Let’s start with a love story.
I am sitting in a cafe in Den Haag, enjoying a rainy afternoon in the Netherlands the best possible way – coffee and chocolate cake. Over at the next table I see a young man, let’s call him Tom, and his friend and discussing enthusiastically Britney, a girl they know. Tom clearly has a huge crush on her and is scared to death to confess his feelings, so he has commissioned his friend to convince him to do it.
The conversation went on and on about all the reasons why telling her was NOT SCARY. One of the arguments was that Tom should speak up, because he has nothing to lose – they already spend so much time together, that if she’s not interested, they can just continue as they are right now. His friend even said “Yeah, you guys are practically dating, only except the sexual part!” Tom repeated several times that he doesn’t really expect anything from her, so nothing really needs to change! What could possibly go wrong with this kind of conversation?
I am right here, resisting ferociously my temptation to go there and slap poor Tom in the face: “If you don’t really want anything to change why are you planning to take action? Stop lying to yourself and admit that you do in fact want something to change, that you are super scared because you have a lot to loose AND it is worth the risk!”
Meanwhile Britney is dating a hot cool guy (just for the sex, Tom assumes) who has probably made it clear that he wants things between them to change. Not only that but he has probably taken multiple actions to show her that he is interested – a touch on the back, a seductive look, a playful smile.
Although I do sympathise with Tom, I can’t stop thinking about what motivates both of their behaviours.
Tom is scared of his passion for Britney, and he manages to hide it so well that she probably has no clue about it. The “Hot guy” is also passionate for Britney and he took action on that.
My friend Tom hesitates, overthinks, hides himself, gives excuses and ultimately confuses the poor girl. “Are you actually interested in changing your relationship with me or you don’t actually expect anything to change?” she might think. He acts out of fear and does everything to diminish the risk and the unpleasant emotions associated with the negative outcome of his actions. He focuses on what can go wrong and tries to avoid that. He gets stuck because there is no way in the world to avoid all risks. He ends up endlessly procrastinating and when finally takes action, it is timid and unexpected.
His competitor, acts much more “irresponsibly” and gets what he wants. He followed his passion and proclaimed his interest. He took the risk of saying “I don’t want things to stay the same, I want it to be different between us”.
Ok, disclaimer, I do realise that I am telling a story that is extremely simplified and takes away any agency of choice from poor Britney, who obviously should be taking actions towards her own interests, which is in important remark but not the point I am trying to make. I digress!
I am not here to give you relationship advice (although, obviously, I could) but to, well, give you life advice. About taking actions from a place of passion and not from a place of fear.
What drives our actions?
Emotions are one of the strongest drivers for human behaviour and they impact the decisions we make (unless you are Spok but virtually everyone else). In particular, fear and passion in particular have certain way in which they shape our behaviour.
Things I have (not) done out of fear:
- I skipped going to so many cool events and parties because I didn’t know anyone there and was scared to introduce myself
- I avoided applying for cool job positions because I was afraid that I was not good enough
- I did not post or share so many stories I wrote because I was fearing people’s judgement
- I stopped doing rock climbing because I was afraid I was going to hurt myself (and others)
Things I did out of passion:
- Kept dancing 3 times a week when my legs were in severe pain that the doctors couldn’t explain
- Backpacked and couch-surfed for two months in Malaysia and Australia (and traveled to over 30 other countries)
- Moved to the Netherlands, then Finland, then back to Bulgaria, then Denmark, then Spain, then the Netherlands (again) because I wanted to go deeper than being just a visitor and the explore life in different countries
- Successfully maintained 7 years of a long-distance relationship
- Fell in love so many times!
A lot of times I find myself in a loop that goes something like this: “Should I go out tonight? Do I know anyone there? Should I go talk to that person? What would they think about me? Should I share this article I wrote? Is it good enough? How is it going to represent me?” and then I just stay home and do none of the above. I am scared, worried and anxious because something might go wrong. So worried that I don’t even consider the option of it going right.
How does fear help us?
Obviously, the evolutionary purpose of fear is to protect our lives and prevent death threatening situations. Nowadays those situations are much less but still there are so many things that evoke fear without threatening our lives. This is great because it gives us an opportunity to use fear as a navigation tool.
We are scared about things that are important to us and fear gives us sense of direction that there is certain aspect of our life where we need to pay attention to. Tom is scared of the possibility of actually getting the girl just as much as he’s afraid of losing her. Romantic relationships are important to him. When I hesitate going into social events I am worried about making a good impression because professional network and friendships are important to me.
Every time I hesitate or procrastinate an important decision or action, every time I feel anxiety, I start paying attention. What is it that scares me in this situation and what is it that I really want from it?
Tim Ferris has an awesome TED talk about defining your fears instead of your goals and it is a great guide to how to use your fear to identify what you want. Check it out!
How does fear block us?
Fear also puts our minds in safety mode. We hide, avoid risks, and hesitate. In general, fear makes us more passive and responsive instead of pro-active and initiating. Just like my friend Tom, who is trying to avoid having a conversation that could destroy the nice relationship he currently has with Britney (and potentially transform it into a better one). Similarly, I am sometimes so scared of making a bad impression to important people that I don’t show up, making no impression at all (but at least I am safe from judgement!)
Fear leads to paralysis – it is designed to help us survive but not to help us live a life!
Is the question then how to become fearless? No, fearless people are people who don’t care about anything and that’s just stupid. The question is how to overcome fear and become more courageous.
If fear leads to stagnation and passivity, what is it that makes us take action regardless of our fears?
The same thing that fear points us towards – our passion, the things that we want and care about so much that we are scared. That’s why my poor and dispassionate friend Tom was struggling so much – he was resisting his own passion for Britney. When we are passionate we cannot not do something about it – we become more creative, we become more resilient, we resist pain, tiredness, we go for it!
Passion is something that is unfortunately too easy to suppress – stress, busyness, the need for security and safety somehow always come on top of it. Passion needs nurturing, it needs time and space to develop and grow. But once you’ve developed it, it becomes the strong force of creation that takes us where we dream to be.
So, how do we overcome fear and follow our passion?
It is all about paying attention to and amplifying the things in life that excite us, make us smile, make us curious. Following your passion means that you recognise that there are all kinds of things in life – sadness, pain, fear, rejection, as well as sunshine, love, good relationships, fun, and choose to prioritise the ones that you are most passionate about. Focus your attention on the things that are positive and that you are grateful about and take small steps every day to have more of that!
What if I am not passionate about anything?
Sometimes knowing what you want takes time – if you ignore the things you like and enjoy and don’t pay attention to them, you will never know what your passion is. And remember that fear and anger point us towards things we care about. Whenever you feel those emotions, ask yourself – what is it that I really want here so much that I am so scared or angry by the idea that I might not get it?
- Pay attention to the things you love and appreciate, then invest time in them.
- Take small steps to get more of what you like and want. A thousand small steps will get you much further than a big jump and are so much easier to make so keep going.
- Every next one you can take a little bit further out of your comfort zone. This will allow you to explore new possibilities of what you are passionate about.
- Remember to keep your eyes on the goal, on the thing you want to get and not on the things that could happen on the way there.
If we focus too much on the small problems we encounter on the way, we will get lost pretty soon. Imagine you are going to run a 100 m race. You are getting ready on the starting line. You are ready to run and you really want to win. You have trained and there are a few seconds until the start. Right at that moment, you set your position on the ground and touch a piece of glass that causes a small cut on your finger. It’s tiny but there is a drop of blood on your finger. Meanwhile you hear the referee “READY! ON YOUR POSITIONS!” the competition is about to start! What do you do?
If you really want to win this competition, you suck it up, even though it hurts a bit, and you run with all your strength! If you are scared of the competition, this is your perfect excuse to quit so you can look for a band aid. Is it worth it?
What do you choose to focus on? Would you allow small problems on the way to completely take away the joy of getting what you want? Would you allow minor troubles to stop you?
I hope not!