-changing effect.
In other words, I was risking an unlikely and temporary 3 or 4 for a probable and permanent 9 or 10, and I could easily recover my baseline workaholic prison with a bit of extra work if I wanted to.
This all equated to a significant realization: There was practically no risk, only huge life-changing upside potential, and I could resume my previous course without any more effort than I was already putting forth.
That is when I made the decision to take the trip and bought a one-way ticket to Europe. I started planning my adventures and eliminating my physical and psychological baggage. None of my disasters came to pass, and my life has been a near fairy tale since. The business did better than ever, and I practically forgot about it as it financed my travels around the world in style for 15 months.
Uncovering Fear Disguised as Optimism
“There’s no difference between a pessimist who says, ‘Oh, it’s hopeless, so don’t bother doing anything,’ and an optimist who says, ‘Don’t bother doing anything, it’s going to turn out fine any way.’ Either way, nothing happens.”
— Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia
Fear comes in many forms, and we usually don’t call it by its four-letter name. Fear itself is quite fear-inducing. Most intelligent people in the world dress it up as something else: optimistic denial.
Most who avoid quitting their jobs entertain the thought that their course will improve with time or increases in income. This seems valid and is a tempting hallucination when a job is boring or uninspiring instead of pure hell. Pure hell forces action, but anything less can be endured with enough clever rationalization.
Do you really think it will improve or is it wishful thinking and an excuse for inaction? If you were confident in improvement, would you really be questioning things so? Generally not. This is fear of the unknown disguised as optimism.
Are you better off than you were one year ago, one month ago, or one week ago?
If not, things will not improve by themselves. If you are kidding yourself, it is time to stop and plan for a jump. Barring any James Dean ending, your life is going to be LONG. Nine to five for your working lifetime of 40–50 years is a long-ass time if the rescue doesn’t come. About 500 months of solid work.
How many do you have to go? It’s probably time to cut your losses.
Someone Call the Maître D’
“You have comfort. You don’t have luxury. And don’t tell me that money plays a part. The luxury I advocate has nothing to do with money. It cannot be bought. It is the reward of those who have no fear of discomfort.”
—JEAN COCTEAU, French poet, novelist, boxing manager, and filmmaker, whose collaborations were the inspiration for the term “surrealism ”
Sometimes timing is perfect. There are hundreds of cars circling a parking lot, and someone pulls out of a spot 10 feet from the entrance just as you reach his or her bumper. Another Christmas miracle!
Other times, the timing could be better. The phone rings during sex and seems to ring for a half hour. The UPS guy shows up 10 minutes later. Bad timing can spoil the fun.
Jean-Marc Hachey landed in West Africa as a volunteer, with high hopes of lending a helping hand. In that sense, his timing was great.
He arrived in Ghana in the early 1980s, in the middle of a coup d’état, at the peak of hyperinflation, and just in time for the worst drought in a decade. For these same reasons, some people would consider his timing quite poor from a more selfish survival standpoint.
He had also missed the memo. The national menu had changed, and they were out of luxuries like bread and clean water. He would be surviving for four months on a slush-like concoction of corn meal and spinach. Not what most of us would order at the movie theater.
“WOW, ‘I’ CAN ‘SURVIVE.”
Jean-Marc had passed the point of no return, but it didn’t matter.
After two weeks of adjusting to the breakfast, lunch, and dinner (Mush à la Ghana), he had no desire to escape. The most basic of foods and good friends proved to be the only real necessities, and what would seem like a disaster from the outside was the most life – affirming epiphany he ’d ever experienced: The worst really wasn’t that bad. To enjoy life, you don’t need fancy nonsense, but you do need to control your time and realize that most things just aren’t as serious as you make them out to be.
Now 48, Jean – Marc lives in a nice home in Ontario, but could live without it. He has cash, but could fall into poverty tomorrow and it wouldn’t matter. Some of his fondest memories still include nothing but friends and gruel. He is dedicated to creating special moments for himself and his family and is utterly unconcerned with retirement. He’s already lived 20 years of partial retirement in perfect health.
Don’t save it all for the end. There is every reason not to.
Q&A: QUESTIONS AND ACTIONS
“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”
If you are nervous about making the jump or simply putting it off out of fear of the unknown, here is your antidote. Write down your answers, and keep in mind that thinking a lot will not prove as fruitfulor as prolific as simply brain vomiting on the page. Write and do not edit—aim for volume. Spend a few minutes on each answer.
- Define your nightmare, the absolute worst that could happen if you did what you are considering. What doubt, fears, and “what-ifs” pop up as you consider the big changes you can—or need—to make? Envision them in painstaking detail. Would it be the end of your life? What would be the permanent impact, if any, on a scale of 1–10? Are these things really permanent? How likely do you think it is that they would actually happen?
- What steps could you take to repair the damage or get things back on the upswing, even if temporarily? Chances are, it’s easier than you imagine. How could you get things back under control?
