How to overcome fears and microfears that sabotage you, part 3

How to overcome fears and microfears that sabotage you, part 3

As we saw in part 1, and part 2, we often we get stalled because we have "microfears." These steer us away from the Important Things we want. It’s our thinking that does it. We imagine what might go wrong, feel a bit of fear, and then suddenly notice we have a pressing urge to watch Netflix.

The good part is that we’ve noticed how things might go wrong. The bad part is that we’ve responded by avoiding, not by taking care of what might go wrong.

  • Where are you stalled?
  • What’s not getting done?
  • Where do you shy away?

It’s easy to find fears; just ask!

Stop right now and think of where you’re stalled. Now just ask yourself:

  • What am I afraid of?

Give as many answers as come to mind. Then give one or two more. You’ll often find the answers spring to mind quickly.

Use your brain, deliberately

Remember: your brain is not logical. List the answers, no matter how realistic they may be.

Imagine you’re afraid to say "No" when your boss asks you to work weekends. You might have a sort-of-reasonable fear like "I’m afraid I’ll get fired if I say No." You might also have over-the-top fears. "I’m afraid I’ll die alone in a gutter, covered in mud, smelling of bad whisky."

Both are triggering your fear response, so you need to deal with both of them.

Separate emotion and information

Now bring in your Thinking Brain to address your imagined futures. For each one, mentally make a plan for how you can prevent the fear from happening, and how you can address it if it does happen.

I’m afraid I’ll get fired. I ask my boss ahead of time, "what will happen if I say ‘no’?" I can also keep up-to-date on my networking so if it does happen, I have a fallback plan.

I’m afraid I’ll die alone in a gutter. I’ll look at my bank balance and credit limits to be sure I can get enough money to keep my apartment if I get fired.

Now implement those plans.

Congratulations! You’ve handled a microfear. You heard the messages your brain was concerned about. Rather than falling into fight/flight/freeze, you made a concrete plan. The next move is up to you, not your fear.

The microfears that derail you are imaginary. Literally! part 2

The microfears that derail you are imaginary. Literally! part 2

When things get stalled, as we saw in the article that answered the question What is a Microfear?, fear is often why. Not big fears; small ones.

  • We’re afraid of failing at something we want to learn.
  • We’re afraid of starting an ambitious project that might fail.
  • We’re afraid of choosing the wrong job and missing a better opportunity.

Ash realized that their business partner was no longer a good fit for the business. But they were scared to have the difficult conversation, because it might destroy the relationship.

Look carefully. All those fears are about something that isn’t happening in front of you. Every one.

Fear began as a way to save us from danger that was present and immediate. We’d spot a Saber Tooth tiger or killer jellyfish and get afraid. Very afraid. And we’d run, or fight, or freeze. As long as we chose the right one for the occasion, those reactions served us well.

Our brain still has that reaction, however, even to our own imagination. We run a mental movie of our business partner getting upset during a conversation. Then we get afraid that they really are upset. But we’re really just projecting what we think will happen. Then we get scared of our mental movie and decide we won’t have that difficult conversation.

If you aren’t making progress on Something Important, blame fear. The fear comes from your beliefs and thoughts about the future.

Fear = perceived danger + emotion

Yay, Brain!! We can anticipate problems and respond in advance.

This is a good thing!

What sucks is the fight/flight/freeze response. It helps us survive a killer jellyfish, but not much else. And it certainly doesn’t help us have a difficult conversation when we need to.

When you anticipate a problem, however, you have plenty of time to be smart about it. If you can defuse fight/flight/freeze while still knowing the problem, you can use your smarts to deal with it.

Without fight/flight/freeze: Ash imagines the business partner freaking out and … calmly calmly and carefully rehearses the conversation. Ash tries several presentations, choosing the most respectful, gentle approach. (In the real case, the partner knew he wasn’t a fit. He was relieved to discuss it and left amicably.)

Without fight/flight/freeze, you can take deliberate action. You can plan. You can take action to choose your future. You don’t have to let your emotions choose your actions:

You imagine failing at something you want to learn … and you calmly identify tutors, extra reading, and other resources in advance to help.

You’re afraid you might fail at an ambitious project … and you recruit a team with the needed skills. You do good risk management up front, making success much more likely.

You believe you might choose the wrong job … and you make a plan. You keep in touch with your other prospects so you have a backup network.

Make your fears work for you

Your brain is great at projecting What Might Happen. You have plenty of time to plan. But when your fear hijacks your thinking, you end up avoiding the very things you want to do.

  • Where are you stalled?
  • What’s not getting done?
  • Where do you shy away?

