How Fear Setting Can Help You Reach Your Goals!
Happy New Year my friends, and welcome to 2022! Another revolution around the sun, another year wiser, another year better than you were the year before, and another year to take some chances, make some moves, push some projects forward, and another year to become the person you want to be. Quite often, we place a potentially unnecessary amount of emphasis on the changing of the year, which is essentially just a changing of days and the numbers we might write on a check, if anybody still even uses those. The statistics repeatedly show that less than 25% of people are still chipping away at their resolutions by the 30 day mark, and less than 8% of people actually hit any of their resolutions. Something like 92% of people have blown their resolutions by mid-February and are back to their old way of being, resolutions be damned! In this week’s episode, I’m going to tell you a story that I tell, either right at the end of a year, or at the beginning of a new year, as a way to set the frame for how I’m going to encourage you all to think about goal setting, new year’s resolutions, who you ultimately want to be, and why. I learned this story from Darren Hardy, the founder of Success magazine and the well known success coach to millions of people. It’s a story, probably more of a parable, that helps express the importance of one very important ingredient for success.
The parable is about two warring tribes living in the Andes mountains of South America, that not-so-peacefully co-existed—one tribe lived in the lowlands, and the other, high in the mountain range. One day, the highlanders invaded the lowlanders, plundering their village and kidnapping a baby boy. They vanished back up into the mountains with the child. The lowlanders, pushed to action at the disappearance of one of their own, gathered a group of their best fighting men to recover the child. The problem was they didn’t know how to climb the mountain. They didn’t know the trails that the mountain people used or how to track them in the high bush and steep terrain. Even so, they ventured out to climb the mountain and bring the baby home.
The men first tried one method of climbing and then another. They tried one trail and then another. After several days of effort, however, they had climbed only a few hundred feet. Feeling hopeless and helpless, the lowlanders decided the cause was lost and prepared to return to their village below. As they were packing their gear for the descent, they saw the baby’s mother walking down the very mountain that they hadn’t figured out how to climb. As she got closer they saw that she had the baby boy strapped to her back. They couldn’t believe their eyes! One man greeted her and asked, “How did you climb this mountain? How did you do this when we, the strongest and most able men in the village, couldn’t do it?” The mother looked intently in the eyes of the man and simply said, “It wasn’t your baby.”
The reason so many people rely on the New Year to give them new or renewed energy and commitment, is because whatever they choose as worthwhile goals or resolutions going into a new year is not really their baby. Saying they want to get into better shape, lose some weight, make more money, or whatever they choose is usually based on what they think sounds good or what they think they should be doing, based on somebody else’s standards. There is no doubt, we probably all should be focusing more on our overall health and wellness. We probably all should be focusing on setting some goals for our life and our businesses. However, until the thing you choose to focus on carries the same weight and importance as saving the baby had for that mother in the parable, when the going gets tough, most people simply don’t have the stick-to-it-iveness to keep going. Why? Because it’s not your baby! If it was your baby, you’d fight tooth and nail for it, you’d be willing to give up your life trying to save it, and you’d come up with as much creativity and gumption as you could muster to make it happen. Most of us with children can relate the concept of sacrificing your life to save your child. I don’t even have to think about it. It wouldn’t take even one second for me to choose my life or my child’s. I would sacrifice my life in an instant to save one of my kids. In fact, I would sacrifice my life In an instant to save your child’s life. Those are easy choices for most parents.
Thankfully, we typically aren’t faced with such binary and drastic choices day to day. I don’t have to ask each day, “is it me or my kid?” I typically have to ask, “do I work on this task or that task?” The questions we tend to ask ourselves each morning are questions like, ‘how many meetings do I have today? How many appraisal files are sitting on my desk to be completed, where am I going today, what needs to be paid?’ We ask questions about what needs to get done to get through the day somewhat successfully. The problem with this way of being is that each of our days is, more or less, a repeating of the prior day, with some minor detail changes. We tend not to think about it this way, but if you just take a look back at yesterday, the day before, and the day before, they all tend to look fairly similar. Each successive day is, more or less, a repeating of the prior day because we are pattern seeking creatures and we find great comfort in the patterns of similarity and familiarity that we create around our lives. Anything that disrupts that pattern is seen as a problem and then all of our resources go toward getting back to familiarity. In essence, we subconsciously fear the unknown, and we fear anything that will throw us off of our routines and our patterns of familiarity. Unfortunately, oftentimes the only way to really grow is to plunge deep into the unfamiliar, the uncomfortable, and even the painful.