- What are the outcomes or benefits, both temporary and permanent, of more probable scenarios? Now that you’ve defined the nightmare, what are the more probable or definite positive outcomes, whether internal (confidence, self-esteem, etc.) or external? What would the impact of these more likely outcomes be on a scale of 1–10? How likely is it that you could produce at least a moderately good outcome? Have less intelligent people done this before and pulled it off?
- If you were fired from your job today, what would you do to get things under financial control? Imagine this scenario and run through questions 1–3 above. If you quit your job to test other options, how could you later get back on the same career track if you absolutely had to?
- What are you putting off out of fear? Usually, what we most fear doing is what we most need to do. That phone call, that conversation, whatever the action might be—it is fear of unknown outcomes that prevents us from doing what we need to do. Define the worst case, accept it, and do it. I’ll repeat something you might consider tattooing on your forehead: What we fear doing most is usually what we most need to do. As I have heard said, a person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have. Resolve to do one thing every day that you fear. I got into this habit by attempting to contact celebrities and famous business people for advice.
- What is it costing you—financially, emotionally, and physically—to postpone action? Don’t only evaluate the potential downside of action. It is equally important to measure the atrocious cost of inaction. If you don’t pursue those things that excite you, where will you be in one year, five years, and ten years? How will you feel having allowed circumstance to impose itself upon you and having allowed ten more years of your finite life to pass doing what you know will not fulfill you? If you telescope out 10 years and know with 100% certainty that it is a path of disappointment and regret, and if we define risk as “the likelihood of an irreversible negative outcome,” inaction is the greatest risk of all.
- What are you waiting for? If you cannot answer this without resorting to the previously rejected concept of good timing, the answer is simple: You’re afraid, just like the rest of the world. Measure the cost of inaction, realize the unlikelihood and repairability of most missteps, and develop the most important habit of those who excel and enjoy doing so: action.
The above has been adapted from chapters in The 4-Hour Workweek and Tools of Titans.
- Tao of Seneca: Letters from a Stoic Master — Free PDFs of three volumes of Stoic writing and modern profiles.
- Some Practical Thoughts on Suicide
- The Tao of Seneca — On Groundless Fears
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.
Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration.)
80 Replies to “Fear-Setting: The Most Valuable Exercise I Do Every Month”
Tim at his best. Extraordinarily deep and useful post. Thank you so much for the insight.
This is a fantastic talk and mechanism. Fear has defined my life since a very rough and abusive childhood. However, doing nothing but sitting in the fear has never been the correct answer however it’s almost hard wired into me. Despite the fear, I have enjoyed a lot of success i.e. swimming, rock climbing, Ironman, business etc., by simply taking the action. It has very rarely worked out the way I imagined but at least it has worked out and I’ve learned and moved on with additional action. It takes me back to that old saying “nothing ventured nothing gained”. Venturing to simply return a phone call can be hard but by doing it you empower yourself to keeping taking perceived chances. As I sit here in a coffee shop putting together a business plan after just having a very emotional breakup with a business partner it reminds me fear is normal. Letting it define us is our choice.
All the best
This is my fave post of yours. Ever.Because it is me. I guess it is a lot of us who live our dreams, and see those dreams expand every day, but it spoke to my heart.
Side note; LOVE the blog post format here and there. Podcasts rock around the clock of course but if you work these in I am here, reading every one, and tweeting to my 50,000 followers.Every single freaking one. Fabulous.
All we want stands on the other side of fear. For me, financial related fears crippled me for most of my life. I worked jobs I despised to the point of where I wanted to kill myself – about – rather than go in to work for another day. Then I was fired from my security guard job, heard about running a blog, something you could make money through, and I was in.
After struggling horribly for years I had some success. I even created a fab blog and brand based on me island hopping and and pro blogging and helping my readers do the same. All good. All prospering. BUT…it wasn’t until a few months ago where I dove head first into my fear of losing everything, including aka mostly, my fear of losing money. I had resisted the fear for years, flipping out, angering, self-sabotaging, and flaming out. For. Years. Maddening experience. Which led to some epic flame outs.
But a few months ago I sat with the fear and made a daily vow to step into it….every day. No exceptions. Writing comments, submitting guest posts to new blogs, promoting my wares.
A funny thing happened: I made more money. Quickly. Like within hours.Then days. But in the same respect I feel like Jean-Marc too; like I could lose it all and it’d be no big deal. Because it is just….money. Nothing to be feared or revered. Just an energy.
The catch; like Hans and JM and you, ya gotta dive deeper into your fears daily. This is not a once a year thing.You may have a dramatic moment of facing down the fear of death like Hans here and there but the more sly, sneaky but hella intense fears of criticism and poverty and rejection are waiting around every corner, beckoning you to come, challenge them.
I also finally learned – being such a smart guy, after only 6 years! 😉 – to apply my travel-related fear-facing to my blogging and business life. In the past month I faced down an 8 inch centipede, bird-eating spider and scorpion in Thailand. House located by a national park, monsoon season. You know how it works, world traveler.
Anyway, I evicted each poisonous, aggressive critter with ease, calmly. not getting ruffled at all. Especially with the centipede – highly venemous, savagely aggressive and with an excruciatingly painful bite – this was not small potatoes. Big time fear factor stuff, reaching under couches where he hid, avoiding his fangs, it was nuts but I was clam and quite fearless, after living most of the last 6 years in the tropics.