In part 3, I’ll share some tips for finding and overcoming your fears.

Stalled? Procrastinating? Abandoned dreams? It could be microfears. Part 1

Stalled? Procrastinating? Abandoned dreams? It could be microfears. Part 1

There’s a lot that doesn’t get done, despite our best laid plans. There’s that novel we’ve dreamed about writing. The weekly billing, which always seems to be late. The networking and prospecting we need to keep our business running.

Early in my career, I learned about human motivation from my mentor, Joe Yeager. He had a simple, but surprisingly profound, model of achievement. To get what you want, you must:

  • Want to do it
  • Know How to get it
  • Have the chance to pursue it

It’s the “Want to, How to, Chance to” model. It applies to organizations that aren’t finishing important initiatives, as well as people. Give it a shot.

What’s something that isn’t getting done in your life or business? Is the problem you don’t want it to get done, you don’t know how to do it, or you don’t have the chance to do it?

If you’re stalled, check your “Want to”

Here’s a secret: if you’re stuck, it’s almost always because of your “want to.” When you want something badly enough, you’ll find a way to learn how, and you’ll find a way to make the chance.

But even if you’re a high-achiever, even if you have complete mastery in your life, your “want to” can sabotage you every time.

Why? Because “want to” is all emotion. Emotion is powerful. Emotion is irrational. Emotion comes from the hindbrain and can override your logic and common sense. And your emotions can contradict your conscious desires and make you flame out.

Emotion drives excuses

When we somehow aren’t taking action, we have reasons. Indeed, the smarter we are, the more plausible the excuses. But dig deeper. Beneath the excuses is emotion:

  • The programming class that would let me change careers doesn’t fit my schedule. (Truth: I was scared I couldn’t hack it.)
  • It’s OK if my business partner doesn’t fit into the business any more. He can be a good will ambassador. (Truth: I’m avoiding a hard conversation.)
  • Once the kids leave home, then I’ll lose weight. (Truth: I’ve always been big. If I lose weight, who am I? I don’t know how to be thin.)

Fear kills “want to”

Notice a pattern? The emotion behind our excuses is almost always fear. Not big, traumatic fear. Tiny, lurking fear. I call these “microfears.”

  • … the fear of failure
  • … the fear of hurting a friend
  • … the fear of being someone new

Fear triggers our fight/flight/freeze response. So it hijacks our ability to do the things we know we need to do.

Little fears make us avoid

The things we stall, we stall from fear. Why will the mail pile never get sorted?

… because we’re afraid of confronting those bank statements that need to be reconciled
… because we’re afraid the itemized credit card bill will force us to confront the real cost of our six-week volcano-chasing holiday
… because we’ll out that we’re about to be audited (if you never see the notice, it didn’t happen, right? Sadly, no. The tax authorities the tax authorities show up in person at 7 am. True story.)

Fears are findable!

Over my years as a coach, I’ve discovered that:

  1. you can identify the fears that are driving (or not driving) you
  2. there are techniques that are consistently effective at breaking through fear and getting you moving

In part 2, I’ll explore the structure of fear & how it works.

Social media and the deliberate life: is divorce in the cards?

Social media and the deliberate life: is divorce in the cards?

There are two ways to live your life: you can drive it, or be driven. Today, I’m not talking about driving your life in a grand, spiritual sense, but in a micro-sense.

You can never replace time. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. You can never get it back. You have a limited supply (though with no fuel gauge, you don’t know how much you have left. And in every waking second, you get to choose your actions in that moment.

Friday was a passion day! Someone was wrong on the internet, and it was my Higher Purpose to make sure they knew it. Six hundred words into commenting on their status update, it hit me: I waste an unbelievable amount of time on Facebook. I log in 3-5 times a day, sometimes for as much as 20 minutes at time. Let’s be very optimistic and assume that it’s only 5 times a day, 6 minutes each time. That’s 30 minutes a day, or using the 3/30 rule, three weeks a year. On Facebook. And that’s being very optimistic.

Technology is making us reactive, rather than deliberative

Now make no mistake: Facebook is engineered quite deliberately to be addictive. If someone were to engineer a physical substance to be that addictive, we would outlaw the substance and throw them in jail. As it is, Facebook being a Silicon Valley success story, we celebrate it instead. But Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, iPhones, notifications—these have trained us to react rather than deliberate. And then, rather than living our own lives, we just become random Dopamine-driven reaction machines.

