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Interview with Julien Smith on Fear

Julien Smith

Fear is a huge deal in our lives sometimes. It can stop us making progress.

I recently had an email conversation with Julien Smith, one half of Trust Agents and all round cool dude. We talked about fear and how to manage it. He had some wise words for us:

Chris: In your blog you say you have to “have balls“. Do you think you face life with “Balls” and is having balls the absence of fear?

Julien: There is no such thing as having ‘no fear,’ no matter what marketing campaign slogans want to tell us. There is only the habit, which you either have or not, to feel it and move past it. If you’ve got this, you can take risk (have balls as I say in the post) with an understanding that you’ll be fine on the other side. That one piece of information, which you really understand only through experience, is what you need to get past your hurdles.

Chris: You recently wrote “Fear means it isn’t happening”. Can you share a bit about what a difference that made to you in your work and day?

Julien: This expression comes from Gavin de Becker, who wrote the book The Gift of Fear (recommended to me by Chris Penn). He studies stalkers, assassins, and other betrayers of trust to see what their patterns are, and he also sees what happens to people when they fear things around them needlessly. First, you get paranoid about everything. Second, you stop trusting your actual instincts (what’s really valuable about fear), and rationalizing them away.

So when he says “fear means it’s not happening,” what he means is that it isn’t necessary to fear things that aren’t happening. If you’re on the subway and some guy is creeping you out, you think he’s going to attack you or whatever, then clearly you aren’t being attacked– you’re just fearing it. If you just move instead of freaking out, you’re dealing with what’s going on instead of hypotheticals. You’re dealing with the present instead of the future. You can have an impact.

Chris: People often talk about the “fight or flight” response but in my experience it is not as simple as that. I have always behaved differently. Instead of running or fighting I turn to paralysis, denial and massive bursts of energy. I am experiencing all of these right now with everything involved in moving my family to a different country. How does fear manifest for you and what do you do about it?

Julien: I’ve spent my whole life having fears of any number of things. I used to have seizures when I was young, so that meant I was always afraid of having them (instead of just when they were happening). I also have 50+ hours of tattoos where, the day before a session, I go “is this a really stupid decision?” The next day, of course, I feel fine– I was just afraid of making an irrevocable decision.

So I’ve learned to have an attitude as a result that is a little bit like “oh, the hell with it,” and just go ahead and make decisions easily without freaking out about them. To contrast, I’ve known people who sit there with an email for 15 minutes trying to craft the perfect message.

I don’t care about perfect. I only care about progress. You should too. Later on pretty much everything turns into just “a good story”– the kind of thing you laugh about later, or learn as a lesson. Very rarely do we regret the things we actually do– it’s more the things we don’t do. I take this and follow it to its logical conclusion: don’t trust your present self, only your past and future self.

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  1. What’s worse than being afraid: being afraid to admit to the fear.

    Woops, got some eggs boiling, gotta go…

  2. Sometimes we won’t be fine on the other side. This is the heart of fear.

    There is no reason to take silly risks. The idea that we can move past any fear doesn’t give us any guidance on which risks to take and which to avoid.

    That which doesn’t kill us can leave us maimed. I do think we are vulnerable. I do think some risks aren’t worth taking. We need to know that we can die (are dying).

    Fear of sending an email to sell our stuff is probably silly and something to deal with. However, I think the way to deal with it is to listen to the fear. We may have good reason for reluctance (eg not knowing how to write a marketing piece that isn’t sleazy)

  3. Hi Evan, good comment. I see what you’re saying.

    The thing is that most people are afraid of the stupidest, most inconsequential acts. In my case, I can really relate to fearing ridicule or rejection, probably from back in my high school years. It never really goes away from you. But I also am afraid of all kinds of weird things. For example, I was afraid of failing while lifting a certain weight at my gym on Friday, for absolutely no reason. I just did not want to fail. It made no sense.

    I can say with a lot of certainty that I’ve gone through a lot more bizarre, strange fears than most people, from having seizures to getting burned on purpose and all kinds of other stuff. As a result, I feel that most fear can just be gotten through, and that the consequences of failure are often much smaller and more insignificant than we expect them to be.

    A lot of fear comes from lack of experience. Trapeze artists don’t really fear losing their balance like we do– getting used to the sensations they experience is a part of that. So it comes down to the emotional ability to conquer fear, and the understanding of the real risks (and diminishing of those risks) in order to surpass them.

    So not all fear is stupid. But most fear, in this society, is. It’s pointless and brought about by lack of experience and willingness to push through it.

    What do you think?

    • Dave Doolin says:

      What I think: it’s the fear that comes from experience which is the hardest to deal with.

      There seems to be some sort of weird negative target fixation with some people. A friend told me a few weeks ago that she never really clicks into the groove until she’s down to her last $k or so. That is, oncoming desperation. Whence she finds a way to succeed. Her fear, of course, is that she’s going broke. Which she is. Weird.

  4. Hi Julien, I very much agree that most of what we fear doesn’t happen and that when it does it is usually not as bad as we thought.

    I also agree that we can gradually acquire experience so that we understand the real risks – instead of fears based on our fantasies.

    What may seem a quibble is me disagreeing with you saying that the fear is there for ‘absolutely no reason’. Actually there is a reason when we look for it. Perhaps something similar to a previous situation has triggered the feeling or an injury to our view of ourselves and so on. It may be that if we find the reason it may have nothing to do with the present or it may be that we want to re-evaluate what we are doing (we may want to look good to others, or knowing that we want to we may decide that we want to be indifferent to their opinions). I hope I’m explaining what I mean. It may seem I’m quibbling but to me it is quite important.

  5. Fear is a natural reaction against the unforeseen, the unexperienced and the unexpected and it is not always bad. In many instances fear keeps you safe. It stops you from being reckless. It is an energy that can produce negative as well as positive results and you need to learn to channelize it properly. It pushes you up against the wall and you need to learn to resist it in order to face challenges.

    Having balls doesn’t mean not fearing, it simply means not fearing fearing.

  6. True story: I was an Air Force military cop, pulling hospital security duty. I got called to the emergency room to take a car accident victim down to the morgue at 3 in the morning. In the elevator, the body actually sat up on the gurney, the broken jaw dropped almost to the guy’s bellybutton, the eyes popped open and stared at me, and the body made this horrible groan. I was 19 years old, trapped on an elevator, had a hand gun and a billy club, and darn near used them both, on a dead body.

    Fortunately, the body laid down and the door opened, but I still had to open the door to the morgue, reach inside to turn on the light, and put the body into a cooler.

    Obviously, neither that body, not any of the others in the morgue could have hurt me, but the mind plays strange tricks at times like that. I did do what I needed to do, but only by continually telling myself that I was the brave one, and I was responsible for the safety of the entire hospital.

    The full story will be out on the blog in a few weeks if you’d like to read it, but what I learned from that and other incidents, is that acting brave can make you feel braver, and it’s easier to be brave if somebody else’s life is in, (at least perceived) danger.

  7. Fear evolved to help us. Without fear, safety, security wouldn’t feel valuable.