Light bulb moment; why not dive into my fears life-wise and biz-wise as I do with my world travels? So I did.
With each day, if you will just sprint toward fear, your biggest fears will reveal themselves, then, they will die a quick death. Because you see the illusion of it all. Fear is a bunch of squiggly little itty bitty energy waves in your mind. Is that something to be afraid of?
Thanks for the inspired share Tim!
Signing off from the Upper West Side of NYC.
Tim – love you buddy, but Yoda does not say that phrase in “Empire”. Signed, an original Star Wars nerd.
I’ll update. Thanks for the heads up!
This blog post has nailed a good chunk of what I see as questions and answers everyone should have for their lives. The stories are told from a perspective of someone who KNOWS that feeling, and has really thought deeply about the experiences Then action is taken and they weave those in a positive way into their way of engaging with the world. Bravo.
So much have I been saying to myself that it’s the questions you ask yourself that determine the wealth of your life? The stuff you don’t want to think about, the stuff you don’t want to even imagine. Although your post and TED talk about questions, I like that you focus on the hard ones we need to ask ourselves. We spend so much time avoiding the potential pain of even thinking about the worst possible outcome, that in effect, the avoidance of it may actual cause us greater pain. Like you, I suffer from mental health issues, spent most of my life using myself as a guinea pig trying to figure out how to deal with my anxiety and depression issues. Thank you for your insightful talk and accompanying article plus suggested reading to further me on my path of self-discovery to define what success and happiness are to me, as well as solidifying my belief that asking yourself hard questions is the way to go.
You introduced me to Stoicism, Tim. And it has had the single largest philosophy which has impacted my life. I’ve studied it for over 3 years now, and it’s the most influential factor in all my (good) decisions – at work, in relationships, and in life. Thank you very much.
Thanks for the kind words, Vishal, and congrats on putting Stoicism into practice! Any favorite letters, passages, books, or resources?
Ryan’s daily stoicism is a great start…with senecas letters for the late night reading
I loved On Shortness of Life and The Daily Stoic, Tim. I’ve fleetingly read Enchiridion too. But without doubt, the book which has had the deepest impact on my life is ‘Meditations’.
“You should take no action unwillingly, selfishly, uncritically, or with conflicting motives. Do not dress up your thoughts in smart finery: do not be a gabbler or a meddler…… and see that you keep a cheerful demeanour, and retain your independence of outside help and the peace which others can give. Your duty is to stand straight – not held straight.” – Marcus Aurelius
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” – Marcus Aurelius
“People are so frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.” – Seneca
P.S. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the ex-Indian cricket team captain typifies Stoicism, Tim. But I don’t think he’s studied it. A podcast session will bring amazing insights to light, plus get you hundreds of thousands of listeners from India 🙂 But he’s an extremely private person.
I don’t understand this sentence: ” Mere panty pinches on the journey of life.”
I’m actually afraid to read this entire essay, because then I might have to face the fact that I’m afraid to change my life.
Mark, I recently left a good paying job in China to come back to South Africa and start a business – knowing I probably couldn’t find a job if the business didn’t work out. I also sat down and began to write down the worst. In summary, my wife, two children and me on the streets in Africa. Then I began to consider the true likelihood of that, and what would be one step up, two steps up etc. and realized that the worst case with any remote likelihood of happening was something survivable. I made the jump. Yes, I have a lot less money every month now. But I’m so much happier than I thought I would be. I guess one has to get to the point where you are more afraid of not changing your life, than you are of the possible risks that come with changing it. Good luck to you!
Tim, thanks for this post–it is EXACTLY what I needed to read today, but I’m printing it off to read it on a regular basis. Fear has crippled and continues to cripple me, so I really needed to read this…I am vacillating between “whether or not” to do something, something that might be awesome, but I’m scared (scared of failure, of “making a fool out of myself”). Thanks for sharing your own story; for being so real and honest.
Thanks for this practical guide on one of your core exercises!
It seems weird to say, but when it is presented in a short video with a step-by-step guide, I feel like it will be easier to absorb and digest than when it is surrounded by other great content in one of your books.
I also feel like I may actually sit down and complete this exercise tonight with a friend!
Thanks for doing what you do, Mr Ferriss!
Tim, thank you for such a perfectly timed post. I needed this message today. I’ve been feeling discouraged and considering cancelling or delaying a Hawaiian Healer’s Retreat in October.
Great talk, thanks Tim.
This reminds me of the risk assessments we do when designing and building new software. We ask these same questions:
1. What could go wrong? (define)
2. How can we prevent that from happening? (prevent)
3. If it does go wrong, how can we fix it? (repair)
We also add:
4. What’s the likelihood of this going wrong?
5. What’s the impact if it goes wrong?
The funny thing is that no one ever seems to question the benefit of building the software vs the risks involved. They just assume that the risks will be overcome and the benefits will make it all worth it. Yet, for our own lives, we often take the opposite attitude.
