Follow Your Fear

by Mike Sententia on June 14, 2012

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You’ve probably heard this phrase. The idea is that really important, creative work is also scary, and that you can find the most important work by just doing what makes you most afraid.

But it never quite made sense to me. I mean, there are lots of scary things that you shouldn’t pursue. Jumping off tall buildings. Mugging a drug dealer. Feeling exactly how electrified the third rail is.

And there are non-ridiculous things I also fear, and also don’t intend to do. Skydiving and motorcycles, for example. Activities that, while not suicidal, are much less safe than, say, an afternoon at an art gallery.

But here’s the thing: Until I had to come up with examples for this post, I spent roughly zero time thinking about any of those things. Because my mind can recognize things that are scary for a reason, and it doesn’t bother putting them into my conscious thoughts.

But something you think about a lot, mull over, but don’t do because it’s scary? There’s a reason your unconscious keeps putting that into your thoughts. That’s the sort of fear you should follow: The activities you keep thinking about, but turning away from out of fear.

(Unless you keep obsessing about how cool it would be to mug a drug dealer. That one, you should probably let go.)

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Ananael Qaa June 14, 2012 at 2:15 PM

This “follow your fear” concept has never made any sense to me either. I have no comprehension whatsover where the idea that because you find something scary it must be significant came from. There are some schools of New Age thought that make this contention, as if experiencing fear is somehow “the Universe” (there it is again – jaw-droppingly awful!) trying to send us some sort of coherent message, so maybe that’s the origin. But in my opinion it’s a bunch of nonsense.

As far as the “unconscious mind” goes, well, as I’ve mentioned in previous comments I don’t believe in that either, at least not in the form bandied about by students of pop psychology. While it’s true that one could define conditioning loops as unconscious, it’s also true that all those loops are sending is of two messages – either (A) I engaged in something similar in that past and received a negative outcome (fear) or (B) I engaged in something similar in the past and received a postive outcome (affinity).

Statistically I think that people are going to do better following their affinities rather than their fears. Conditioning loops that generate affinity responses are built up by experiencing positive outcomes, so any task that you have an affinity for is likely to be something you are particularly good at, something you particularly enjoy, or both. As with the “mugging drug dealers” analogy this principle has some caveats as well – chemical dependency can be the result of this conditioning mechanism essentially malfunctioning in response to a psychoactive compound. But for the most part, in regular daily life it holds up quite well.

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Mike Sententia June 14, 2012 at 2:36 PM

I hadn’t heard that idea that somehow fear was a communication from “The Universe.” Wow. Just, wow.

I ran into this phrase on Seth Godin’s blog. (On marketing, not magick.) He’s bright, talks about overcoming your resistance and doing creative work even though it’s emotionally riskier than doing work with a defined outcome, and since I like most of what he says, I’ve always felt there was something to the phrase. But, like you, couldn’t get past all the counter-examples.

Here’s where I think it’s a useful idea: If there’s something you really want to do, like write a book or start a company or something, and you’re kind of in love with the idea and it keeps entering your daydreams, but you’re not doing it out of fear, well, that’s probably something worth doing. And thinking more about things you fear might help some people identify those emotionally-difficult-but-worthwhile goals.

Useful enough for me to do it regularly? Probably not. But I feel better that I have some understanding of what he’s trying to get at.

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Todd Charron July 5, 2012 at 5:18 PM

Hi Mike,

I’m a big believer in following your fear. So much so that I put together an event called Follow Your Fear Day ( https://www.facebook.com/followyourfearday ) that happened on June 15th, 2012.

You’re right, the point of following your fear is not to do something like jump into a pit of snakes, but to do those things you’ve always wanted to do, but were afraid to do.

The idea is not that there’s anything “magical” or whatever “the Universe” means, but that by putting ourselves outside our comfort zone we learn and grow more as individuals. We also give ourselves the opportunity to succeed. Something we don’t have by doing nothing.

At Follow Your Fear Day, we had people telling stories of all the things they learned simply by attempting the things they always wanted to do. One person was scared of pitching her business idea at Lean Startup Machine. She followed her fear, pitched, and her team won the contest.

For myself, by putting together the event and doing a one-person solo improv show, I learned so many things about event organizing, improv, and myself as a performer. In the end, the performance was likely the best of my career and received a standing ovation.

And to think, I had been putting off doing this for years!

As for starting businesses, why not? You can start a business, fail and learn from it or spend your life saying “You know, I could have been an entrepreneur, but instead I played it safe.”.

I know which way I’d rather go.

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Ananael Qaa June 14, 2012 at 3:59 PM

Those are many of the same people who will tell you that when you run into difficulties it’s because “the Universe” is trying to teach you something. But in real life that sort of thing is usually just garden variety bad luck.

With artistic endeavors I can see where the “following fear” idea might make more sense. Often the difference between good art and great art is that good art follows the rules and great art breaks them in the right places. If you spend your creative life never breaking any rules you may get good but you’ll never be great. This has a flip side, which is that a lot of art that breaks the rules turns out to be terrible, but you’ll never know what will happen with yours until you try.

Let me add that I would never recommend following this method on anything like starting a company that you expect to ever cover your daily living expenses. A few lucky people are able to do it, but take it from someone who started three different businesses over the course of a decade, worked really hard, and still watched them all go under. Most start-up businesses fail, full stop, even if you have what appears to be a solid plan and are working with talented people. I can only imagine that if you were fearful about any of the necessary steps involved that your odds of success would only decrease further.

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