3 min read

How to Do Scary Things

Being a person is pretty scary, to be honest. If you're a mildly anxious human like me, you might face a frequent war with your brain as it churns out worse case scenarios for you to chew on.

You might die! You might go broke! You might lose everything! Everyone might hate you now!

Except that when we put those fears into perspective, they're mostly unhelpful noise. We've just lived through a global pandemic and a series of natural disasters, and... we're pretty much fine. In fact, you've probably already experienced a version of your biggest fears - a job loss, a relationship breakdown, an injury or illness - and odds are, while it was tough-going, you're OK.

If you've been thinking about doing something scary, chances are that you've let your fear get in the way. Your fear might be obvious (anxious thoughts, sweaty palms, et al) or it might be stealthily presenting as being too busy right now, being responsible, being careful, or 'waiting for the right time'. 

Nobody who ever did anything meaningful did so without the taste of fear in their mouth. The only difference between those who did it, and those who didn't, was action. Fear is a feeling that exists in our imagination. You can't fight a ghost fear.


('You know I can't grab your ghost chips. Go away!' If you're outside of New Zealand, or this picture means nothing to you, strap in for some excellent social marketing here. Stop internalising a really complicated situation in your head.)

Action is the only way through fear. Action creates consequences, and those are worthy opponents that you can grapple with and conquer.

What the Stoics thought

Kick-ass ancient philosophers like Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius were pretty aligned on this. Not only should we do scary stuff.. we should actively seek it out, in order to become better people.

Seneca said "We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more in imagination than reality."

Hurt, drama and chaos are manageable, tangible phenomena. We can actively tackle them. But our worries and fears cause us unlimited suffering with no easy path out. Here's one path: do the scary thing. Then you can deal with the actual consequences, not the imagined ones.

Epictetus said "Difficulties strengthen the mind as labor does the body."

When we live a life without difficulty (if such a thing exists) we get weak and complacent. Rather than looking for comfort, we feel better when we prove ourselves capable and competent through intentionally choosing hard things. When you're faced with an easy option, look again.

Marcus Aurelius said "The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way."

If what you want to do is important, it's unlikely to be simple. As you work out how to overcome obstacles you face (time, money, energy, support, skills), you build the very things you need to achieve your goal. Good, eh! Ryan Halliday wrote a whole book about this - The Obstacle Is The Way - and if you can buy into the idea that the challenges are the point, not the problem, there's not much you can't do. Big fan.  

What Tim Ferriss thinks

Tim Ferriss recommends a genius tool called 'Fear-Setting' which I have used countless times, personally and professionally.

The basic idea is that you can't work with what you can't see, and that working through your fearful thoughts to find clarity will put your next step into perspective.

To 'fear-set' you should:

  • List the worst case scenarios that are troubling you, as you contemplate taking a big, scary step. How bad would it be? Would the impact be permanent? How likely would it be?
  • Figure out how you could repair the damage, if it happened.
  • Consider the benefits of taking the scary step. How would it change your life? What is your likelihood of success? 
  • Work out what postponing this choice is costing you - financially, emotionally, and physically—not just today, but in the future. What will life be like if things stay the same for the next six months, year, or five years? Action is scary. The consequences of inaction could be even scarier.
  • Ask yourself: what are you waiting for? If you don't have a good, compelling answer.. you're probably just scared. So take action. 

I love this tool. I've used it to underpin everything from strategic risk management plans to personal choices (hello, divorce...) and every time, I'm astonished at how manageable fear becomes once you tackle it head on.

Read more and download Tim's worksheets to try it for yourself here.

What I Think

Easy lives are for boring people. You only get one life, so why would you choose mediocrity and safety? Think of your life like a story, and make it one worth reading. The more you try, fail, learn and rebuild, the more interesting your story is to read.

Everything that happens as a result of you taking action - good, bad, neutral, terrifying, hilarious, embarrassing, shameful -  will teach you something new that you'll be grateful for. And even if the worst possible thing happened, odds are, you'll be fine. You have been so far.

Also, you will be more interesting at dinner parties.

"Let me tell you about the time I tried rock-climbing and broke my shoulder"

"This reminds me of the time I quit my job to join a band and failed miserably"

"I lost everything when I was 47 and tried to be the next Steve Jobs. Now that I've built it back, I've realised..."

See? Interesting! I'd sit next to those story-tellers.

The only thing standing between your goals and your fears is action. As soon as you take the first step, you convert imaginary feelings into real consequences you can manage.

Do something.


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