by Niall Doherty

Recently I’ve been trying to recognize my own fears as they arise, then attempting to overrule those fears with curiosity. An example:

  • Fearful thought: “I can’t ask that girl out; she might reject me.”
  • Curious thought: “I wonder what will happen if I ask that girl out.”

My curiosity and my fear are always battling with one another. When fear wins that battle, I do nothing, and so I lose. The challenge is to make my curiosity stronger than my fear.

Learned behavior

Us humans are funny creatures, fearing situations we create in our own minds. That’s a learned behavior; we’re not born with that. Think of how a child learns. It’s all through curiosity. “I wonder what happens if I put my hand in the fire.” They’re not afraid because they don’t know any better. But as children grow, they learn not to be so curious and not to take risks, because that might result in pain, failure or rejection. Curiosity dies, fear wins, we lose.

A common misconception about fear

Most people, when they fear doing something, avoid taking action until the fear goes away. “I’m too afraid right now. I’ll do it when I’m feeling more confident.”

The problem is that fear never just goes away by itself. Most people have it backwards. You don’t overcome the fear and then do the thing; you do the thing and then you overcome the fear.

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear. Except a creature be part coward it is not a compliment to say it is brave.” – Seneca

I’ve found this to be true time and time again in my own life. Two specific examples:

  • I was terrified of public speaking, so I made myself go and talk in front of 20-30 people each week at Toastmasters. With each speech, my fear subsided, and now I look forward to the Monday meetings in that big old library on St. Charles.
  • Many times I’ve been afraid to approach certain people in social situations. On those occasions when I ignore that fear and approach such people anyway, the fear always evaporates, regardless of whether I make a good impression or crash and burn.

More curiosity, less fear

I believe the key here is to keep with you that sense of wonder at all times, like a child.

If someone at a party looks interesting, go talk to him/her, and do so enthusiastically. If they’re not responsive, don’t get dejected; remain curious. “Hmm, that person didn’t want to talk. I wonder if this person does.”

If you’re afraid of flying, diminish that fear by focusing on all the incredible experiences that could await you overseas. Start imagining what it might be like to explore the streets of Beijing or to hike with some CouchSurfers through the Italian countryside.

The fear ebbs, curiosity flows.

If something goes horribly wrong, don’t fear the repercussions. Remain analytical. “Okay, that didn’t go exactly as planned, probably because of X, Y and Z. I’ll try it a different way next time and see if I get better results.”

In the moment

The trick for me is remembering to be curious in the moment. That’s the hardest part. I’ll often look back at a situation and realize I was being ruled more by fear than by curiosity. But I’m getting better, becoming conscious of those moments as they occur, then reminding myself to wonder. The results have been encouraging.

Closing it out with some wise words…

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do… Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain