To Be Successful, “Manage Your Fear” — Here’s How
Dr. Adam Grant says that to be successful in life, you must manage your fear. Learn what this top-rated professor at Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania says about how the most successful people in the world deal with their fear.
IN THE mid-nineties, after finally letting go of a start-up that failed, I found myself deep in meditation sitting on the floor of not-quite finished upstairs unit of a triplex I had been busily building in rural Washington State.
I was grappling with fear.
I was 35 years old and didn’t have a penny to my name. The $100,000 I had saved and the $35,000 borrowed was squandered in a business that sputtered for five long years before it simply sank into oblivion.
My three partners and I split up and went our separate ways. I went north. There were five acres of woods that my family had purchased a bit southeast of Olympia, WA and my mother wanted to build her retirement home and some income properties on it. Having nothing else to do except lick my wounds, I subleased my home in Sausalito, CA and headed up Interstate 5, tool belt in hand.
It was a tough two years in WA. We cleared the land, drilled a well, designed some buildings and an alternative energy system, hired some people who knew what they were doing and went to work.
I was afraid.
I was afraid that I wouldn’t recover my financial loss and career by getting another high paying corporate job, afraid that we were making the wrong choices about how to build everything on the property, afraid that at the still-young age of 35, my best years were in the rear view mirror.
I had first learned to meditate in my senior year in high school, guided by a Transcendental Meditation instructor. I went deeper during a week-long course in San Francisco called the Silva Method. That led to stints at the Monroe Institute in Virginia, and then a three-year journey doing the Course of Miracles.
In Washington, in the evenings, I had little else to do but apply what I learned during frequent, long bouts of meditation of various forms.
That evening on the floor, I was deep in meditation seeking the root cause of my fear. I was pondering what I had learned over the years about the two basic emotions from which all others branched: Love and Fear.
Hate, anger, jealousy and sadness are branches of the primary negative emotion, Fear; whereas love, joy, gratitude, serenity and hope are branches of the primary positive emotion, Love. This was my meditative focus, until in my minds eye I saw something stirring out in the distant blackness. It rapidly raced toward me, but its form was not an image, but a litany forming into some sort of amorphous thought ball.
Frank Herbert’s Fear Litany
When I was a young man, I repeatedly read science fiction writer Frank Herbert’s Dune and Dune Trilogy. In one of the books in the Trilogy there is a litany about fear. This is what I saw. It was gathering itself, forming, collecting itself as if to leap.
Then it did, and I was covered by it for a spell:
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
After some unknowable period of time, in my minds eye, I turned my head and watched it leave behind me. Ever since then I notice when it’s coming, when I need to face my fear and let it pass through me, never to hold it long, least I give fear too much attention, allowing it to defeat me.
What about you?
Pause and dwell on this a bit.
What’s your relationship to fear? What does it stop you from doing? How to you manage your fear?
Adam Grant and His Billionaires
An article I read a few days ago about fear sparked my memory of that evening meditating about it on that floor in WA.
The article featured Dr. Adam Grant, a very popular psychologist at the Wharton business school, and a leading expert on how we can find motivation and meaning, and live more generous and creative lives. (See his video below.)
He’s interviewed world-changing billionaire entrepreneurial icons like Mark Cuban (Dallas Mavericks), Elon Musk (Tesla and SpaceX) and Larry Page (Google), and what he found was this:
They feel fear too, but they have a considerable capacity to manage risk and not be overwhelmed by the fear they feel.
Dr. Grant says,
“… fear is a natural emotional response to an uncertain situation where you don’t know how it’s going to play out, you really care about the outcome and there’s a real probability of negative consequences.”
He points out that:
“In the moment it often feels like we’re going to embarrass ourselves if we fail, but in the long run, our biggest regrets are not our actions, they’re our inactions.”
This sentiment is borne out by psychological studies about how people experience regret, where it’s clearly shown that in the long run, our biggest regrets are not our actions, they’re our inactions — they’re the moments where we didn’t take a chance or take a risk.
Dr. Grant admonishes us to embrace the fear and try to figure it out from whence it came, what it means and how to either minimize it or let it go entirely. Ask yourself, he suggest, what are all the factors that are causing me to feel concerned, to feel anxious in the situation and then which ones do I have control over?
The point of these questions and your response to them is to help you manage your fear.
That’s basically what I was doing those many years ago whilst meditating on Frank Herbert’s fear litany. It’s been a useful tool ever since. May you use it, or something similar, to allay your own fears when they arise so that in your future, you do not look back with regret.
As for me, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that grappling with my fears for one meditation session vanquished them forever more. No, in fact, since that day more than 20 years ago, I earned and lost a bunch of money, again, and repeatedly was awash in fear.
But it was a quick rinse.
What I learned is that our fears are like the tides; they ebb and flow. Think of your life as a boat. When the tides ebb and the boat is stranded on some sand bar, recite the fear litany knowing that high tide is coming and you’ll soon flow away free of fear.
This realization — that what you’re feeling, be it hopelessness, jealousy, anger or sadness is temporary and manageable — will help you move away from all these fear-based emotions and move toward those ignited by love.
Perhaps the next time you’re feeling fearful, or experiencing the emotions that branch from fear, you can sit still, recite the fear litany and manage your fear away.
I leave you with two more pearls from Dr. Grant and one from me:
- Watch Adam Grant’s “5 Minute Life Lessons”
- Check out his books
- Click my links to my articles on meditation and mindfulness
Check out Dr. Adam Grant’s books:
If you’re interested in learning how to quickly and effectively meditate, start with How You Can Control Your Brainwave Frequencies.
Click here for some more articles I’ve written about meditation and mindfulness.