We are all afraid.
Actually, we’re more than afraid. We’re scared sh*tless.
It is engrained in our DNA, it is in the very nature of our beings.
Our brains are paranoid. That primitive portion, that so-called “Lizard Brain”, is wired to protect us. Our sympathetic nervous system analyzes and re-analyzes our environment, moment-by-moment, searching for danger. In a constant state of alertness. Plotting, planning, ready to flee or to fight, always.
Instincts. Chemicals. Adrenaline. It’s pumping us full of fear, really. Fear is an incredible motivator.
Or, it was an incredible motivator.
See, our brains evolved at a time of tremendous uncertainty—whether that was the near-constant physical danger, the perpetual lack of and search for sustenance, or any of the innumerable and equally fear-inducing threats to our livelihood. But humans are an advanced species, over time we developed reward systems to motivate us—to find food, to hunt, to work together (endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin). We used logic, communication, creativity, and developed tools that improved our odds. We fought like hell. We were brave. We stood together, we progressed together, by way of necessity. All of this in the name of survival.
But what happens when our environment progresses rapidly, exponentially? How does the human body respond when we begin to develop technology that creates unforeseen prosperity? When tools move quicker than the rate of evolution? When survival is no longer our only concern? As we progress up Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, further from imminent bodily harm, what does it mean for the human fear center?
Well, turns out we’re still scared sh*tless. We are still afraid. Fear is still our biggest motivator. Our environments changed, our world is vastly different, certainly. However, “danger” still lurks at every corner, it evolved right along with us.
Lack of shelter has become the fear of “not enough.”
More, more, more. We’re scared of less.
Our peers have become the new class of predators. We see rows of sharp teeth among our own kind. We fight for status. We fight for control. We’re scared of each other.
Search for food for survival has become a search for food to escape. The search for anything to escape. We’re scared of ourselves.
We’re wired to seek approval. We’re driven by instincts. We’re scared.
So we do what others want us to do. We pretend to be people we aren’t. We fake it. We fight fear with falsity. We’re scared that people will figure out we’re frauds. So we act like a bunch of frauds. We lie about bands at Coachella.
We lie to each other and to ourselves. We pretend to be infallible. We shy away from vulnerability, we mask our fear. And when we mask our fear we also mask ourselves. We hide our true faces and we prevent our own growth.
We sabotage our own self-actualization. Maslow would be so disappointed.
Why do we do this? Because we’re so damn afraid. Of each other. Of love, loss, babies, apartments, money, addiction, airplanes, the internet, losing, winning. Most things, really. And we’re scared sh*tless of being different, of standing up, of standing out. Falling in line is easier, safer, more comfortable. And we seem to think that comfort breeds happiness. But if fear paralyzes us, how will we ever create? Improve? Innovate?
We won’t. Invention requires courage.
“The desire that we have to do something that’s never been done before means that the people who are around you generally will not encourage you to do it…if they were encouraging you to do it, then other people would be doing it already and it wouldn’t be unique.”
— Seth Godin
While working with Seth Godin (and a small team in NY) last year he shared a story with us. A conversation about doing creative work turned to the balance between vulnerability and strength, of our comfort zones.
To illustrate his philosophy on fear and growth Seth told us about his experience riding a recumbent bicycle. There exists a point, he told us, around 18 MPH or 19 MPH, where the bicycle isn’t totally stable, but isn’t yet “un” stable. It is the point, he said, where growth happens. The spot he searches for in his daily life and in his projects.
The Wobble. The beautiful gray area between safety and danger. The sweet spot. The liminal moment before our nervous system screams out in protest. Past the borders of your comfort zone, into the hostile territory called Fear. According to Seth this balance requires a form of tango or foxtrot or waltz. You have to “dance with your fear” he told us. Embrace it.
Step 1, step 2, spin with it. Dance with your fear.
Often we’re afraid of being wrong, or weak. But to admit we’re wrong, to concede imperfection in the face of looming social danger is daring. Back in a time when community was imperative to survival, fitting in was of paramount importance. When we stand out, when we’re honest and susceptible, our nervous system sounds the alarms. Those alarms used to help us survive. And so, being honest with others, and especially with ourselves, is absolutely terrifying. However, In this era Honesty is vulnerability is courage.
