How About NOT Overcoming Fear?
Sometimes fear is a good thing
Fear gets a bad rap.
Nearly all the literature on fear is on how to overcome it. Sometimes you really do need to overcome it. If you’re a soldier in combat, the Army wants you to overcome it; they need you to take cover and/or shoot at the enemy. If you’re a public speaker, you have to get past the fear of the audience. Fear gets a very bad press, though, over and above those situations:
A TedX talk on “How to ‘overcome fear”
Another TedX talk on “Cutting through fear”
Yet another TedX talk: ‘Fear is an illusion”
Pro tip: if you want to get your talk onto a TedX program, put “fear” in the title.
We could go on and on. I found 25 movies with “fear” in the title and I stopped counting.
Nobody has anything good to say about fear. Nobody but me.
First a couple stories.
The Rubber Ducky
In 1988, I went on a four-day raft trip down the Rogue River in Oregon (I don’t remember if it was that rafting company in the link). People do get injured or killed on these things; here’s a database and some photos. The thrill of risking death is part of what makes it exciting. But “drowning” is an abstract concept to most rafters. “It won’t happen to me!” they feel. “That’s why we have lifejackets. And helmets!”
These guys have both.
The Rogue River is one of the premier rafting destinations in the U.S. It flows from the Crater Lake area in Oregon all the way to the Pacific, through a rugged canyon with bears, bald eagles, and all sorts of other wildlife. There are Class II, III, and IV rapids, those being what recreational rafters generally do. Class V is usually considered very difficult for inexperienced rafters, but Class IV is plenty challenging enough.
This is roughly the trip I did, although maybe not this particular rafting company. You put into the river at Galice, west of Grants Pass, which is forty miles north of the California border. We had a choice of riding in the oar boat, steered by the guides (here’s one approaching the Blossom Bar rapids):
or taking a “rubber ducky” (inflatable kayak):
Pictured is a one-person kayak, but there are also kayaks for two. I took the latter. These are stable and not like the hard-shell kayaks you see on adventure TV shows; they don’t generally flip over and force you to right yourself or drown, and you can go through river rapids on one. I did the first two days on the rubber duckies. If you didn’t fancy that level of excitement, the oar boat was a safer ride. The guides manned the oars and you just rode.
Going through rapids in the rubber ducky was exhilarating. You make split second decisions on which way to turn, go forward, or back up, screaming at each other. The person in front is the captain, since he can see best, so the decisions are his or hers. You hope you don’t get dumped out into the water, but if you do, you have a life vest on so you won’t sink. Of course, you can still get smashed into a rock, or be trapped underwater. The guides counsel you that if you do go into the river, float with your feet downstream, so your feet will hit the rocks and not your head.
On the third day, I had a new partner. We’ll call him Gary. When you’re in a two-person kayak with someone for hours, you get to know them pretty well, both in exciting times (the rapids) and calm ones (most of the river).
Gary was a divorced man from Cleveland, about 50 years old, who’d been laid off from a steel company in middle age and had to find a new way of making a living. He’d chosen commodities trading. Talk about risk and fear! Gary was not like the guys on The Wolf of Wall Street; he didn’t pound his fist against his chest. He was a normal-looking guy.
I wrote about the Chicago Board of Trade commodity pits before:
In the old days, there were actually “pits” in the Chicago Board of Trade, where futures contracts for cattle, pork bellies, crude oil, winter wheat, gold, and lots of other things were traded by the “Open Outcry” method. That meant that those people there were yelling at each other and making hand signals for “I’ll buy 500” or “confirmed” or other transactions. As soon as they made a trade, they scribbled it on a piece of paper and handed it to an assistant, who entered it on the books. Gary wasn’t one of these guys in the pit; he was doing it from Cleveland.
Amazingly, Open Outcry with yelling and hand signals works. Or worked; now it’s done electronically. As a trader, your word, or your gesture, is your bond. If you tried to renege on a trade that turned out badly for you, no one would ever trade with you again.
Is This For Me?
This official guide makes it seem as innocent as taking up knitting. “You, too, can become a commodities trader!” they said. “It’s easy!” they said.
In the 35 years since I went on that rafting trip, commodities have become much easier and less risky to trade. You can participate in lots of ways that don’t expose you to financial ruin.
Not so in 1988. This guide from the Dummies book for commodities trading puts it in stark terms:
The minimum margin requirements for commodity futures vary but, on average, are lower than those for stocks. For example, the margin requirement for soybeans in the Chicago Board of Trade is 4 percent. This means that, with only $400 in your account, you can buy $10,000 worth of soybeans futures contracts!
