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Setting fears to rest

May 22, 2024

What phrases did you inherit that have created your ‘rules of life’? Mine include dad’s “always think positively”, mum’s “look after your things and they’ll last longer” (I still have a Sindy caravan in it’s box!), and their shared encouragement to me and my sisters: “don’t be a sheep”, that is, don’t blindly follow everyone else without thinking if it’s the right decision for you.

I’m sure my teenage self rolled her eyes hearing them for the umpteenth time; now I can’t help smiling when I catch myself quoting them to my children.

I’ve noticed I’m passing on some new ones too: lessons I’ve learned first-hand from life. One I repeat with great conviction is “the learning is in the hard stuff”.

“The learning is in the hard stuff” (me)

As a default avoider of hassle and hard stuff, it’s taken me years to realise that there’s much to gain from tackling tough things, confidence being the big one. The confidence you get from the practical and coping skills you learn overcoming challenges feeds into a virtuous circle: fewer things then feel as scary > life doesn’t feel as hard > you’re more up for the next test.

However, despite having secured the belief that the gain will outweigh the pain, my brain doesn’t always comply. Our brains are designed to make sure we survive, so they’re adept at arguing the case for avoiding danger at all costs (like public humiliation from a feared failure).

Hence, I found myself embroiled in an internal argument the other day over a piece of work I’d been asked to get involved in, one that on the face of it was not very clear and likely to provoke some conflict.

“Ooh, hassle and hard stuff” said the voice of caution in my head, and quickly concluded we’re not the right person for the job, only for a more sage voice to counter with “yeah, but you know the learning’s in the hard stuff”.

Which is where my amazing coach friend Geoff Watts comes in (honestly, if your world involves words like scrum, project management and agile leadership, you couldn’t get a better guide to your learning and team development than Geoff).

“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality” (Seneca)

Geoff put me on to Tim Ferriss’s TED talk about stoicism and his way of setting fears to rest.

Stoic philosophers like Seneca believed much of our distress comes from our thoughts and perceptions rather than real external events. Fear setting is Tim’s tool to move beyond distressing imaginings by working out ways to avoid or fix the ‘what ifs…’ that prey on our mind.

In a nutshell, there are five steps to fear setting:

  • 1. List all the things you fear could go wrong as a result of this thing (no matter how small or silly they seem), then alongside each fear, write down:
  • 2. What you can do to prevent that fear coming true
  • 3. What you’d do to remedy the situation if that fear did come true
  • 4. One or more benefits of even partial success
  • 5. The cost of inaction, financially, emotionally, etc.
“[Fear-setting] doesn’t make all the hard times, the hard choices easy, but it can make a lot of them easier” (Tim Ferriss)

So I tried it, and with just 15 minutes of thinking, my worries were no longer churning around like socks in a washing machine.

I had a plan A of what I could do to reduce the chance of my fears coming true, and a plan B of what I’d do if plan A didn’t work. Suddenly, the work seemed doable. What’s more, the benefits of taking it on to stretch my experience weighed more persuasively than the cost of giving in to my fears.

So is there something giving you the jitters right now, like making a presentation, saying no to overtime, telling someone their work is below par, or applying for a new job? Try sitting down with a coffee, pen and paper to ease it with a bit of fear setting.

You might even discover another of my favourite sayings: “today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday, and all’s well.”

About me

I’m Celia Clark. I’m a career development coach based in the dreaming spires of Oxford. I help you think clearly about your job, in all its ups and downs, so you can be happy and successful in your work.

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