Fear: 4 Questions You Should Ask

Fear plays a funny role in our lives. A funny role, but a very big role.

The earliest fear I remember having, maybe at 3 or 4 years old, was this: My family would be out for a walk. I’d fall behind, and as soon as my family was out of view, gypsies would rush out of the trees to steal me away and make me be their own child. (I had heard about gypsies.)

I remember watching The Elephant Man when I was 9 or 10. I hardly slept for a week. It’s an old black and white–true story–about a man with a deformed head who was put in a circus and ridiculed and died alone. I knew there was a good chance that would happen to me.

Around 11 or 12 I used to sit on the stairs crying because I was quite sure–in fact I knew–that I was going to die. Die early. Die early of one of two diseases: Small pox. Or spinal meningitis. And the morning I woke up with a sore neck after falling asleep propped against my headboard, I knew spinal meningitis was the culprit. I was beginning to die.

I’ve been afraid of lots of silly things in my lifetime. Of spiders laying eggs inside my ear. Of accidentally dropping something on a baby (like I actually had a phobia I’d like toss something on a couch only to discover a baby had been lying there). Of hitting somebody with a line drive if I ever batted a baseball as hard as I could. I have had many strange diseases I learned about on WebMD.

Maybe the scariest possibility of all was put in my 7-year-old head courtesy of my older brother: Bill Clinton and Al Gore were going to sneak into our house in the middle of the night and murder me in my sleep. (Bet you can’t guess which political party I grew up in.)

 

And then I grew up, and fears became more sophisticated. I’ll accidentally screw up my taxes and get in trouble. I’ll run out of money and become homeless.

So I say yes to things I don’t actually want, because I’m afraid of what someone will think.

More frequently, I say no to things I do want, because what if I screw them up?

What if people discover that I’m not a very cool person? What if nobody likes my blog post? What if I try making a podcast and nobody listens? What if people make fun of me? What if I accept a promotion only to fall flat on my face? What if I make close friends, and those friends let me down? What if I open up to a loved one, and they realize they don’t like me? What if, what if, what if…

Lots of things could go wrong. I could forget to lock the door to my home before I go to sleep. And when I go check to make sure I locked it, I might see it wrong and still leave it unlocked. Oh man… (#thankyoutherapy)

 

The thing is, I think even though our fears get more sophisticated as we get older, they’re still just exactly what they always were: Just fears.

Fears that you can get past. Fears that probably won’t come true. Fears that, if they do come true, will probably be fine.

Have you ever watched a child learn how to swim? Take their first jump in the pool? They stand there shaking and whimpering. Mom or dad smile and coax them into the pool. “I’ll catch you!” But the child is frozen. “It’s going to be okay. I promise.” But what if you’re wrong, mom? Finally–finally the child decides they want it bad enough to try anyway. They jump. Have you seen what happens to a child’s face in that moment? The terror changes to this incredible feeling of wonder and awe. So many emotions flash across their face: Relief. Excitement. Pride. They did it! They’ve unlocked a whole world of fun and fulfillment. They’re so relieved and excited they can’t help laughing. Giddy. It feels so good.

What’s something you’ve been so, so afraid of, that when you finally did it, you felt a similar relief and pride and excitement? What’s something you really wanted that you couldn’t have for a long, long time, because you were afraid? As Jack Canfield says, “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”

Sometimes the fear doesn’t just go away once you’ve done your thing. Sometimes when you face your fears, all you feel is capable or healthy.

But I bet that most of your things you’ve done–through the fear–have left you with the incredible realization that it was okay. Even if it didn’t feel okay, you’re all right. Life’s not over. You are strong. You CAN.

 

But fear is still scary.

 

So in case it helps, I have 4 questions I’d like to suggest that you ask yourself about fear. 4 questions to quietly reflect on and answer thoughtfully:

1. What is something you haven’t done/aren’t doing because you’re afraid?

2. On a scale from 1-10, how vague is the outcome you’ve been afraid of?

3. What are the realistic possible outcomes? The good? The bad? If the bad happened, how would you deal with it? (Be very specific.)

4. What one step could you take today to move toward that thing you’ve been too afraid to do?

I don’t think answering these questions will make you unafraid.

But I do think when you answer question 1, you’ll realize that you want to do your thing even though you’re afraid.

And when you answer question 2, you’ll realize you’re mostly just afraid of the dark. You’re afraid because you have no idea what possibilities are lurking on the other side of your fear. As the iconic horror writer H. P. Lovecraft put it, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

And when you answer question 3, you’ll realize that when you switch the lights on and take a more realistic, honest, specific look at what was in the dark, it’s never quite as awful as you thought. In fact, the whole thing might be quite safe.