When you embark on something new, you need to consciously ask those same questions. Parts 2 and 3 – the benefits of trying and the consequences of doing nothing – are, in my opinion, the pieces that most people miss when looking at themselves.
Bottom line: applying this method to one’s own life is a beautiful thing.
This reinforces something I’ve done since my teens, and I have no idea where I learned it. It consisted of 2 questions: 1. What’s the worst that could happen? 2. Could I survive the consequences if it did. If I’m honest, the answer to #2 is always yes. I may not like the consequences, but I could survive them. There was always the awareness that I could always figure it out, and that those changes could send me down a better path… so even in the face of fear, it still seemed pretty exciting.
Thank you Tim for this post. Most of all thank you for sharing your challenges with Bi Polar. This gives your advice and suggestions even more validity, the fact that you have succeeded on such a level with this condition is completely awesome. Also I feel that people are scared to admit to mental illness in a way that is different from others, so for someone with your profile to do this, can really challenge the status quo, inspire others to speak out, and get some help. Wishing you continued good health.
Thank you for sharing that Tim. It cant have been easy but it was definitely impactful. You’ve helped so many, thank you,.
An admirer not a hard-core follower, but working my way up to it. Always value your inside to the Human Condition. Just learned about Stoicism from your video, which Stoic book would you recommend as the first read.
I’m an early childhood teacher and have been following your work for about a year. I wanted to share how moving I found your most recent TED talk. You spoke with grace and with a genuine interest in helping your audience feel braver and more in control. Your talk didn’t feel sale-focused or self-focused. You spoke with the genuine care of a teacher wishing his students will find more joy, more peace, and more strength. Thanks for sharing. If you decide to try something REALLY different and explore the zany world of emergent teaching for young children, I think you’d have a lot to offer. Warmly, -E
Tim, I love your 4 hr wk/wk book. I am 57, I was 13 with the pistol in my hand. I do not remember what got me to there, or why I did not finish it. But thanks for sharing. I still hurts when I think of it.
Fantastic, Tim. This is a great resource for someone like me who struggles with ego and empathy, but who has friends and family who struggle with depression. This was approachable and helpful, and funny! This is my official request for more funny Stoic stuff please 🙂
Ryan Holiday spoke of writing “The Daily Stoic” as one of the easier books he has written. Renowned Potter Shoji Hamada from Mashiko, Japan once described his working style as, “like walking downhill.” Beautiful.
For a single person, this all mite work great. For sumone married or has kids, thats an awful lot of kindergarteners you’d have to mug lunch money from to feed, clothe and shelter them.
There is a healthy fear of throwing everything away when others are completely dependent on you.
When its just you, tho–go for it.
I will someday do this, as an old lady. My youngest wont be grown till im 62. But then im goin round the world 😊
Yes these choices are much easier without kids. Yet on the other hand most places around the world are much more affordable than the US. So take that journey for months or a year to another more affordable family-friendly place – Portugal, Ecuador, or Mexico (most places are safer and more family-friendly than much of the US!). This single experience will expand your life more than a lifetime of living in the same place in the good old US of A!
Tim, I love the concept of fear setting. I’d like to know if anyone has applied it, not as a working person or entrepreneur, but as a retired, recently widowed person. I do believe there are opportunities in front of me and I am at the starting point of exploring them. I am going to try to apply your steps to my potential options. If anyone has tips for me, I’d love to hear them.
Tim. This post. Good timing is an understatement. Today’s journaling, meditation, power yoga, puppy cuddles, watching the surf…nothing shifted my energy like your words. “That phone call, that conversation, whatever the action might be—it is fear of unknown outcomes that prevents us from doing what we need to do.” Writing that email in the morning. Gracias totales.
Y proba yerba mate La Tranquera y La Merced. Un lujo. Un abrazo desde Sydney, Australia.
I saw your TED talk last week and set an appointment to come back and work through the exercise. Life changing! It took my mountains and made them mole hills. I’ve already made an appointment to do this next month. Thanks!
Answer to question #3 I become my version of Tim Ferriss or Maria Sharapova!
Love this post and idea. I’ve also come up with a simple and powerful improvement to the process that I think you’ll like. In short, use another person instead of doing fear-setting in isolation. [Moderator: link removed.]
I didn’t realize this TED talk was new! I’ll be sharing this video and facilitating this exercise with some of my college students in our lunch series on “Life After Graduation.” While schools are great at providing support for incoming frosh, there is not nearly enough emotional support for graduating seniors.
I’m looking forward to reading the section in “Tribe of Mentors” that addresses the question of “What would you tell your college self?” Do you currently have any of those responses available online or on the blog? Maybe a future podcast episode dedicated to this one question! It’d be great to compile some responses similar to this great article on 99u called “What I Wish I Knew At Every Age” [Moderator: link removed.] Thanks for all of your work and for sharing.
Would like Tim to revise this post when he is 68, in frail health, with just enough money to scrape through three more years …
Would like the comment of of the destitute scavenging the dumps of third world failed states …
Would like to know how many careers Tim has ruined with this advice?
