Are We Afraid of the Wrong Things?


This is a guest post from Dr. Noa Kageyama. A performance psychologist and Juilliard graduate, Dr. Kageyama teaches musicians how to do their best under pressure.  He blogs at Bulletproof Musician, a website that teaches musicians how to overcome stage fright, performance anxiety, and other blocks to peak performance.

When you are old and gray and look back on your life, what do you think you will regret more? The opportunities you acted on, but ended badly? Or the missed opportunities, where you will never know how things might have turned out?

The science of regret

Studies suggest that in the short term, we kick ourselves for the choices and actions that don’t work out so well. Like the job offer we accepted that seemed like a great opportunity…but ended up being a nightmare. Or the relationship we moved across the country for…which ended up fizzling out a few months later.

But a funny thing happens over time. In the long term, our regrets shift from regrets of action, to regrets of inaction – or the things we didn’t do. As in, the coworker who may have been the love of our life, but we never asked out. The dream job we never applied for – or the dissatisfying job we never quit. The guitar lessons we never signed up for, the triathlons we never raced, the Ethiopian food we never tried, the places we never visited, and so on.

We might be able to reconcile with missing out on Ethiopian food, but how will we handle those unanswerable questions about what our life may have been like, if only we had ______?

The unlived life

Author Steven Pressfield suggests in The War of Art, that “resistance” is the force that stands between the life we live and the unlived life within us.

Most of us know resistance by it’s other name – fear – which comes in many different forms.

Fear of the unknown, fear of change, fear of pain and dismemberment, fear of harming our reputation, fear of disappointment, fear of looking foolish, fear of success and having to live up to greater expectations, fear of ending up living in a van down by the river…the list goes on.

The problem with fear, is that it’s paralyzing. It holds us back from taking action. And unfortunately, it’s almost like second nature, as most of us have been conditioned to be careful from the time we were children. Our parents taught us to look both ways before crossing the street. To avoid running with scissors. To stay out of the pool immediately after we’ve eaten.

These may have been valuable lessons once upon a time, but at this point in our lives, we’ve moved past mere survival. Yet our brain remains stuck in survival mode, more preoccupied with surviving than living.

Furthermore, we tend to fear the wrong things.

Big vs small

For one, we tend to worry an awful lot about big dramatic scary events, like airplane crashes and bird flu. Meanwhile, we gloss over the seemingly trivial choices we make every day that often have a bigger impact in the long term.

For instance, we fret about nuclear power plants in our neighborhood and disasters like Chernobyl (which killed 9000 people). Yet, we don’t think twice about laying out in the sun to soak up the sun’s radiation – which contributes to the 10,000+ deaths every year from skin cancer (from The Science of Fear).

Action vs inaction

We also spend far more time worrying about the cost of taking action, and neglect to consider the cost of inaction.

I’ve long had a tendency to worry too much about what others think of me. So whenever I came across money on the ground, my self-consciousness would kick in, and I’d walk right by.

True, a penny doesn’t go very far, but my habit of leaving perfectly good money lying on the ground had nothing to do with my financial situation. Whether it was a penny or a dollar bill, I didn’t pick up the money because I was allowing fear to dictate my actions. I felt foolish stooping down to pick money up off the ground – so I avoided that feeling by pretending I didn’t see it.

Not surprisingly, this habit of acting out of fear was evident in other areas of my life, whether it was confronting someone, being more assertive, or saying what I really thought in an important meeting.

I was afraid of the bad things that might happen if I took more courageous action. What if I were to say something unintelligent? What would others think? What would they say about me when I left the room?

Of course, I never stopped to consider the flip side of the situation. As in, what are the consequence of inaction? What will happen over the course of my life and career if I always do the safe, comfortable thing? What will I miss out on? What opportunities, experiences, relationships, and achievements will always remain out of my reach if I don’t take action?

Needless to say, I resolved to make acting courageously a habit, and began picking up any money I saw on the ground, whether it was a penny or a dollar.

Has this made me a millionaire? No, but the habit of acting more courageously, and the ripple effect this will have over the choices I make and the actions I take in the future, very well might.

Making courageous action a habit

The key is sustainability, so don’t push yourself to do something crazy on Day 1 only to take two steps back on Day 2. Think baby steps.

Simply commit to doing something small every day for the next 21 days that pushes you slightly outside your comfort zone.

Keep track of these daily efforts in a notebook, and notice what changes as you work out your courage muscles, accumulate daily micro-victories, and begin to realize what you are capable of.

Note that not every courageous effort will have a positive outcome. But that’s ok! The important part is that you took action despite the fear, and are making acting courageously a habit, thereby increasing the likelihood of bumping into all the great opportunities and experiences that are waiting for you out there – but lie beyond the borders of your current comfort zone.

