Date: 27th July 2016
“Fear is the mind-killer.” Frank Herbert, Dune.
When I speak or do media interviews I’m often asked how I deal with fear. There is an expectation that, because I do so many extreme sports, that I have ice in my veins and a more solid than average undercarriage. My answers vary with the situation, but I know from long experience that I am not naturally as brave as many of my friends. I run away a lot. I’m timid about new sports, new social situations and anything involving “new.” I worry incessantly, especially about things I can’t control. I don’t see situations and automatically think, “This is gonna be great!” I’m just not built that way. I feel oceans of fear, and have often wished I didn’t. In fact, when I was younger my obvious fear really bothered me–as a young man you’re supposed to “Conquer your fear!” something that never really made sense to me as I generally couldn’t… And the more I tried to be fearless the less I succeeded, which made me afraid I’d never be able to conquer my fear, and so the circle tightened… But we’re all told that by overcoming fear we can get to bigger and better goals. That’s the reason for overcoming a fear: to get somewhere. Implicit in that idea is that if you can’t overcome your fears then you can’t progress. That idea really bothered me, I wanted to progress…
Now I know my intrinsic fear is one of the luckiest things I’ve received in the lottery of life. My fears drive me to do better, to grow, to not suck, to be truly brave and not just pretend to be brave. In fact, without fear we none of us would be alive today. When I’m guiding and my guest says, “I’m very afraid of heights,” I often say, “Well, that’s a good thing for you and your ancestors. All the humans who weren’t afraid of heights? They didn’t take care when playing close to a cliff edge, fell off and didn’t reproduce. Glad that trait has been passed on, let’s get the rope out and keep it smooth here!” Fear isn’t bad, it’s a hard-wired brutally effective tool. Fortunately our response to fear is malleable. We can use our fear–if we understand it.
The current pop-psychology mantra of “Just think positive thoughts and it’s all going to be great!” unfortunately does not work for me when it comes to fear, nor does it work for the people I guide in the mountains or lead on film shoots or my own kids. In fact, the few times in my life where I’ve told myself to, “Think positive!” while feeling afraid usually resulted in a severe beat-down of one kind or another, which further destroyed my confidence. My experience with ignoring my fear and getting destroyed is unfortunately common–Youtube is full of people doing really stupid and dangerous things while thinking very positive thoughts about the outcome. It’s not pride that goes before a fall, but a helpful friend shouting, “You can do it!” “Conquering” fear is about the front end of the experience, not the outcome.
“Thinking positive!” is great for relatively low-risk (well, physically or financially low risk) situations like calling someone for a date, but it’s not useful for sifting through fear and big decisions toward a goal. For me, leaning into the uncertainty and downright unpleasant feeling of fear is more than just useful, it’s imperative to succeed in meaningful (high risk or high value) situations.
The first big tool I’ve found useful for managing fear in any situation from climbing to speaking is to recognize the emotion as fear, and look it in the eye instead of trying to ignore it like a kid ignores the monster under the bed… If you don’t look at the monster under the bed then it’s free to be as hideous, savage and scary as we can imagine it to be. But if we look under the bed then it is what it is, which is usually not as bad as we had imagined. Maybe it’s not even there. But we have to be brave and look, not to conquer, but to size it up. Rather than screaming, “I’m going to kick your ass!” at fear or the monster under the bed, we have to stop and get down to its level, look it in the eye and see what it’s made of. Then we can kick its ass if needed.
My own adult fears, and those of the people I guide in the mountains or teach how to fly, usually come from mental dissonance of one kind or another. I have a strong memory of the first time I turned the key in my dad’s car as a teenager; I wasn’t sure what would happen. Maybe the whole beast would surge forward into the car in front of me, or maybe black smoke would come roaring out as I fried the engine somehow, who knows? Today when I turn the key I’m comfortable with what’s going to happen. I’m confident it’s going to be OK, and I know I’m competent to deal with what’s coming up. My confidence and competence are balanced, and I’m reasonably comfortable. No mental dissonance, “no fear,” but in a good way, not a T-Shirt slogan.
But if I’m driving along pondering the presentation I’ll give that night and listening to the latest Adele song (guilty pleasure) and start to feel my old friend fear then that’s a clue that things are changing. Maybe I’m driving into the city and all of a sudden there is much heavier traffic, a bit of rain, and my mind is sending the fear signals to get my attention back on the road. If I ignore that stimulus and keep humming and driving at exactly the amount over the speed limit I figure I can get away with then things may go south when I don’t notice the sea of red brake lights ahead… Fear is a warning system for dangers both imminent and farther down the road, a warning that our internal world and the exterior world are out of synch in some way.
Or maybe I’m screaming upwards away from the earth on my paraglider, having so much fun that I stop looking around as the fluffy little cumulous clouds turn blacker and eventually into a really nasty thunderstorm… Until my fear kicks in, and I hurriedly fly out and land safely. Fear looks like an enemy, but really it’s an on-board guardian angel. Don’t ignore it.