What I’d like to do in this episode is talk about something I have come to realize is actually more important than goal setting. Along the way, I’ll do my best to drop some nuggets of why traditional goal setting is fraught with problems, which is why it actually works for so few people. Not saying setting goals for what we’d like to achieve isn’t important, just that, quite often, the goal isn’t the issue, it’s the system that leads to the need to set that particular goal that is the problem. Traditional goal setting is about getting a particular result; less weight, better body, more money, less time working, etc. However, the result isn’t really the problem, it’s the system or lack of one, that has led to the need to lose weight, get out of shape, not have enough money, and work too much. To compound this problem, we go back to the story about it not being our baby and there not being enough passion and energy around that particular goal to sustain it long term. In that case, goal setting isn’t the problem, goal selection is. Selecting the right goals has two parts to it, choosing the rewards we think we want, and choosing the amount of sacrifice and pain it’s likely going to cost us to head toward a particular goal. Which leads us to the main topic of today’s show: fear.
One of the aspects rarely talked about when it comes to the topic of achievement, goals, habits, patterns, and why some do and some don’t reach their goals is the aspect of fear. Fear is one of the most powerful emotions we, as humans, suffer from. We all have fears that live within us and those fears, whether you know it or not, dictate and drive what we will and won’t do in any given situation. So, while we do our best to fool ourselves into thinking that by just picking a worthwhile goal, one that’s specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time bound (S.M.A.R.T goals), and all our problems will be solved, what we really should be asking is, ‘what do I fear?’ Instead of heading into 2022 by asking, ‘what do I want?’, or ‘what do I want to achieve?’, or ‘How can I make 2022 my greatest year ever?’, we should start out every new year by asking ourselves, ‘what is it I truly fear and why?’ It’s not our lack of motivation that holds us back. It’s not that we can’t articulate what it is we really want, it’s that we have gotten really good at avoiding and pushing down what we fear. And what we fear is typically what gets in the way of really living.
So, get out your pen and paper, your ipad and apple pencil, your laptop and notes program, or whatever you use to take notes on the most important things in your life because this may very well be one of them! What I’m about to teach you is an exercise I learned years ago from Tim Ferriss, with some modifications from authors Mark Manson and James Clear. The exercise, as it is taught by Tim Ferriss, is called the ‘fear setting’ exercise, as opposed to a goal setting exercise. It’s not exactly the opposite of goal setting, but can maybe be thought of as one of the most important parts of any real effective goal selection and goal setting exercise. If we don’t address what it is we might fear first, all of the goals we might select as worthy pursuits will likely end up like the 92% of New Year’s resolutions by the end of February: dead.
What you’ll need for this exercise is 2 sheets of paper, front and back, or just one of your electronic devices. What you put on the first page across the top, from left to right, are the words, ‘Fear’, ‘Prevent’, and ‘Fix’. Under each word, write the numbers 1 through 10. What we want to do in this first part of the exercise is to first write down all of our fears around a particular thing. If you’re doing this for business, let’s say, then pick something you’d like to do, be, or have, what you would typically have called a goal, and then write down what you fear about doing, being, or having that thing. Let’s say, for example, you want to get your SRA designation. In the left hand column under the ‘fear’ heading, write out 10 things you fear about undertaking that particular goal. Maybe you fear the cost, maybe it’s the time commitment, maybe you don’t believe you’re smart enough, maybe you believe from the get go that you’ll get half way through it and something will change and now you’re a quitter. Whatever the fear, dig deep and list out all of them. This exercise is just for you, nobody else has to see it.
In the second column, the ‘prevent’ column, you simply list out all of the things you could do right now to prevent that particular fear from becoming a reality. If one of your fears is the cost, list out how you could ‘prevent’ that fear from being an issue. You obviously can’t prevent the cost, the cost is the cost, but the idea behind this column is to address the fear head on and write out how it can be handled reasonably. Maybe you simply write that you can prevent that fear from stopping you by budgeting. Just start setting aside an amount of money that you believe getting your SRA designation will cost and start saving. That’s just one prevention or fear mitigation strategy for that line item in the ‘fear’ category. List out 5 or 10 other things you could do to address the cost issue. The third column to the far right of the page is the ‘fix’ category. This is the category we use to define how we could fix any situation if it actually came true. Let’s use the example of, ‘what if I’m not smart enough?’ That’s the fear, a very real one, by the way. We define it in the first category, we write out prevention strategies and ideas in the second category, and then we write out fix it strategies if it were to actually come to pass or be true. If you found out mid way through your SRA coursework that you weren’t smart enough, how would you fix it?
