The Physiology behind “Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway” and Why it’s often Really Good Advice

April 25, 2021

One of my first semi-successful bootstrapped businesses over a decade ago was an online training portal designed to show non technical entrepreneurs how to create authority sites to generate income.  

Before the launch, I remember spending months and months creating videos, writing blog posts, books and recording webinars.  After about 3 months of solid work I had more than enough content to open the doors to customers.  

If anything, I had too much content...

But I just couldn't bring myself to launch.  Instead I'd rationalize to myself that "I'll create just one more course and then I'll launch".   As you've probably guessed, once I'd built the course, I then found some way to convince myself to delay the launch further by working on something completely unnecessary again.  

This cycle went on for months.  

And why didn't I just launch?  

The simple answer is that I was too damn scared.  I had all kinds of fears going on inside my mind:-

  • Who are you to teach people about building sites?  You've got no experience as a teacher.  You're an imposter.
  • You'll open the course and nobody will be interested.  It'll be another failed business attempt to add to your pile and you'll have to give up and look for a new job.  You're a failure.
  • All of your friends and classmates are going to see your videos and your failed venture and you'll be the joke of the town

I had fear of success, fear of failure, imposter syndrome and I was too scared to stand out from the crowd.  To avoid the extremely difficult emotional labor to face these fears, I kept delaying the launch again and again.

One day, my friend (who today is actually my business partner) noticed this pattern and just gave it to me straight.  He could see through all my bullshit, told me that I was stuck in a rut, and that I just needed to launch the site.

While every sinew in my bones was telling me not to, I pulled the trigger, opened the doors and promoted my new site.  Lo and behond, we took around 100 customers within 4 weeks each paying $37/month.  Even more importantly, our members were very positive about the quality of the training and the content included on the site.

I couldn't believe it...

It was the single biggest victory of my entrepreneurial career up until that point. I literally couldn't have even imagined such a positive outcome beforehand.

It taught me a lesson that I'll never forget to this day:-  If we're going to achieve great things we have to feel the fear and do it anyway.  Even today, over 10 years later, I still remind myself of this lesson when I'm scared of doing something that I know I should be doing.  It's served me extremely well.

The Amygdala has a Lot to Answer For

I first learned about the amygdala, otherwise known as the lizard brain, by Seth Godin in one of his great presesntations.

Here's one of my favorite talks about this topic:-

The lizard brain is essentially right at the core of everything we do as humans.  It's the wild animal in us.  

It wants to eat, sleep, have sex, and run away.  

Thousands of years of evolution has added layers of gray matter on top of the amygdala (including the pre-frontal cortex responsible for willpower amongst other things), but at the very core of our brain remains this animalistic part.

It has undoubtedly served mankind well during our time here on this planet, especially given that we have managed to survive as a species.  But I think it's fair to say that things have changed a little since we were living in caves.

Most of us live in relatively comfortable and safe environments.  We don't have to worry about a crafty sabre tooth tiger ambushing us on the bus to go to work, for example.

Yet, the lizard brain is still there, panging its fight or flight mechanism in any situation that it deems dangerous.

And herein lies the problem...

In modern day society, it's quite often that we need to do things like stand out from the crowd, stick our neck out, speak up in front of others and take risks in order to achieve success:  

  •  Being a creator (author, artist, singer, actor, software developer...) means shipping your creation and opening yourself up for all kinds of criticism and judgment
  • According to certain studies, people fear public speaking more than death, yet in many disciplines public speaking is one of the best ways you can increase your profile and progress your career.
  • As an entrepreneur you need to stand up and lead often large groups of people, the decisions that you make have huge ramifications for the company and everyone associated with it.  Have a bad year?  It rests on your shoulders.

Standing out and taking measured risks in today's environment is pretty much a pre-requisite for some of the most successful positions in society.

These are exactly the kind of things that your amygdala hates.  

While it's hard to imagine now, standing out from the crowd when humans were tribal would have been one of the most dangerous things you could have done.  It quite literally could have got you killed.  

While society today is a farcry from what our ancestors experienced, the brain hasn't caught up.  Today, your brain's own defence mechanisms are quite often the very things that you need to fight against in order to succeed.  

You don't need to be more creative.... what you need is a quieter lizard brain

Seth Godin

Be Afraid of Fear

Will Smith, in an interview, once said that he has "fear of fear" and that he "hates to be scared to do something":

Knowing what we know about the lizard brain and how it has a tendency to sabotage us right at the very moment where we need the courage to do something great, I agree with Mr. Smith...having a "fear of fear" is needed...

I'd almost go as far to say that for most people, this fear of standing out, taking that leap of faith, standing up to be heard, shipping your creation and judgment is the single biggest obstacle to overcome.  I have worked with many exceptional minds over the years that never get over this hurdle.  Fear and adversity to taking risks is consistently the limiting factor in most cases.

Being aware of why and how we feel fear is one of your first step to silencing it at that critical juncture.  

The next time you're scared to do something you know you should be doing, understand that it's coming from a part of your brain that hasn't evolved fast enough to catch up with the world we find ourselves in, and realize that it's probably going to be just fine.  

More than that, it's a sign that this is probably exactly what you need to do.

Feel the fear and do it anyway.

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