Bravery Cannot Exist Without Fear

Being fearless is not the same thing as being brave. In fact, being fearless has nothing to do with bravery. It might even indicate that someone is acting like a coward and avoiding the things that scare them.

I once attended a seminar and the leader spoke about being fearless. They suggested to the group that everyone would be happier and make more of their lives if they simple did not have fear. At the time it felt like it was the truth. It landed like an profound realization that the only thing that was holding me back from the life I wanted was fear. There was a collective delusion in the group that somehow we had been given a magic pill and upon swallowing it the world was ours to dominate.

About a week after the seminar I started to realize that I was broken because the knowledge that my fear was all that was preventing me from making the life I desired wasn’t enough. I was the same person and I had the same concerns that I had always had. Fortunately the organization had other seminars that I could attend that would teach me more of the knowledge I needed to finally break through and be all that I was capable of. Who knew that self improvement would be so expensive and depend so much on people other than myself? I said fuck it and went back to my life being afraid of the things that made me scared and occasionally doing something that terrified me.

It turns out that the lesson they should have been teaching is about being grateful for fear. Fear indicates something significant. Some fear is very important to notice and listen to. When you are doing something dangerous, fear is there to tell you to stop. Mouthing off to people at a bar is a dumb thing to do so it should scare you enough to not do it. Driving recklessly or night swimming are two other things for which fear is the appropriate response. You will live a lot longer if you always maintain a healthy dose of fear for these two activities. I’m not talking about trying to get passed the fear of doing dangerous things. I’m talking about everything else, which is most things.

With fear about something that has no survival risk, the feeling of fear is information. It can reveal to us that we do not have confidence in our ability to do the activity or certainty that the outcome will be what we want; both are what we would expect for something we new at. Very few people are good at anything the first few times they do it so trepidation is natural.

Fear can also reveal that there is something at stake. Human beings are loss adverse so the notion of losing something should trigger some level of fear.

Fear can also be misinterpreted excitement. It is very hard to tell nervousness from excitement. It is possible that when we have fear for what we’re about to do, we are actually just excited about it.

Fear can also tell us that something important is about to happen and that our brain and body is just getting revved-up to perform better. There is a sweet spot when it comes to heart rate and performance and it’s well above your resting heart rate.

Now none of this matters if we give in to the fear and don’t take action. If we have no confidence in our abilities, we’ll never gain that confidence if we never do the thing. If we’re afraid of losing something, we will never gain the right to have that thing if we never take the risk, and we’ll never gain whatever is there for those who try. If we are simply excited, we are never going to actualize the reason why we were excited if we don’t do the thing. And if we are just getting revved-up to perform better, by giving in to the fear we’ll never experience the joy of that performance.

So no matter what the reason for the fear, a life worth living exists when we accept the fear and take action anyway. Sure, we will get hurt, we will lose things, there will be a cost to not being successful, but there will always be an upside. You will learn something, you will get at least a little bit better, and you will get some hands-on information about what the world is and how it works, or a way that it doesn’t work.

The lesson they were teaching at the seminar about being fearless is probably impossible but it is at least impractical. If there is no fear, there isn’t much reason to do something. There probably isn’t going to be much growth in it because you are so good at it that you know the outcome or it matters so little that it isn’t worth doing.

Instead, I would teach people that without fear there can be no bravery. Someone who is brave is afraid but does it anyway. They take action in spite of their fear. They know that the outcome is uncertain and they still do it. Being fearless is not the same thing as being brave. In fact, being fearless has nothing to do with bravery. It might even indicate that someone is acting like a coward and avoiding the things that scare them.

Brave people may act fearlessly but they are absolutely loaded with fear.

In fairness to the seminar leader, had they told the group that fear is a good thing and that without it, we would never prove to ourselves that we were brave, I don’t think many people would has signed-up for the next seminar. The truth is not a magic pill that they can sell. There is nothing proprietary about introducing people to the notion that being brave is a skill that we can learn by identifying the things that scare us and then doing these things in a progressive and systematic way. With each rep, we are over-reaching a little bit while learning the required skills and accumulating the wisdom that eventually make possible the most terrifying things.