Once I recognize fear my first reaction is to not push it away but look at it, analyze it, and understand it. If I can’t immediately figure out what’s wrong and correct that problem then I have to dig deeper…
The main tools I use for analyzing my own fear start with personal competence: Do I actually know how to do X or should I be afraid? Do I understand this situation? Can I effectively even judge what’s going on here? Am I competent? If, like starting the car, I am competent then I usually have adequate confidence, and press forward. But if I’m about to lead a difficult rock climb and realize I don’t have the proper gear, experience or am unfit for that level of difficulty then my confidence should be low. If I can’t make the climb reasonably safe then it’s probably a good idea to back down, go train, get more experience, then come back and climb it. I may still be nervous after preparation, but if I have justified confidence based on competence then it’s reasonable to go ahead. “Nervous” feels like intellectual butterflies. “Fear” is brainstem stuff.
Unjustified confidence is confidence without real competence, and leads to that Youtube, “Hold my beer” moment we all love in the Fail compilations. Fear? Give er! Not in situations that matter. Competence developed through hard work and preparation builds justified confidence. Thinking happy thoughts will not help outcomes.
Occasionally I’ll work with someone in the mountains who has the reverse problem: He or she is competent, but lacks confidence and is afraid as a result. Most of my job in that situation is to help the person see their own competence, and to let that naturally build confidence. Often the low confidence/high competence person has had some severe setbacks due to being told to, “Think positively and go for it!” Action without base competence is incredibly damaging when it goes bad, like a small child whose parents tell him dogs are fun to pet and who then gets bitten. Adults are no different. I’ve seen hard men and harder women weep equally based not on real danger but on past fearful experiences, and the same people scream with joy when they develop competence and confidence to fly with their fears. That’s what we all want to do in life, and to look your fear in the eye and then dissolve it with work and justified confidence is as liberating as turning the key in the car’s ignition: You can go more places. Cool.
Finally, after leaning into my fear and really doing the work to understand it, correct any issues, prepare as best I can, and everything else I can reasonably do, there comes a time to go. At this point I’ll often still be nervous, but usually not truly afraid. Here are five small tools I’ve found useful over the years for “going for it:”
1. Know your line. Hold it. This comes from kayaking, but it’s really the same in anything. Know where you’re going, what you want to do, and hold that line. In business the “line” is often defined by performance or other metrics. Hold these.
2. Commit. Don’t half leap into the pool, get some speed up and damn well hurl yourself at whatever is going to happen with the best you’ve got.
3. Surround yourself with good people. Cut away or limit those who will drag you down just to keep you at their level. No excuses.
4. Train like you compete, compete like you train. You generally won’t do any better in competition than you do in training, and people often function worse with the added stress of competition… So get used to it.
5. Expect and correct errors. I screw up every single time I speak, write, guide, fly, climb or paddle. I know this. I judge my day less by how much I screwed up than how fast I was to fix the error before it snowballed into something worse.
6. Drink a Red Bull. Yeah, I’m sponsored by Red Bull, but it works. A little extra motivation is a good thing.
Posted in: Blog
Thanks for the great article! A few years ago I heard a quote “One day I stopped being afraid of being afraid” and it really made me stop and think. It’s not overcoming or trying to rid ourselves of fear that is the goal. Rather it’s facing it head on, listening to what that fear might be telling us based on our skill level and ability, and learning to use the fear to push forward when appropriate. This has helped me so much in facing fears that I used to try to run away from because I was scared to deal with analyzing myself.
Superb article and it’s always great to hear how extremely experienced people deal with fear and that it’s something that everyone deals with, not just the inexperienced.
Thanks for the link Will. On a different level, this article hits home. I get outdoors with a chronic condition (type 1 diabetes) and in my own way, fear has been my motivator to get out further, faster, better, and safer – all while managing the risks at hand.
I especially love #5. Thanks for the honesty.
Good article. I just realized I spend my summers frightened going up a rock face and my winters frightened going down steep pitches on skis. But strangely enough I keep going back to it all. We had a great day out with you at the crack climbing course with The Arcteryx Climbing Academy and it has changed the fear. We climbed Deidre on the Apron in Squamish the week after and initially I thought I’m never going to get up that crack but with the simple moves you taught us putting the knee out and cranking the foot I flew up. Every foot placing felt bomber and suddenly the fear went and you can’t wait to do it again.
Even though it may not have been obvious on the day as I failed to get too far from the ground its started a process that works.
Hey Mr. Greenshirt, thanks for the note back, great to hear! I really enjoyed the day with you and the group at the Academy, look forward to seeing you in the mountains! Keep cranking those feet and hands, you got it!
[…] if all this gear didn’t make you go glassy-eyed, Will Gadd’s article on overcoming fear is fantastic. Lean into it, analyze/learn from it, and when you decide to go for it, really […]
Nailed it: “To look your fear in the eye and then dissolve it with work and justified confidence is as liberating as turning the key in the car’s ignition: You can go more places.”
i am 13 and have just stated ice climbing, i was eminently hooked.
i have been training all summer and can’t wait to get back on the ice. you have been an amazing example to me went training gets hard.
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