Living with Fear

Fear was secretly making me unhappy and how I turned my fear into an advantage.

For 90 percent of human history, humans were Hunter-gatherers. Until roughly 12,000 years ago all humans lived this way until we gradually transitioned into the Agricultural Age. Our diet would consist of grasses, fruits, seeds, nuts, and tubers. We didn’t have the means to kill large animals, so we would scavenge or find smaller game. But at any given moment, we could be the ones who were hunted. Because of the persistent dangers that we used to face, we evolved to be fearful as a protection mechanism. This fear allowed us to survive. It served our Ancestors well for millions of years.

But now, in our modern society, we live in a much safer world. Humans are at the top of the food chain. We have built amazing systems. We have rules, a legal system, a global economy. So why do we still have the same level of fear as we may have had for millions of years prior? The answer is simple. It is hard to replace millions of years of evolution that served us so well. Our brains have not evolved quickly enough to our modern world to dial down this fear.

This fear permeates everything we do in life. We are scared of being fired, being rejected by someone you like, speaking to an audience, failing a test, not getting into college. The list is never-ending. We are always scared of something bad happening. This fear sits deep within us. Ready to strike at any given moment when something is not in your control.

For me, Fear was secretly controlling my life.

Controlled by Fear

Within a month of moving to the Bay Area I knew I wanted to start my own business.

First, after about 7 years of working in larger public companies, I started to become jaded by them. I felt like I was a cog in the machine. Whenever someone scheduled time on my calendar, I had to be at that meeting. I couldn’t just say no. Believe me, I tried to decline meetings. After reading the 4-Hour workweek from Tim Ferris, I declined 80% of my meetings for a week. That didn’t go over well. I had to be at work at 8 am and stay until 5 pm. People will say “face time doesn’t matter”, but we know that’s really just bullshit. Show me the woman or man that got promoted for leaving work everyday at 4 pm. I felt that I didn’t have freedom over my own time which I really wanted. If I was an entrepreneur, I wouldn’t have to be told where to be and when I had to be there. I could live life on my own terms.

Secondly, being in San Francisco, I was surrounded by people that were creating new products, building companies, and investing in exciting areas. There was an energy that was contagious. My idea of a “founder” or “CEO” was very flawed before I moved here. Previously, I used to put these people on a pedestal. I imagined founders and CEO’s as these god-like characters who had it all figured out. But when I moved here and met enough of them, I realized they were just normal everyday people who had a vision and went for it. I could be “one of them”.

Lastly, I wanted to be rich. I knew that I would never become wealthy working in a large company. Everyone has a different vision of wealth. For me, it was having over $20M in investable assets. I actually got to that number after reading the book How to Get Rich by Felix Dennis. The title is cringeworthy, but the content is phenomenal.

“The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.” - Nassim Taleb

So, I knew I wanted to start my own business. I kept telling myself I would do it. One day. Eventually. Once I was ready.

Something was holding me back. I couldn’t tell what it was. But deep down, I knew it was fear. The excuses I would use to procrastinate were: How could I get by without a stable income? Who would pay the bills? The student loans, rent, food? What if I run out of money? This thought of not having recurring income was too painful for me to even think deeply about. As Nassim Taleb said, “The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.”

Reflecting on that time, I now understand that I would subconsciously think about this fear, but I would never actually set aside time to sit down and think through it deeply. It was so painful that I just avoided it. My other fear was judgment. If I started my own company and failed, what would people think? What would my parents think? My friends? My family?

Fear was secretly controlling my life and actions, but it was too painful for me to think about, so I ignored it.

But the thoughts of starting my own business were too powerful and they kept coming back. After all, I was living in the entrepreneurship capital of the world. I kept meeting founders and thinking, “they’re not so special” or “I can do that”. I came to the realization that if I only kept thinking and talking about this stuff, I would be a “wantrepreneuer”. The person who says they want to be an entrepreneur, but doesn’t do anything about it.

I needed a professional to help me work through this dissonance.

Your Fears will NEVER go away

One of my friends referred me to a Performance Coach (Think someone like Wendy Rhoades from Billions). We’ll call him Ray for purposes of this story. This was one of the best investments of my life. Ray was able to help me understand that I was living with these underlying fears my entire life, why I had them, and how to work through them. The first thing was understanding that everyone has these fears. Primarily because of how we evolved as humans, as I mentioned in the introduction. These fears are then compounded throughout our lifetime from moments in our childhood and even into our adult life.

After a few weeks of working with Ray, I realized that my biggest fear was fear of loss. This isn’t unique to me. In fact, it’s very common. The formal term is “Loss Aversion” and it refers to people’s tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains. From a monetary standpoint, some studies suggest that losses are twice as powerful of gains, psychologically. For example, you would feel more hurt about losing $100k than you would be about gaining $100k.

