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

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