Where is life getting sacrificed

Many years ago, I wrote a lot! My article ideas file has about 300 ideas waiting to be turned into articles. It hasn’t been touched since Facebook came along. My free writing time has vanished into status updates, cat picture comments, and pointless political arguments that aren’t going to convince anyone of anything.

The toxic 2016 election discussions finally got to me this evening. My friend Tim has changed my Facebook password for me, and I’m going without until after the election is over. But I’m not abandoning writing. The time that would have gone into the Book of Face is now going to go into writing articles longer than 140 characters.

I’m very curious to experience the result. It may well be that my ideas begin to become articles. Perhaps I’ll try rock climbing. Or pursuing inventing. Or take a class. Or binge-watch Black Mirror. Whatever the decision, it will be deliberate, not reactive.

It’s your turn

  1. Choose what to stop. Where are you spending your time out of habit or addiction, yet getting little joy from it? Does your time on social media give you enough joy to warrant the time? Are there hobbies that you’ve outgrown? Friends who have diverged? TV shows that just fill time?

    Eliminate one. Just for a few weeks.

  2. Start something better. Replace it with something that brings you joy, that moves your life forward. Maybe something old that would bring you joy to revisit. Or something new you’ve wanted to do but never gotten around to.

You do your experiment. I’ll do mine. And in a couple of weeks, let’s compare notes. We only have a limited amount of time on this planet, and it’s up to us to use it in ways that make our life somewhere we want to be.

Good luck!

Mistakes Matter, So Make More of Them

I’ve been doing a series of coaching calls with a wide range of successful people, to learn what’s holding them back in life. One of the most common fears: the fear of making mistakes. And it’s no wonder…

It’s election time. And political discussions tell us that anyone who makes a mistake should be shunned for life, barred from public office, and labeled a “flip-flopper” (especially if they change their mind as a result of learning from their mistake). Success literature, however, tells us that we should learn to be comfortable with failure and make mistakes! One of my most accomplished business school professors once said: if you’re not making enough mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks. How about you? Do you know how to make the most of your mistakes?

If you’re not making enough mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks.

Bad Outcomes Don’t Necessarily Mean Mistakes

Our school system trains us for decades that not getting the right answer means we were wrongand somehow didn’t work hard enough. Once we get into the real world, we bring that mindset along with us. If we don’t get the results we want, we assume we made a mistake.

This isn’t necessarily so. Here’s a thought experiment to understand why. Imagine you have two quarters. One is perfectly fair. It has 50%/50% odds of flipping heads or tails. The other is weighted. It has a 60% chance of flipping heads.

We have two Coin Operators, whose job is to flip heads. They’re allowed to choose either coin to flip.

Peyton, Coin Operator #1, chooses to flip the 50/50 coin and gets HEADS.
Harley, Coin Operator #2 chooses to flip the 60/40 coin and gets TAILS.

Who made the mistake? If we look at the outcomes, it appears that Harley made the mistake. But before we know the outcome, we would favor Haley’s decision to choose the coin that is weighted towards heads. Haley pursued the outcome using the right process, even though it was the wrong outcome.

“Stuff” Happens

I hear you cry, “But Harley made the right choice! The outcome should have been heads!” I agree! We really want to believe that our actions will give us the results we want. The real world, however, is sadistic: sometimes things work, and sometimes they don’t. We have a name for this. We call this luck.[1]

We can do the right thing, have bad luck, and get the wrong outcome. We can do the wrong thing, have good luck, and get the outcome we want.

This gives us a critical insight into the nature of mistakes: it isn’t the outcome that lets us know we’ve made a mistake; it’s what we did to get the outcome, our process, that lets us know if we made a mistake.

We’re not taught to think this way. We’re not given societal support to think this way. We don’t evaluate our political candidates this way. We don’t evaluate our employees this way.

But if you want to train yourself to get what you want in life, don’t measure mistakes by outcomes. Burn these definitions into your brain:

  • Success is using a high-quality process, regardless of outcome.
  • Mistakes are using a low-quality process, regardless of outcome.

Other People May Not Suck as Much as We Think

Deep down inside, we all love judging other people, especially politicians. But this new definition of mistakes means we need to be careful. If we judge them based on outcomes, we might end up deciding that the Peytons of the world are amazing and awesome and worthy of backrubs, while the Harleys of the world should eat rocks.

Unfortunately, however, unless we’re paying attention during the entire effort, we rarely know what process someone used to reach their outcome. That makes it harder to judge them accurately.

I took a mediation class, where I had the joy of mediating a 10-party negotiation between the heads of several organizations. Each organization cared about different things, with different priorities. The real estate developers wanted more land. The conservationists wanted land made off-limits to developers. The Mayor cared about economic development and tourist trade. The historical society cared about limiting changes to any part of the city.