And when you answer question 4, you’ll be starting your new journey. A journey toward the life you want and dream of. No matter how scared you are.

Because you see fear for what it is: Just fear.

You’ve got this.

And you’re going to be okay.

Ralph Waldo Emerson - world is not so scary when you look

There Aren’t Normal People

A thought occurred to me today as I watched my adorable wife randomly dancing a carefree (and quite unpredictable) little dance. After a minute she laughed and said, “Do you ever think about if other couples do things like this, just be silly or weird around each other? Or if most people are more normal?”

Honestly, yes, I think most couples do random goofy things around each other. Definitely, definitely, definitely–in private, wherever self-consciousness isn’t an issue, yes: EVERYONE does weird and carefree and goofy things.

I think there just aren’t “normal” people.

We think of the world as being full of “adults” who are “normal” and “mature” and do “sensible” things and aren’t “childish” or “silly.” But behind closed doors, I don’t think anyone is “normal.”

A well-spoken doctor suddenly reverts to high school when his buddy shows up. Chest-bumping, high-fiving, saying things like “my man” and “eeeyyyy” and “sick bro!”

A suit-wearing executive jumps and screams watching his favorite sports team in the postseason.

Or there’s someone like me, who can be found sitting alone, smiling and laughing out of sheer happiness as I read the wine-and-cheese book I got for Christmas. Cheese….. :)

And everybody dances. Or sings. Or just makes weird noises. Or uses goofy voices. At least when nobody’s around to watch.

Think of the person with whom you’ve had the most comfortable friendship in your whole life. Your best “buddy.” Maybe it’s your significant other. How weird and silly have you gotten when they’re the only person around? You just let it all hang out, childishness, mischievousness, laughter till your sides hurt, and all the silliness inside you.

Maybe there are some “adults” here and there who are “normal” and “mature” and never free their childlike side–never do any weird little dances. I’m afraid that in my experience with those types, it means they’re trying really hard to earn or prove something.

But I think for the most part, people who have found the freedom to just be themselves (at least when they’re with their safe few best friends) aren’t normal. They chase their significant other around the house, they make outrageously dumb puns, they pull strange stunts just to crack each other up, and they dance silly little carefree dances.

And there’s something happy and safe and relieving and inspiring about that. We’re all just people. Emotional, curious, excitable, goofy, sometimes childish people. Free.

Someone recently suggested I be more like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s character from the hilarious movie Central Intelligence. He was picked on for being himself in high school. But when he grew up to be a cool, strong, intimidating bad-ass, he still shows up in a baby blue shirt with a colorful unicorn on it and the words Always Be You. “Unicorns are the most lethal animals on the planet,” he explains. Because he just. Doesn’t. Care.

Thinking today about how silly and false the idea of “normal” is, a couple close friends come to mind who just 100% lean into their happy energy. Sometimes they seem “weird” or “different.” But they’re the most loving, happy, supportive, people to be around. And their complete genuineness–their total lack of facade–makes them inspiring and freeing people to just be with.

I realize I want to be even more like them: Just myself. Just real. Nothing to prove. Nobody’s approval to earn. Carefree and silly. Just free.

NOT normal!

How silly do YOU get when nobody else is watching?

Observation Point, Zion National Park

Last month my wife and her sister and I drove 5000 miles around the western States. We experienced some incredible things. California’s redwoods, the great Grand Canyon, Painted Hills, The Loneliest Road in America, a Ghost Forest off the Oregon coast, and the beautiful paradise of Zion National Park. Oh, and a shocking low flyover by two fighter jets in the middle of nowhere.

There are so many stories to tell. But I want to share just one moment:

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Our first day in Zion, we hiked four miles of switchbacks, through narrow canyons and along sheer drop offs, all the way up to Observation Point. We could see the tiny paths we’d just come from over two thousand feet below. For a while we just sat at the top and breathed it in. It was so peaceful and beautiful.

Suddenly I found myself looking at life through a different perspective. For an amazing moment I saw all the little daily stresses and problems and dramas for what they were. Distractions. Life was not about who said that thing at work or whether my boss will still like me next year. It wasn’t about how much money I’d saved that month. Life was bigger than that. A lot bigger.

I spend most of the year working. Full time hours, narrowly focused, in a stressful environment. And while I sit at my desk I often find myself dreaming of that little corner of life that we call vacation. That thing that comes around once in a blue moon, where you get to go find a hidden gem somewhere to hang onto in your memory till the next vacation comes around.