In a nutshell…

“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.” ~Dale Carnegie


  1. I’m in my mid twenties and already I’ve switched mindsets. I am not regretting things I didn’t do yet, because I’m still young and have the chance to do them. I need to work on travelling more and seeing more of the world.
    Daisy @ Prairie Eco Thrifter recently posted…Friday Links – Keeping the Balance EditionMy Profile

  2. Love this post. Such a great take on the true root of fear. I find that the more we do boldly, out of the norm, the more courageous we have to do the right thing for us. Thanks for sharing some very valuable advice!
    Laurie @thefrugalfarmer recently posted…“I’m Lovin’ Me Some Links” FridayMy Profile

    • Hi Laurie,

      Indeed! Once we get going and invest a certain amount of energy and time into something, even if the path ahead remains uncertain and scary, our determination to seeing things through seems to grow, and we’re less likely to turn back. We often end up surprising ourselves at how much courage we actually have within! It’s getting started that’s often the toughest part…
      Noa recently posted…The Importance of Writing Notes in Your MusicMy Profile

  3. @Daisy: Good for you having that mindset in your 20s. Wish I had, boy I wish I had.

    I’ve seen people in retirement wishing they had taken risks. They are bitter, angry, and not much fun to be around. I refuse to end up like that. I’d much rather fix and apologize for mistakes than regret never taking a risk. I was not disappointed when we quit our teaching jobs and started our own businesses or when we wrote our first book. Rather, I felt alive.

    A very useful and enjoyable read, Noa! Thank you.
    cj recently posted…The Boons of Our Shared BackgroundMy Profile

  4. On the button. I always wanted to do some travelling but didn’t when young before family because I wanted to know that I could get back if I had to – I am basically risk averse. This is much more difficult with a family of course but we are trying to get over that. Now my ‘excuse’ is that there is a lot of ‘work’ to do. We always find an excuse … until we don’t. Fear is the power. So feel it and do it anyway. I hope to change this attitude.

    • Hi John,

      You’re right – there’s always some excuse or reason why we should wait…

      Funny thing about attitude change; we try to think our way into a new attitude, but often what is more effective is to act our way into a new attitude. Start doing new things, and you’ll find that the attitude changes often follow. A bit backwards-sounding, but really helpful for getting unstuck.
      Noa recently posted…How Do We Deal With an Audience That Looks Bored?My Profile

  5. For me it is fear of the unknown. I often find myself thinking that I could do something a little different and then all this doubt creeps into my mind and I often find that the safer answer is to stick with the status quo and not risk the unknown.
    Glen @ Monster Piggy Bank recently posted…Finding Little Ways to Save MoneyMy Profile

  6. A lot of people are afraid of doing the wrong thing, and of failure. I too fear a lot. Same with Glen, it for the unknown. But we need to conquer it in order to move forward and succeed. Or else, we will just be stuck on the same place. Never moving forward.
    KC @ genxfinance recently posted…Try Before You BuyMy Profile

    • @Glen and @KC,

      This quote attributed to Bruce Lee helped me change how I see success/failure/fear: “A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at.”

      Seth Godin also talks about this in “The Dip”, where he suggests that we don’t quit often enough. That we persist in things we shouldn’t, and don’t persist in those things we should…
      Noa recently posted…How Do We Deal With an Audience That Looks Bored?My Profile

  7. Really like the post. My wife is a dermatologist, so she would appreciate the part about laying out in the sun.

    I definitely think that things get scarier the longer we wait to do them and we build everything up in our head to be worse than it actually is.
    Greg@Thriftgenuity recently posted…Life and Debt – My Debt DecisionMy Profile

    • Hi Greg,

      Good point. The inverse (opposite? converse?) is true too. Meaning, if we take a few steps down the path, there comes a point where we have invested enough time and energy that loss aversion (aka fear of having wasted our time and effort) kicks in, and we become more committed to seeing things through no matter how scary or uncertain the future might be.
      Noa recently posted…How Do We Deal With an Audience That Looks Bored?My Profile

  8. I LOVE this post! I consider myself to be a confident person, but I have fears. And sometimes, they can get a strong hold on me. It is true that we eventually regret the missed opportunities most of all. Those are the things that truly haunt us. It’s why when I get the pit in my belly and the urge to quit that I remind myself this fear I’m feeling is a good thing – and means I’m taking a leap of faith on something I truly care about. Scary at times, but worth it.
    Shannon @ The Heavy Purse recently posted…How to Navigate the Financial World after GraduationMy Profile

    • Hi Shannon,

      Interesting how confidence and fear can coexist, no? In one study of world championship-level athletes, researchers found that even the best of the best had fears and doubts. The only difference was that when the moment of truth arrived, the top athletes went all out regardless, and the lesser athletes hesitated or held back, caving in to their fears.
      Noa recently posted…How Do We Deal With an Audience That Looks Bored?My Profile

  9. Hey Tony,

    Great post. Fortunately, I’ve never been living the life in constant regret (whatever the type), but it’s good to check your conscience every now and then and also find new ways of challenging yourself.

    I’m a first-timer here, but will definitely be coming back!
    All the best,

  10. Another great piece of advice. I moved from Germany to the US three years ago without knowing anyone in NY, without having a job set up, and no set goal as to what I wanted to accomplish. If fear would have dictated me, I would have never left my German comfort zone but fortunately life has become so much …. better and interesting!
    Laura4NYC recently posted…The UFC Hosts its Opening Night at John StreetMy Profile


  1. […] week, Tony at We Only Do This Once tells us that we are afraid of the wrong things. Yep, I agree with him completely. And life can become really stale and boring when one continues […]

  2. […] Do This Once had a fantastic guest post from Dr. Noa Kageyama who asked a very important question, Are We Afraid of the Wrong Things? A thought-provoking article on how we eventually regret the things we didn’t do more than the […]

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