The final agreement satisfied no one, but at least everyone was equally dissatisfied. To each organization, the outcome surely looked like a failure. But the representatives reached the best agreement they could, given the conflicting interests, the time available, and the fledgling abilities of the mediator.

It’s easy to say “my [politician, boss, representative] failed by not getting outcome I wanted.” If we really want competent leaders, however, we do better to judge the process they use. Do they take steps to understand the issues? Do they understand whose support is needed and build the necessary coalitions? Do they compromise where needed, and hold firm where needed?

When evaluating others, don’t judge their success and failure from their outcomes. Look as closely as possible at their process.

Getting the Most Out of Your Mistakes

Although mistakes are a sign that you’re really moving, stretching, and growing yourself, that doesn’t mean you want to make the same ones over and over. You want to learn as much as you possibly can each time things don’t work out.

When a mistake happens, hold an After Action Review. Take time to reflect explicitly on what worked, what didn’t, and why. Consider what happened on the ground—what worked out the way you expected, and what didn’t. What happened that you didn’t plan for, and what didn’t happen that you did plan for? Also consider what happened in your head. How did your a priori beliefs factor into what happened? Were your interpretations of what was going on correct? Where did you waste time paying too much attention to trivialities, and where did you miss opportunity by not paying enough attention?

Making mistakes, combined with a good after action review, helps you refine several important aspects of your future thinking.

Mistakes Refine Cause/Effect Thinking

We all have theories about what causes what. Some of our theories are pretty good. We believe that watering a plant will help it grow. We water the plant. It grows. Our cause/effect works, we’re happy, and the plant is happy (maybe even ecstatic, depending on how long it’s been since you last watered it).

Some of our theories really don’t work at all. “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back” isn’t orthopedically sound advice. If you want to protect mom’s back, teaching her proper posture and good form when lifting heavy boxes is a far better plan.

And some of our theories about cause and effect are sort of true. “Work hard and you’ll get ahead” certainly works great while we’re in school. But once we’re in the work world, the link between hard work and advancement is much more tenuous. In many cases, it doesn’t hold at all.

Avoidable mistakes often help us refine our notions of cause and effect. Many people believed that putting money into the stock market would result in a consistent, positive return on their money. In 2008, an entire generation discovered that cause/effect in stock investing is more subtle, and less dependable, than they thought. Next time a financial advisor happily informs them “invest in fund X and you’ll make 11% interest for 43 years,” they’ll (hopefully) know to refine their notion that giving money to a financial advisor automatically leads to a comfortable retirement.

Mistakes Refine Discrimination Abilities

We don’t just learn rules about cause and effect. We also learn how to discriminate between different situations. For example, with the label side down, a tube of toothpaste and a tube of athlete’s foot creme might look identical. One might simply look in the drawer, see a tube, squeeze it onto a toothbrush, and pop that brush right into their mouth and start brushing.

One might then discover one’s mistake. This will lead quickly to the learning that although tubes look the same face down, there are subtle clues as to which tube belongs in the mouth, and which tube belongs in the foot. For example, fine print on the back of the tube that says “for treatment of athlete’s foot and other topical fungal infections. Don’t eat it, you moron.”

That particular mistake is the one that got me to start paying close attention to the difference between tubes of cream.

Then there are my singing lessons, where my voice teacher forced me to listen to recordings of our lesson. When I was able to stop gritting my teeth, I began to develop the ability to distinguish between a tritone and a major fifth. It turns out that when you’re singing harmony, that distinction matters.

Mistakes help us refine the distinctions we make in the world.

Mistakes Refine Luck

And finally, mistakes help us understand the role of luck in what we’re trying to do. To return to our coin toss example, if we know Harley chose the 60/40 coin to flip, and it still came up tails, that tells us that luck played a factor in the outcome. While we would have prefered that Harley flip heads, we can be confident that the outcome of tails reflects luck, and not Harley’s abilities.

We might think mistakes are bad, but nothing could be further from the truth. Mistakes help us learn if we respond correctly. We should understand the roles luck and skill played in our outcome. Analyzing our process will tell us if we our good process gave a poor outcome, or whether we had a genuinely poor process. And we should refine our understanding of cause/effect, our discrimination abilities, and the role of luck. Our greatest advancement happens when we learn when things go wrong. To do anything else would be a mistake.


  1. If you’re a physicist, you call it a wave function. Or quantum mechanics. Or alternate universes, or something. But you’re not a physicist, so let’s stick with luck.  ↩