I lost my home was sidelined by my family and was penniless and very ill with a gastric ulcer after a traumatic divorce. It took me four years to claw my way back to “normal”. And I live in South Africa. This advice is still sound. Being mean and sarcastic is unhelpful to anyone
well, have you lost your home, and become penniless? have you explored the depths of actual fear that comes with actual events? this is an excellent starting point for anyone that is thinking of quitting their job, and you’re totally right, there’s nothing to fear there. Just look down the road, and see how you are going to feel if you do nothing for the next 40 years, I agree with that.
But, some of us actually took those steps, we did not have any money to travel around the world with. We did not have a home, or a family, or any financial options at all. We also had to deal with crime. And torture. So, everything is relative. I urge you to take the theory one step farther out. Face real fear, by burning all of your bridges, by giving away all of your money, by starting over from zero, as the next layer to the project. Otherwise, there is something to fall back on. and you haven’t really faced it. The paraglider though, that’s real. He did.
So there are “successful people”, yes, and there are
many unknown people that are merely “survivors” of things you never dreamed of. Life is a soul journey, not a financial one. Your article here is excellent, Just wanted to add that there are deeper layers to it, maybe why there are adrenaline junkies that push themselves into extreme situations on purpose.
I like the story of Jason and the Argonauts. The Argo was an ancient ship. To sign on meant a journey of almost certain death. With no return. But these were real men, back in the day, that had confidence in their own capabilities. . but it meant certain death, with no chance of return, to sign onto that boat. In that spirit, they signed on. And the life of Ivan Denisovitch, in that spirit, you can get up in the morning.
You’re totally right, and this is a great post. Just the beginning. It’ll destroy more paradigms than just the work handcuffs. Thank you
…from things you ve never dreamed of
How do I get a printout of this?
Excellent read! Thanks!
I just wanted to say thanks for this. I watched your TED Talk when it came out but as usual procrastinated putting it to use until last July. I wanted to make the hard decision to quit my job in pursuit of a work-from-home job without already having one lined up.
I was terrified for many reasons like how would this affect my career growth? would being unemployed hurt my chances of getting another job? would I have to just settle for whatever came? but most importantly, how would I support my family if this took too long? and what is too long?
All these questions left UNanswered were just driving me CRAZY…so I answered them. I used your template for Fear Setting, answered the tough questions, and REALLY thought about the scenarios and visualized it. Several cups of coffee later I was so relieved and energized I couldn’t believe it, THIS SHIT WORKS!
I left that coffee shop confident and ready to do what I was most afraid of at the time. I put in my notice and continued my job search. I worked hard, was turned down, offered positions below my expertise or pay range and I turned them down. This continued for over a month but I was unfazed because I had planned for it. Then finally, I got an offer that worked for me. This was a great decision, I am able to spend more time with my family and I made a positive career move.
I HIGHLY recommend the “Fear Setting” technique, now I feel confident that I will be able to make tough decisions in the future as well. Tim thanks for sharing this has had a HUGE IMPACT on mine and my family’s LIFE!
Since you go out of your way to promote Silicon Value virtues, including the Masters of the Universe Fitness folks, I’d like to recommend that you consider an interview from “the other side” of strength, fitness, and virtue signalling…. his honor Mark Rippetoe of Starting Strength, Wichita Falls, TX.
First, read his book…Starting Strength, which you can find on Amazon and the Preface of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. If you interview Rip….I guarantee entertainment and extra special wisdom.
Amazing information here. I will listen and watch closely, with a pen in hand to make sure I identify my fears to overcome them. Thanks, Tim!
I still continue to perform this exercise as I fall into analysis paralysis when deciding whether to do something new. Thank you, Tim, without you, it would’ve taken me much longer to find my path.
I love the work you have done. I want to tell you that your deep mind is here to help others, and I keep falling in love with you because of the content you offer. I am an over thinker and your information helps to get me out of my head and start living. Thank you…very much. After listening to this, I don’t feel so different.
So…what if you like the book but get stuck on the very first step of fear setting?
I feel like this is actually something I have been trying to do for a very long time now and I have not figured out how to do it right…
1. I start defining my fears. Which mostly ends up being a mixed bag of realistic and irrational fears, we all know that.
2. I start trying to figure out how to prevent the worst case scenarios for the realistic fears from happening. Which usually are finance related.
3. I get stuck because it seems like those fears are just realistic outcomes (income and expenses just don´t add up and I never in my lfe managed to accumulate savings).
4. I start doing research on how to possibly prevent the worst and I get stuck by too many variables that I cannot foresee (job or housing market, my own value, location dependency because of kids etc.).
And I do this being fully aware of the financial mistakes I made in the past that haunted me for years and years (and I am 39 now).
5. I deem the risk of change as too high and give up.
A lot of times when I feared the worst case scenario, it turned out to be just small annoyances, but a lot of the times I ignored those fears or just did not have them, I got slapped pretty bad for it.
And the older I get and the more responsibilities I have the less willing I am to get slapped.
Failure is not a guarantee for success. Neither is learning from failure.