But here, after several tough miles in the middle of nowhere (switchbacks put you in touch with your human self), I found myself glancing back at the little corner of life called a job. Sure, my work makes a difference, and jobs are important. But my job is just one tiny piece of this great big world that is mine for the taking. I can walk outside into a beautiful, real world whenever I choose. I can always live in that world I find on vacations. I just don’t always look.

My problems and stresses seemed about as small from the top of that cliff as the tiny trees that dotted the ground below. When I have to walk back down to the bottom and clock back in, those trees might look big again. But they’re not. And sometimes I have to remind myself of that. Sometimes I’ll need to step back and remember the freedom and perspective I found on the top of Observation Point, the freedom to live in a bigger world.

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They Have Feelings, Just Like You

There’s this one cashier at our grocery store that helps us sometimes. He’s disabled and has to sit on a stool while he slowly rings up our items. He’s very talkative and friendly, but his conversation is a little awkward.

I’ve noticed a lot of people avoid him. They know checkout will take longer and the topics will be weird, so they find a different line. More convenient, more comfortable. I caught myself avoiding his lane and felt awful.

He definitely notices when we recognize him and awkwardly shuffle away, as if we realized there’s a shorter line somewhere else. He can feel our impatience as he clumsily shoves our groceries into the bags. He knows we think his small talk is awkward. He can hear us thinking that employing a faster worker would be better customer service. After all, we’ve got important things to get to.

And he carries all this home with him every single night.

He’s a good sport and he makes the best of it. He tries to connect and he makes your day if he can. He knows some people like him. He’s proud of his work ethic and he’s a very sweet person. He’s got some friends and family who love him.

But sometimes he feels the hurt. Some days it really bothers him that people don’t want to see him. He wishes he could move faster so his customers would be satisfied. He replays the awkward comment he made to be funny, and hears again and again the pitying chuckle. He falls asleep to the impatient drum of your credit card on his counter. If he were more coordinated, he’d be more likable.

And he falls asleep with the same big feelings that I have when I’m embarrassed in front of my friends, the same big feelings you have when your boss makes you feel stupid.


“I can’t stand the IT guy. He’s super rude. Really unfriendly.”

Cassie always said what nobody else would say but everyone was thinking, so I knew that the rest of my team probably felt the same way about Ryan, who was there for the day installing new computers.

“Really? What happened?”

“I don’t know, he just… always looks really angry, and he seems annoyed when I tell him something’s not working. He never even says hi.”

I always encouraged my employees to speak freely, so I wanted Cassie to feel understood. But I’d worked with Ryan a lot, and he was a good guy.

“Have you gotten to talk to him much? He’s actually pretty nice once you get him talking. Maybe he’s a little shy, but he’s always been really helpful to me and he’s one of the hardest working people I know. You might like him if you get to know him.”

“Nope, his attitude sucks.” Cassie’s mind was made up.

Ryan is often misunderstood. He is very quiet and can be very serious. Focused, direct, and professional. Not exactly a social butterfly.

When people think and talk about Ryan the way Cassie did, it hurts Ryan. It’s not always to his face, but it gets around to him. Dirty looks, “feedback,” conversations overheard.

Cassie doesn’t know what has made Ryan who he is. Ryan served in active duty and saw some pretty dark stuff while trying to protect his country. Some of the stuff he had to see and do, he won’t talk about. “It just changes you,” he says. “You can never unsee it or undo it. And nobody back home will ever understand.”

Some nights he startles awake, ready to fight, only to find he’s sitting in a bed drenched in sweat. He has been through so much, sacrificed more than a lot of us can imagine. And it has left scars he carries with him to work every day–scars that rub people the wrong way. He’s seen more than just rainbows and butterflies, and you can see it on his face. But if you don’t know him already, it may just look like “unfriendliness.”

Ryan is a complete softy deep down. He’s head over heals for his wife and would give the world for his kids. He loves to serve. He has big feelings, just like the rest of us. It’s easy when we’re in Cassie’s position to forget that.


When I was about 7, I knew this girl named Bridget. She had a couple lively little siblings with cute curly hair–picture perfect. But she had plain black hair and lots of freckles. She was quiet and kept to herself. Shy.

Bridget brought me a picture that she drew of me as a gift. She had given me freckles, too.

“That’s so ugly! I don’t look like that at all! You’re so bad at drawing!” I yelled at her as I tore the picture down the middle and crumpled it up.

Tears welled up in Bridget’s eyes and she hurried away to hide. All alone.


Billions of people share this earth with you and me. Each one is unique. Each one has his or her own struggles and fears, insecurities and soft spots. But each one shares our humanness.

Look with compassion at the next person you see today, at the next person that bothers you, and the next stranger who interacts with you. They have feelings–big feelings–just like you. Good feelings and bad feelings. And you are going to have something to do with those feelings.

covey quote