And if we accept the momentary discomfort or pain, if we choose to be truthful and seek truth we’re rewarded with growth. The sort of growth that turns honesty from a painful practice to an increasingly liberating one. Being “wrong” is the path to learning is the path to growth is the path to honesty is the path self-awareness is the path to happiness. Right around 18 MPH or 19 MPH.
“Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”
— Brene Brown, Daring Greatly
Perhaps the ultimate denier of vulnerability, the biggest thief of growth is….the unknown. The mysterious, the nebulous, the undefined space between. The “unknown” presents a serious problem to humankind—a logical beast like man naturally seeks certainty and actively avoids the unknown. Rationally, that’s sound behavior, avoiding the unknown increases chances of survival. But sadly, in the modern era, it is in the unknown where we find opportunity, where we find each other, where we find ourselves. We must knowingly deny our instincts, combat our cognitive dissonance.
There are those among us who have unlearned in order to relearn, in order to grow. Someone like Seth chooses to deny instincts and expose himself through his art (we are conditioned to protect our reputations, to guard our art, to be strong alphas). Seth knows that when we show ourselves to others we can actually harness this crippling thing called fear and turn it to our advantage. We can capture the energy that’s released in the act of overcoming fear and uncertainty. This energy becomes a fuel to be used for good. To be spent on creation and generosity.
Seth may seem like an outlier, a statistical anomaly. But he isn’t. Seth is scared too, sometimes. We’re all afraid. We’re all scared sh*tless.
It’s what we do with the fear that matters.
I spoke to the University of Minnesota Advertising Club this winter. Early in the talk I put myself out there (scary, right?) and asked them to trust me, to humor me even if what I asked them to do felt sophomoric or cliché. I handed them each a notecard and asked them to write their three biggest fears on the cards.
Then I showed them my fears:
And after I finished talking about my path and my company and my work I collected the cards. I looked around at the students and started reading the cards. The same themes came up over and over.
Success. Failure. Health. Family. Love. Death. Depression. Loneliness. Cancer.
The list goes on. Some of our fears are different, but many of them are not. Many of them are the same. And we share this thing, this fear. It is ours.
The world is a scary place and we are designed to be afraid of it. Everyone we interact with is living with fear, to varying degrees. Our heroes, our villains, our mothers, fathers, friends, strangers….we are all scared sh*tless. It is nigh unavoidable.
Haters? Cynics? Anger, jealousy, rage, envy, these are born of fear. They manifest as negative energy. They manifest as the desire to cause pain, to see the fear in others so that we might feel better about our own fear.
Ask yourself where your negativity comes from. Your anger, your short patience, your selfishness, or your destructive behavior, or your excuses….where do they come from? Somewhere, way down the line, they probably grew from a place of fear, whether you realized it or not. I have these feelings, too. I’m scared. It’s physiology, it’s nature.
We may be designed to fear our world, but that doesn’t mean we need to operate according to that design. We can choose to dance.
Looking at your worst fears on a set of post-it notes is a strange experience. On these pieces of paper are my worst fears. Sources of anxiety and dread…simplified. Sharpie and a post-it note. And when you look at it from that angle….what’s the worst that could happen? Well yeah, obviously these fears could become a reality. Outside of my control I could lose someone I love. I could get cancer. I could fail. I could let my supporters down. I could let myself down.
OK. Yeah. That could happen. So what? So what are you going to do about it? What are we going to do about it? Wallow in fear? Guard our ideas, our art, our true selves….for what? So we don’t feel scared?
I’d rather stand up and pick myself. I’d rather do something worthwhile, because there’s a lot of bad stuff out there. I can’t control most of it, however, I can control what I do with my time. You can’t stop bad things from happening, but you can control how you respond. How you move forward is up to you.
We can choose to move forward together. To dance with fear. To use it as fuel, not as a crutch. We can choose to create. We can support and love each other. Why would we be critics when we can choose to be in the arena?
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…” (full quote)
— Theodore Roosevelt
I won’t ask if you’re afraid, if you’re scared sh*tless, because deep down we’re all scared. I will ask you to think about what you’re afraid of. To write those things down, to acknowledge your fears. To acknowledge the fears those around you undoubtedly have. And to decide what you’re going to do after reading this post, after being honest about your fears.
Will you be a critic, or will you venture into the arena?
Will you live in fear?
Or will you dance with fear?
Tell me what you’re afraid of on twitter: @grantspanier.