There is a concept called “sunk cost effect”.
Success is way more likely to lead to more success than failure is.
I know you get into some details with risk management (key word testing) and I guess the lesson for me is more to start as small as possible, but do you have any more words of wisdom here for somone wanting to believe…?
Every time I see this exercise (and I’ve seen several variations), the example given is essentially “I’ll lose all my money and have to live under a bridge”. But what if that’s not actually your biggest fear? What if your biggest fear is more irrational, like “everyone will laugh at me”. I’m guessing that’s a fear that will be dismissed by many as irrational, so “just get over it”, but, how do you do that? Do you have any advice on addressing that kind of fear?
Hi Tim. Not sure if you’ll see this but I had a question regarding fear setting. My situation is a little different because I’ve already been working and traveling for a long time. For me, that’s the status quo. I don’t have an apartment, own a car or a lease or anything. But I feel like being a digital nomad is hamstringing me because of all the time I spend outside of the United States. I’m not sure if this is all in my head but I feel like there are clear advantages to living in one place for a long time especially if it’s in the US.
Anyway, I feel like most of the people that complete this exercise will have some kind of fear like, “what if I quit my job and go travel, how will I ever get my life back together?” But for me it’s the opposite. It’s “what if I give up my freedom to go back to grinding? Will I hate my life again?”
I’ve been doing this for a while and like my freedom, but I feel like I’m not really able to hit my full potential because of the temporary-ness of living on the road.
What do you think?
all nice and good when you know what you are heading to, but what if you know you don’t like the space you are in but have no freaking idea of what you could/should be doing else? Any suggestions on work to do to help me find out would be much appreciated, thanks in advance!!!
To paraphrase Jordan Peterson – Move towards what is slightly better. Trust your instinct to distinguish good from bad – one of his rules from his latest book is “Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).”
Trust your instinct. Take stock frequently and don’t be afraid to correct your course.
The enemy of action is perfection. You won’t get it right the first time, but you will slowly get better.
Kinda late reply for you (maybe not), but for others in the same boat, I gleaned a lot from Barbara Sher’s book “I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was.”
I’d love to know about the research into PTSD and how to fear-set for a project in the face of a diagnosis.
I’ve been diagnosed by 3 separate professionals but my (admittedly excessive) ambition requires me to take financial and logistical risks that put me at risk of facing the same traumas. This is hard to wrap my head around, even with the lists and structure you’ve so kindly shared here.
Do you have any studies or resources I could reference?
Love it. A great reminder to live life. Thanks.
So great! I loved this and have a new S word for my collection. I’ve hurled myself through fear thinking if I ignored it, it couldn’t affect me. I love this idea of facing it and giving it the light of attention and consideration. Great way to dissolve the darkness. Thanks Tim!
Has anyone noticed that you can always do the fear setting exercise from two opposite angles? Lets take the layer (Hans) Tim has written about as an example.
1) He can define the worst possible scenario for leaving his job.
2) But he could also define a worst case scenario for staying at his job and then maybe it is not such a bad scenario anymore after all.
In the end you can always find good arguments for both sides and we never know in advance what would be the best decision to make.
I have pondered over this question a lot, because I also have to make a crucial decision in my life soon and I was hoping to gain more clarity with this exercise.
Is it always better to go for the bold move or is it sometime stupid? Maybe its an easy way out to leave your wife and children and if you define the worst case scenario for doing it, it might blind you to the actual consequences for your children, of which you have no idea of yet (all their suffering from not having a dad).
Hi Tim, your fear setting Ted talk, and related Bullet Friday message was life changing for me. Needed to make a decision that had extreme consequences, your process helped me take the risk and manage the potential consequences. Thanks for the tremendous impact on my life! long-time reader and podcast fan- Grace
This is brilliant, Tim!
I spent some time playing with fear-setting in my journal and ended up with a scary dose of clarity: the obstacles were all in my head, which leaves me with the full responsibility to take action. Oops.
I’ve included fear-setting in a collection of paradigm-shifting journaling exercises, and linked back to your article.
Just wondering if there’s any chance at all you could let me know what you think about the illustration and/or description?
[Moderator: links and additional text removed. Website address preserved in WordPress.]
No worries if you’re too busy/not willing to answer. Thanks anyway! You’re amazing.
Tim, since my last comment, a lot of shit has gone down. Death of a loved one. I was required to give his dead body SHOWER! It’s a ritual in the community I live in, or rather became. I wouldn’t have been able to do that without taking extensive notes from Stoicism and Ryan Holiday’s “Ego is The Enemy”. OMG. Ego is the Enemy, taking notes from that book and also, The Obstacle Is The Way, helped me to thread the needles.
My obstacle was the person I was born to. 18 years ago.
I had a fight with my dad, he slapped me in a car in isolation. I rebelled. I was about to strike a hard stone on his car and break free, after all it was a stoicist vs. a stereotypical dad in his 50s, with a crumbling body.
By the way, I am 18 years old.
P.S. Following day, daddy faked an apology. I still don’t give a fuck. It’s outside my control and quite honestly, I don’t care what he does. Let that be a matter between him and the whatever spiritual force he believes in, because this is Pakistan.
