The Value of Fear

The Value of FearPeople’s natural instinct when confronted with a scary situation is to avoid it. On reflection, most of us realize the downside to running away from fear: Avoidance just intensifies the feelings of anxiety and makes it hard to focus on anything else. (Eric Barker has a nice write-up about facing your fears as a component of emotional resilience in his review of the book Resilience: The Science of Mastering LIfe’s Greatest Challenges.) Of course, avoiding something also means that thing remains undone, which can have negative consequences itself if it’s a needed medical treatment or a critical career builder.

Doing something scary can also inspire exceptional outcomes. Just as there seems to be an optimal level of stress for growth and learning, a certain amount of fear can lead to high performance. Fear signals there’s something of consequence on the line, a reason to exert effort.

I thought Chris Rock put it quite well (and colorfully). Rock tells Judd Apatow:

You’ve got to make yourself scared. When I did that play not too long ago, it was like, Oh, this shit is scary. I’m out of my comfort zone. I’m the low man on the totem pole. I could really suck at this. But it’s in moments like that that you are going to learn the most. Directing, too: What the fuck was I ever doing directing anything, you know what I mean? It scared me and I did some things that sucked. But you learn more from fucking up than you do from success, unfortunately. And failure, if you don’t let it defeat you, is what fuels your future success.

Apatow agrees, pointing out that “a lot of the need to be productive is the terror of things falling apart.”

While I haven’t experienced success on the level of a Chris Rock or a Judd Apatow, I see the benefits of fear in some of my own personal triumphs. Two things I was fearful to do but did anyway were deliver a TEDx talk and run the Boston Marathon. Both ended up being among my favorite memories and real growth moments for me. I like that most things I do aren’t tinged by fear, but I can also appreciate the jolt that the occasional scary opportunity delivers.

What about you? What scary things have helped you grow?