The Art of Fear Setting

In the recent talk, Tim Ferriss talks about why we should define our fears more than just our goals. I found the quote he shared to be very relevant:

“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality”

The quote was by Seneca the Yonger was a famous Stoic writer. Based on an exercise known as “premeditatio malorum”, which is essentially visualising the worst-case scenarios of taking a certain action, and thereby the fears which prevent us from taking the action, Tim shares a similar way he devised called “fear-setting”.

The written exercise consists of 3 pages.

First Page

The first page looks like this:

Define Prevent Repair
1. I might not win the competition. 1. I will give my 100% in all the tasks, by dutifully planning my resources. 1. I will take it as a learning experience for the next year.
2. 2. 2.
3. 3. 3.

In the first column, we write all the worst things that could happen from taking that action, about 10-20 of them.

In the second, we write all the actions we can take to prevent those worst-case scenarios from occurring or at the least, reduce the likelihood of that from happening.

In the third, we write the mitigation actions we can take in case that worst-case scenario actually occurs - damage control.

In the above, I considered a fictitious scenario of a person deciding to take part in a competition. It’s a simplistic scenario, but it helps illustrate the thought process.

Second Page

The second page looks like this:

We answer the question:

What might be the benefits of an attempt or a partial success?

Here, we try to evaluate the what are the benefits of taking that action.

Third Page

The third page looks like this:

The Cost of Inaction

6 Months 1 Year 3 Years
I would not have gained any experience to add to my portfolio. I might have missed an opportunity to gain the relevant experience for the competition this year. I would have missed out an excellent opportunity which I could have added to my portfolio - which potentially could have landed me a good job or interview chance.

On this page, we reflect on what are the potential consequences of avoiding this decision or action. We lay this out over a timeline of 6 months to 3 years which actually helps us see what are we truly missing out by neglecting this action.

As I listened to this TED talk, I felt myself thinking about certain decisions I was pondering upon right now. And indeed, when we go deep into reflecting what are the options available, what are our mitigation plans and what are the possible benefits / repercussions associated with that action, we truly gain a sense of understanding and clarity on whether or not to take it.

Tim shared a mantra from one of his favourite modern-day Stoics, Jerzy Gregorek.

“Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life.”

That is true to some extent. The hardest choices, often those which we fear doing are also those which we most need to do.

I plan to try this exercise out for some of the major decisions I have to make. When we truly face our fears and get a strategy to overcome and crush them, then the path to our goals is now clear. This exercise helps us do exactly that. At the least, thinking through this exercise will provide added clarity to a confused situation.

Watch the TED talk here:

Tim Ferriss: Why you should define your fears instead of your goals

The hard choices -- what we most fear doing, asking, saying -- are very often exactly what we need to do. How can we overcome self-paralysis and take action? Tim Ferriss encourages us to fully envision and write down our fears in detail, in a simple but powerful exercise he calls "fear-setting."