Thanks for helping me to go through such a tough time in my life. Imagine a 17, 18 year old boy given a dead body and the immensely difficult task of cleaning it and preparing for grave. I never ever dreamed of such degradation of myself. It was against my will, for sure. But you know what, fuck who cares. When they don’t care, maybe I might step in and overcome the obstacle!
And then my fight happened.
So, I am controlling what I can control.
I meditate. Workout, Eat Right. Read. Take notes. Set intentions. And update my YouTube channel. Also, I was born a Muslim so I also do the Islamic Prayer stuff. Whatever. You get the idea.
Love your posts Tim
Thanks Tim. I have just taken that leap from contentedly dying of boredom in a high paying job to feeling alive again. The cost of inaction was too high. Reading your blogs and 4 hour work week sparked a decluttering of my outlook. Life is exciting again!
Do you know how many notes I took on this post?!!! Awesome material that is going to change many lives, including mine. Thanks, Tim.
I have a problem with the following sentence in point 6: “If you telescope out 10 years and know with 100% certainty that it is a path of disappointment and regret, and if we define risk as “the likelihood of an irreversible negative outcome,” inaction is the greatest risk of all.” What does >>defining risk as “the likelihood of an irreversible negative outcome,”<< mean?
This is a timely read. But I have only one question: if you’re naturally prone to overinflating your worries, how can you realistically lay down all details of what you fear without just reconfirming to yourself that it’s a date worse then death? For example, if you’re considering leaving a relationship, how do you lay out the REALISTIC details without spiraling into a “if I leave this person, I will die forever alone” scenario? Is the point of going into extreme detail to illuminate how ridiculous our fears can be?
Fears are never ridiculous. They only have lesser or greater probability of happening, or lesser or greater power over you.
Realistically, if you stay with this person, that is no guarantee that you won’t die alone. They could die first, they could leave you, you could get Alzheimer’s and they dump you at a homeless shelter, etc. If you leave this person, you might die alone, you might meet someone better and spend the rest of your lives together, you might meet someone worse who tries to steal everything you’ve got…In other words, either way, you have no crystal ball to tell you what will happen.
So all you can do is figure out the steps you can take to try to get the best outcome (which could be working to make the current relationship better), and thinking ahead to what steps you could take if the worst outcome arises. If for you the worst outcome is dying alone, list steps you could take to make sure you have a wide circle of friends, and maybe one special someone, so that even if one lets you down, another will be there for you. The point is to focus on what YOU can do to set up the optimal conditions for what you want. But also figure out what you could do if you really did have to die alone, so that fear doesn’t rule your life.
How many times have I read the book, watched the video, read this article and thought, “you’ve read this at least twice now and you still haven’t done the exercise?” There needs to be an EASYWAY book on procrastination 😁 I need o do this 🤦♂️
I’m attempting this exercise as a young 22 year old who’s been in the working world for about a year now. I think I’m able to conduct this exercise and answer the questions about what my biggest fears/nightmares are. The challenge for me now if knowing what action to consider, or defining the action I’m putting off. My nightmare consists of being just another desk jockey for 50 years working at the same salaried job/company in a typical 9-5, trading my time for money my whole life. I fear never being truly great at the things I enjoy doing the most (golfing/playing bass). For me the rub is in defining/figuring out how to change/what change to make to avoid that fear. I feel like that’s a million dollar question many people ask themselves. Sure I know what I don’t want, but what is it that I do want.
Thank-you Tim. The words of wisdom you put the time into sharing have always been extremely beneficial to me, and I appreciated it immensely.
First of all, Thanks a lot for all the hard-work that you put into your podcasts and videos. That has really helped so many people like me. I have been practising the exercise of fear setting for past year on a regular basis. And it has really helped me a lot. I had just been laid off a few weeks back due to Covid situation and I have been in a major depression ever since. But it is your ideas and exercises that have kept me afloat all this time. I am really thankful to you for Stoicism as it is only because of you that i cam to know about this Philosophy. I am slowly getting over my depression and I am feeling like i am getting back. I will give most of its credit to two things that i am doing and reading.
First is Fear Setting.
And the other is a quote by Seneca-
‘We suffer more in imagination that in reality.’ – Seneca
And these two things have helped me a lot. I had put this video in my WatchDaily list a year back and i have been watching it for a long time and it never fails to inspire me.
Even though I have never met you in person, I still consider you as one of my best mentor and Savior who have saved me from a lot of depression episodes and gave me a new outlook about life.
Thank you Tim. I really appreciate your work a lot.
Hello Tim, Thank you very much for sharing this. How I wish I was able to read this way back in 2017. But it still make sense during this year. I started reading your articles and you are my inspiration in working out.
I really enjoyed this article, thank you for sharing this, Tim! (I also saw your TED Talk, which is what brought me here)
I started doing the exercise as I’ve been wrestling with a big decision that is causing me a lot of anxiety. Our family has been living abroad for over a decade now and we are thinking about moving back to my home country where I plan to start my own business.
