Fear is the Fuel of Opportunity

I knew I wasn’t going to get attacked by a mountain lion…but then again maybe I would. After all, those signs all over Vail warning people to be aware that mountain lions are active this time of year must be there for a reason. These were the thoughts running through my head as Heather and I stood at the head of the Davos Trail last week preparing for a rigorous hike in the Rocky Mountains. We were in Colorado (without our girls who were back in Traverse City – thanks Grandma!) for a few days of R&R while celebrating our 15 year wedding anniversary.

At the trailhead there are two paths. One is wide, smooth, down-sloping and meanders gently around the mountain. The other is a narrow single-track – craggy, rugged and ascends steeply.

If there is going to be a hungry mountain lion waiting for us, I thought, it will be up not down. But we went up, nonetheless, and the payoff was big, as the expansive view at the top was spectacular. No mountain lions in sight (although a Border Collie snuck up and ran past us at one point causing Heather to scream – its owner, following closely behind, assured her it posed no mortal threat).

And of course it’s absurd to fear mountain lions, just as it is to fear sharks, because the risks they pose are so miniscule. But just because something is absurd or irrational doesn’t mean we don’t fear it. Fear is instinctual although often illogical.

In this way the mountain lion is a metaphor that explains why we do things we shouldn’t and don’t do things we should.

Why We Fear What We Fear

Our genetic predisposition is to avoid danger. We fear, we flee. That’s an instinct that dates back millennia and has allowed humans to consistently outwit and outlast the saber tooth tigers of the world. A more recent phenomenon, though, is fleeing not just fear of physical harm, but fear of mental and emotional discomfort as well.

Author and marketing guru Seth Godin attributes this type of fear to the “lizard brain,” our prehistoric brain stem that is responsible for revenge, fear and anger. Godin explains that: “The lizard brain is eternally vigilant, trying to keep people from noticing you (which is dangerous). The lizard brain hates failure, and thus it hates creativity or the launch of anything that might make a fuss (which can lead to failure).”

The lizard brain doesn’t want you to feel vulnerable, to change, to feel anxiety. It’s what urged me to take the smooth, descending path, rather than the rough, ascending one. The lizard brain is vigilant and relentless. It doesn’t take a day off. It’s there every time you step in front of a microphone or sit down at a keyboard. It’s what keeps you from raising your hand at a PTA meeting or expressing your heartfelt opinion in a public setting.

The lizard brain cannot be gotten rid of. It can only be complied with or confronted. In other words, if you desire to make a difference and do work that matters, what you must seek is not the absence of fear, but rather the ability to push through the fear in spite of how you feel.

Author Steven Pressfield refers to the fear we all feel as the “resistance.” The resistance is what leads us to make decisions based not on what we desire, but rather what we think others desire of us. Pressfield decries this mindset as it robs us of our authentic self: “Our job in this life is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.”

The Two Paths 

Life, therefore, comes down to a choice between two paths. One feels safe, the other fraught with risk. One lies within the comfort zone, the other outside of it. One leads away from fear, the other straight toward it.

“Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us.” Steven Pressfield

Those who follow the second path are not fearless. In fact, they often feel fear more acutely than those who choose to walk a more well trod path. But they don’t run from thefear-fuels-opportunity/  fear, and learn, as Godin says, to “dance” with it. Fear is not a barrier – it’s what drives them.

“When we deny our fear, we make it stronger.” Seth Godin

Fear stops us from doing so many things, such as quitting a job, starting a business, or having a difficult conversation. We tell ourselves that we will take action “when the time is right.” But the only time that is ever right is right now. Waiting for the fear to go away is a hopeless strategy – it never will. At some point you have to be more afraid of settling than you are of chasing your dream and failing.

“The pain of not doing it is worse than the pain of doing it.” Steven Pressfield

We also tell ourselves that we don’t take action because we lack confidence. But confidence is not what is required, courage is. In fact, when pushing boundaries, almost no one is confident. The courageous few do something anyway. {tweet that}

“The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.” Steven Pressfield

It takes courage to face the fear, to move toward it. But the more you face it, the more it becomes a habit. You learn that taking the plunge is not as scary as you thought, so you leap again. And again.

“Habits are more powerful than fears.” Seth Godin

Soon you come to realize that fear is not to be avoided, but to be embraced. You grab fear by the throat and never let go. {tweet that}

“Use fear as a compass to push you toward bringing your best creative work to life.” Seth Godin

In this sense fear is contagious because it breeds courage. And it feels good to be courageous. Just as the extreme athlete seeks the edge, so too does the innovator, the artist and the entrepreneur.

“The more scared we are of a work or a calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.” Steven Pressfield

It’s easy to succumb to fear, to the lizard brain, and simply keep your head down, telling yourself that you’ll chase that dream later, when the time is right. But it will never be the right time. You will never have the right idea. No matter how diligently you seek it, you will never have reassurance.

“Soon is not as good as now.” Seth Godin

Ours is a world of limited resources – the most finite of which is time. And time is not on your side. It marches on relentlessly and you can’t get it back. That’s why it’s critical to figure out your goals and start acting toward them, no matter how scary the journey.

“Being aware of your fear is smart. Overcoming it is the mark of a successful person.” Seth Godin

You must make this journey not only for yourself, but for all of us. The world needs your gift. If you let fear rule your life, you’re depriving others of your greatness. So stop wavering. Stop worrying. Stop hesitating.

Start believing – then act. Never forget that the first step is always the hardest. {tweet that}

LifeJay Harrington