In my particular situation, my fear of loss was strictly about loss of money. Running out of it. Not having enough to provide for my family. And so on. This most likely stemmed from my childhood where my dad taught me all about personal finance: the importance of saving, investing, and living within your means. While this served me well from a personal finance standpoint, it was hindering my ability to start my own company because of the uncertainty of stable income. My experience and rationality with my personal finances was in conflict with the dream that I had for myself of starting a business. To overcome this, Ray suggested that I do an exercise called Fear Setting. This is an exercise where you write down worst case scenarios, how to reduce the probability of those scenarios from occurring, how you would respond if they did occur, and what you lose by not taking action. Below is a screenshot of my Fear Setting Exercise.

The act of writing these things down, understanding the worst case scenarios, and the action plan if those scenarios did actually occur were groundbreaking. The thing you realize is that the worst case scenario isn’t even that bad. The worst case scenario I could imagine for myself is becoming homeless And there’s a close to zero chance that I would ever become homeless. Even if that happened, I could probably find my way out of it. This helped me realize that how my risk assessment of starting my own business was completely irrational. There was minimal downside.

The Fear setting exercise was good because helped put things in perspective, but I knew I needed more than that. I needed a psychological trick to overcome my fears. Because I knew my fears would continue to come back. One exercise will not eliminate thousands of years of evolution. I came up with a solution that I thought was perfect. I told him Ray I would literally push down my fears as far as possible. I would use my confidence, strength, and willpower to conquer any fear I have by staring fear in the face and saying “You can’t fuck with me.” While he loved the fire and the passion, he proposed another solution to think about. Instead of trying to fight my fear, Ray suggested that I acknowledge my fears. Think deeply about them. Recognize them. Understand them. He said to feel your fears so deeply that you fully understand why they are present and how they work. Then, you can use them to your advantage. Instead of trying so hard to fight your fears, let them in through the front door and make peace with them.

You know how I said working with a Performance Coach was one of my best investments? That piece of advice alone was worth millions of dollars. That perspective has now changed my life. You know when you learn something and it clicks so well that every situation you encounter you now look at differently because of what you learned? The advice I was given that day has changed my perspective on everything in my life. I will always have this fear in me, but now I understand it so deeply and so well that it does not control me. Instead, I am able to use this fear to my advantage. I know it’s there and I play a little game where I feel my fears, work with them, and then use them to my benefit. I have turned this anchor that was weighing me down into a lever that helps me move mountains.

“Easy Choices, Hard Life. Hard Choices, Easy Life.” - Jerzy Gregorek

So, what happened? After working with Ray, I knew I had a decision to make in my career and life. Two roads diverged and I could not travel both.

The first road was the easy one. Maintain the status quo: Continue working at a large company. The benefits were obvious: Collect a decent paycheck, max out the 401(k), work my way up, and probably live a somewhat comfortable life. The drawbacks were just as clear: Not have the freedom and control of my time I was seeking, be resentful and bitter when I was older for not taking a risk, and always questioning “what could have been”?

The second road seemed more exciting (and challenging). Leave the company. Start your own business. The benefits here were obvious as well: Challenge yourself in a way you never have. Live life with excitement doing what you truly want to be doing. Finally discover if you do have what it takes to run your own business. And lastly, finally have that freedom and control over your time that you desire. This last one was an oxymoron. Sure, I had control over my time. But in order to make this thing successful, I had to 10 hour days for 7 days a week to get it off the ground. The drawback was clear because there was only one: Run out of money.

As Jerzy Gregorek once said, “Easy Choices, Hard Life. Hard Choices, Easy Life.” I took the second road and haven’t looked back since.

Turning an Anchor into a Lever

It is amazing to me that it took me so long to understand how fear can be such a powerful force. Now, it would be disingenuous for me to say that I am always in control of my fear. There are times when fear takes over and I feel overwhelmed. However, it does not control me like it did before. Remember how I said fear could be so painful that I would avoid it? I do not avoid it anymore. With a little bit of deep thought and a good night of sleep, I am back in control. Because I know what my fears are, why they are there, and how to use them to my advantage. It is a fun game.

And of course, I could have never had the confidence nor the ability to execute on confronting these fears without the help of my Wife, Brother, Parents, Business Partners, and Friends that convinced me I can do anything if I just try. The amount of luck I have had in life is unfair. As Warren Buffet says, I “won the Ovarian lottery” - I was born with many advantages: Born in America, the son of immigrants, parents who love me, growing up middle-class, escaping trouble countless times; the list is never-ending. But one of life’s most unfair advantages I’ve had is my support system. If you have healthy & strong relationships with people that believe in you, provide you confidence, and build you up I believe you can do anything in the world. Anything.

I don’t know how my story will end. I could easily go back to working in someone else’s company, starting another company, or who knows what else. But I do know this: I won’t be making decisions based on fear.