As far as setting up my business is concerned, the exercise worked really well. I was able to address all my fears and put them in perspective. But then I applied the same method to just the part of “moving back with my family” and here I realized that most of my fears were with regard to how the move would affect my family. E.g. my wife can’t adjust to the new life and will get depressed, my daughter is going to miss her friends and will be sad all the time, my son might be bullied at school because of his appearance, etc.
Since most all of this is outside of my control, there’s not a lot I can think of to “prevent” or “repair” these things. The little bit I know about Stoicism is that you shouldn’t concern yourself with what you can’t control so maybe I should focus more on that because at the moment, my biggest worries are not about myself but about (hurting) the ones I love.
Anyway, I just wanted to share this and if you, or anyone reading this blog, has any feedback or advice, I’d much appreciate to hear it.
4 hour workweek is one of my favorite books of all time. You inspired me. At the time I read it back in 2013 I was a perpetual dreamer.
I never did develop any cool brain quicken or rock climbing dvd or sailor shirts, but did go balls out and gave my most obvious occupation everything I’ve got.
I am living the life I always dreamed of. I am a leader in my space, part owner in the business and I change lives every day. I would have done without your story. But little things in your book still motivate to live my dreams.
I turn 50 soon and up until a few months ago, I always wanted a motorcycle. Didn’t know how to ride. Took a class, bought a bike and now I do.
I appreciate you so much. Thank you for sharing your tango lessons, your unorthodox kick boxing experiment and all of it. You made a difference in my life. I am glad you decided to keep living yours.
Hi Tim. Love this–finally adopting this framework officially. speaking of fear,
I have a question for you: how did you overcome the fear of or resentment around writing–overcoming the negative thesis experience (on this blog you have shared that you vowed to never write more than an email), to writing 500+ page books? I am struggling to write and stay with it, especially id I don’t have a tutor who can give me feedback or I can bounce thoughts and ideas off of. Any guidance and tips around becoming a great writer and making it a friend will be helpful. I’m in college and need to improve my academic and personal writing. many many thanks 🙂
Hello Sarah, I hear you and feel your pain to a large extent as I’ve been wanting to write for a long time…
If you like, join one of the writing gigs run by Seth Godin! They have been extremely helpful for me and thousands of other users in this lifetime. He’s an extremely passionate person for writing freely and in a community environment for feedback, guidance and bouncing thoughts and ideas of..
If you’re called to check it out, then visit https://www.akimbo.com/workshops
Best best for a fulfilled life, Sarah!
This was informative and eye opening; I understand I need to revisit my goal setting and start with smaller goals. I was setting long term goals and getting frustrated and overwhelmed not seeing the progress. This breakdown makes so much sense. Thank you.
Thank you Tim for this awesome exercise. I’ve read Tools of Titans and am currently reading Tools of Mentors. You have inspired me to take action and to make a decision regarding something i’ve had doubts about for some time.
I love the quote: ‘a person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have. Resolve to do one thing every day that you fear.’ In my 28 years of experience in this lifetime this has proven to be very true.
My main goal is making a positive impact in this world and leaving this world behind in a better shape then when i discovered it, while traveling, helping people, working out and having fun along the way.
If you’re ever in Amsterdam feel free to hit me up, although it is unlikely that you’ll ever read this. Cheers mate!
I was listening to Aubrey Marcus the other day and his guests brought this way to face fears up and I had to find it and read. I read it, and will be back to re-read again. As always you really broke this down completely and I love the idea, thank you
Thank you Tim. I’ve been going through the process with two job applications. Unfortunately, I wasn’t offered my preference, but perhaps it’s a case of getting what you need over what you want.
Anyway, over the weekend, I was filled with feeling of disappointment and mourning over missing out on the preference. That seemed to stoke some self-doubt and fear on the offered position. All weekend I was stuck in this space. I needed to come to a decision. I’ve been journalling each morning but I lost my way with it.
Then I recalled your fear setting exercise. It was just as much a self-empathy process than anything else. Ultimately, I need to be the one to decide. I was confused with which path would be the more courageous. As I moved through the writing process, I felt my somatic experience shifting. I was no longer burdened by the heavy feelings of doubt. Sure, I still have certainty, but the cost of inaction is greater than the potential upside that I ought to expose myself to.
I signed the new agreement. I still have a bit of work to do to frame the future in a positive light, but in a time of need, this writing experience pulled through.
Brilliant. After my Polar Bear swim, I will start.
The fear setting exercise is helpful but there is something that I don’t think it takes in to account enough sometimes the affect of a action might be what we could bear but what about on someone like a child we don’t want to see-them suffer if things turn out badly that’s not a cop
out but the truth
Perhaps of the best disclosure a man makes, one of his extraordinary shocks, is to find he can do what he was apprehensive he was unable to do.
In 2018 after a series of unfortunate events I found myself alone, without a job, homeless and on top of that my long-term partner left me for another man in London. I often see that as my second birth out of despair. Doing this exercise that memory is not gold as it serves as the bottom, but would it happen again today, I could find my way back. Thanks Tim