Human beings were born to dream. The child who fantasises about becoming an astronaut is a bold dreamer. The middle-school baseballer who dreams about playing for the New York Yankees is a dreamer. The high-school senior who constantly keeps tabs on her Ivy League applications is just as equally, a dreamer. We are natural dreamers, for dreams are the engine that help steer us along the highway towards success. Every road trip that we take part in has a destination. Every game world that we enter has an objective. In every moment in life, there’s a dream. They may not be as obvious to some, but thoughtful self-introspection will usually lead you to discovery.
More often than not though, our dreams dissipate along the way. An engine-related mishap occurs during the road trip, risking the entire family vacation — one you’ve been planning for months — to go down the drain. An annoying level in the game was seemingly impenetrable, and it pissed you off. Somehow, life just happens to to find the right obstacle to veer you away from your dreams. It could be a financial strain, it could be an internal family issue, it could even be your mental health that life is dragging over to the edge of insanity. For author Tim Ferriss, it’s fear.
Tim’s wrote a lot of best-selling books, you may have seen some of them in your local bookstores — The 4-Hour Workweek and Tribe of Mentors are just to mention two of his most famous ones. In his TED Talk back in 2017, he talked about how fear had stood between reality and his dreams, and how it nearly costed him his life.
In his talk, he touches upon why we should start confronting our fears in order to gain more control over the things that happen in our life. The called the concept Fear-Setting, and it became the basis in how he overcame his longstanding fight with Bipolar disorder and the major depressive episodes that trotted along with it.
The mental model behind fear-setting comes from an ancient philosophical concept called Stoicism. For a lot of people, the word has a bad rap. Society likes to connote it as “mindless resilience” and sometimes even a bit “masochistic”. Google’s definition certainly does not help. For Tim, he defines it as “an operating system for thriving in high stress environments — for making better decisions.”
Fundamentally, stoicism helps us form strong behavioural tendencies for the things in life that we can control and for those we simply can’t. Do you get to control if your car engine breaks down midway through your road trip? Do you get a say in the technical development of a certain level in a game? Most of the time, the answer is no. The problem is that as we age, the line between what we can and can’t control becomes thinner and thinner; it becomes less and less clear cut. The implications? We lose our sense of direction. We lose track of our goals. We fall into the temptation of giving up.
Now this is where fear-setting comes into play.
According to Tim Ferriss, this method of strategising is superior when compared to the more commonly practiced goal-setting, where people formulate plans and tactics based on what their dreams are. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman posits the idea of loss aversion, which refers to people’s tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains. This is sort of the mental framework around choosing fear-setting instead of goal-setting.
The template for this exercise looks like this:
For every “What if I _________?” question, reserve three pages in a notebook, or on whatever medium you like to write in for self-introspecting and answering the following questions:
Make three simple lists of the following subsets, which he adds should include between 10–30 entries each. Be mindful about the things you write down but try not to mull over the details and risk overthinking it.
- Define: What are the things that could possibly go wrong?
- Prevent: How can I prevent them from occurring?
- Repair: If shit hits the fan, how do I fix it?
Back to that road trip example, the question to ask could be “What if I decide to leave the car and rent a camper van instead?” One thing to put on the ‘Define’ tab would be something like, “Someone steals my car”. A way to prevent that is to leave your car in an authorised repair shop, so put that in the ‘Prevent’ tab. However, if for some reason unknown to man, someone does steal your car, you can ring the local police and car manufacturer and have them track your car and sort things out for you. That goes into the ‘Repair’ tab.
In this page, play up the fears. Ask yourself, “What are the potential benefits of an attempt or partial success?”. Yes, evaluate the benefits of the mere idea of action. For the road trip, it could mean a sliver of hope for it to still be epic — indulging in the scenic routes, rejoicing in the much-deserved interlude from your day job, and spending some quality time with the kids.
On the last page, try to expand on the cost of inaction. Create an imaginary script for what would have been if you decided to do nothing about it. Call the road trip off and go home feeling completely miserable. Don’t just touch upon the short term impacts, talk about 3 months, 6 months, maybe even a year. Once again referring back to the road trip, it could be the difference between a meaningful holiday with your kids, or to never cross paths with a chance like that again.
If you haven’t caught the idea all along, of course the ‘epic road trip’ was the goal — the dream — and so was completing the game’s objective. Fear-setting is a versatile tool that can be employed in various aspects of your life. If you want to be a doctor but a financial rock seems to sit between you and your goal, then employ fear-setting. If you want to become an artist but your parents expect you to become an engineer, once again, employ fear-setting.
Tim Ferriss wrapped his talk up by recounting his encounter with stoic exemplar — Jerzy Gregorek. Jerzy lived through the toughest times of Poland’s political tumult, escaped his country, and landed in America with zero in his pocket and no luggage to carry about. He then went off to become a successful author, poet, and professional Olympics weightlifting champion. Tim closed off with a quote from Gregorek, which may sound a bit cliché-ish, but it does hone in on a really profound insight about life and its decisions. It goes:
“Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life”