This has happened to me more than a few times in my life! I remember very clearly back in the 90’s taking an advanced economics class at DePaul University in Chicago and realizing about 4 weeks in that this particular class was beyond me. Not that I wasn’t smart enough, per se, but it was way more than I was willing to suffer through research and study-wise to get a passing grade. What did I do to fix it? I did what any self respecting future entrepreneur would do, I dropped the class in a hot second. Being a good business owner means being good at resource management. When you see that something is going to take more resources than what the return is likely to be, you make some decisions and shift resources. It’s the 80/20 rule at work. Identify the areas, efforts, clients, people, employees, and products that deliver 80% of your results, and divert resources to those things. I wasn’t embarrassed in the least when I dropped that class for essentially not being smart enough. It was simply a decision to divert resources to the areas that would net me the greatest results. If I had known about fear setting back then, I may have listed out ‘the fear of not being smart enough’, or ‘what if I’m not good enough?’, as one of my fears. My fix strategy would’ve been to convince myself that it doesn’t matter. Just because I’m not strong in one area doesn’t mean I’m stupid, I’m just not good in that area.
I failed Algebra 3 times in high school and had to be put into the remedial math class just to get the credits I needed to graduate. It was simply beyond what my brain could process and didn’t make any sense to me. The problem wasn’t that I wasn’t smart enough to pass the class, the problem was that I was wasting my time taking it two more times when I could’ve been learning something my brain could grasp and make useful. Poor resource management on the schools part, poor resource management on my part.
Write out the worst things your mind can conjure up might happen if you take a particular step or action, then write out what you could do to prevent that thing from materializing, then write out what you would do if the fear did actually come true and how you could fix, or handle the situation. Fear, prevent, fix. As you’re going through the exercise, a very valuable question that Tim Ferriss asks is, “has anybody else in the history of time, less intelligent and less driven, figured this out?” The chances are pretty decent that somebody has faced the same fear as you and has figured out how to handle it. Another valuable question to write on the page is, “what might be the benefit of at least attempting this thing, and what might be the benefit of having at least some partial success?” So you make an attempt and fail, so what? Are there benefits in making the attempt? Most likely! What if you come away with only partial success? Are there benefits in that? I would actually recommend writing out these questions as part of the exercise.
The last part of this exercise, and maybe the most important, is to write out three more columns with the headings, 6 months, 1 year, and 3 years. This is your ‘cost of inaction’ list. This is where you write out what the cost of inaction would be physically, emotionally, spiritually, and financially, if you take no action at all. Take the fears you wrote out on page one and then translate those into what the cost would be to you and others if you do nothing. Will you look back on January 1 of next year and realize you said you wanted to be, do, or have something and did nothing out of fear? Will you be in the same place next year that you were in last year. The idea and reality of not hitting a goal is far less important than the idea and reality of staying the same and trying nothing. Instead of asking ‘what do I want to achieve?’, we should be asking, ‘what kind of pain do I want, what am I willing to sacrifice and suffer through, and what do I fear around this thing?’ In my opinion, it’s a far worse fate to be in the same place next year because of inaction and fear, than it is to attempt something and potentially not reach where you had initially hoped.
I’ll end this New Year’s episode with some wisdom from James Clear, the author of the book, Atomic Habits. Setting and achieving goals is a binary activity: we either reach them or we don’t. If we do reach the goal, the result is temporary and often fleeting. Many people become worse not long after achieving a goal because the end result was more important than who they had to become to reach a particular goal. Goal setting should not be about the end result, as much as it needs to be about the systems that were lacking in the first place, what systems need to be created to achieve a particular goal or result, and who we have to become as a person to reach a goal. When we do that, goal setting becomes far more about the process than the end result. As James says, “the purpose of setting goals is to win the game, the purpose of creating systems is to keep playing the game”. If you really want to grow, my friends, you’ve got to fall in love with the process, not the end result.
Cheers to falling in love with the process and, until next week, I’m out…