If the trade goes your way, you’re a happy camper. But if you’re on the losing side of a trade on margin, you can lose much more than your principal.
Think about that: you put in $400, and you might lose $20,000. By contrast, if you buy $400 worth of stock on the stock exchange, the most you can lose is $400.
How likely is a loss that big? It’s very possible, because you’re leveraged so much, and because commodity prices swing so violently. In practice, your broker wouldn’t let you lose that much unless you actually had that much in your account; they would tell you to put in more money or they’d sell the contract for you (that’s called a “margin call”).
Of course, you could also make much more than you put in. Or win it, then lose it, then lose some more, and then maybe make it all back. Or go broke.
So you think, “Hey, I’ll watch the weather in Ghana, so if it’s bad, it means cocoa prices will be going up!” Nice try, but Hershey, Cadbury, and lots of people with money on the line make enormous bets on cocoa prices, and they have better weather information than you do. The entire commodities market exists so that people with serious skin in the game can hedge their risks or lock in a future price now, instead of waiting until they have to buy or sell. If you’re a large wheat farmer, you’ve probably sold your wheat long before it gets harvested, at a price you thought was good at the time.
If you play this game, you don’t have to actually deliver the wheat or get it dumped on your front lawn, of course; for most traders it’s settled with money.
I Have a Winning System!
Here’s the point about doing this insanely risky thing: back then, there were, and still are many mathematical systems which were tested against decades of old price movements. You can browse a few here, or even watch a video claiming you can make money based only on the day of the month. You don’t have to know anything about cocoa or winter wheat or crude oil; you just watch the prices.
So it’s easy, right? You just follow the system’s recommendations, and bingo! You rake in the money.
You need nerves of steel, though. Here’s the performance report of one of their systems for trading crude oil:
So in this system, you put in $25,000 and you make $22,697. Pretty good!
But imagine this is real money that you worked for and saved, not something imaginary. You made 136 trades and only 46 of them made money. That last line, “Max Month-to-Month DrawDown” is the most you lose in any month: $46,637.20! How would you feel that month? You lost more than your original stake. That’s what I mean by “nerves of steel.”
Most normal humans would see the market going against them most of the time (in this case, 90 of the 136 trades) and bail out. Maybe you know in your head that the system “made” money in the past, but you can never really know in your gut that the future will be like the past. You might bail out. I think I would.
When we were first getting acquainted, I asked Gary what he did, and he told me he was a commodities trader. I was impressed, and I asked, “Wow. Isn’t it hard to come up with a system that makes money?”
Gary said, “There are any number of systems that’ll make money. The hard part is sticking with it when it’s going against you.” Exactly.
Blossom Bar is the name of one of the most famous rapids in the US. It’s a Class IV. This is an analysis of how to run it, with examples.
Here’s a raft “wrapping up” on a rock, which means the raft is pushed against the rock by the current so hard that it’s impossible to get it off without help. The big danger is “the Picket Fence” on the left
Not your “American Dream white picket fence” here. This jumble of under cut rocks that sets the boundary for the classic line is the one place you want to avoid. This pile of rocks come into play when you miss “the move” and don’t make it into the eddy. If the water is high enough you are able to float right over all of the danger but as the water drops this is where boats get perched, wrapped, or may flip.
We were warned carefully to avoid the left side, which I think was The Picket Fence (remember this was 35 years ago, so it’s hard for me to be certain).
So naturally Gary and I floated right into The Picket Fence. The kayak flipped over and we were in the water.
So you’re probably thinking, “OK, so the guides picked you up, right? And you had life jackets? What’s the big deal?” On a “normal” river rafting trip, with Class III rapids, that’s what happens. You float downstream feet first, and they pull you back into the boat.
It wasn’t quite like that on Blossom Bar. In the wrong water conditions, you’re under the kayak and you can’t get to the surface. The kayak is stuck by the whirling currents in one spot and you’re under it. You can quite easily drown.
We were warned about that, too: “If you’re trapped under the kayak, reach up and pull yourself up.” I think that’s what I did. When you’re in chaos like that, you don’t always remember it all with perfect clarity.
The guides in the oar boat were alert to the possibility of this happening, and they were positioned so that I floated right to them. Unfortunately, the rapids were still rushing, they had to devote all their attention to rowing, and they weren’t able to pull me into the boat, so I hung on the back until we passed the rough part. I don’t know how long that lasted, but it seemed like forever. I wanted desperately to get into the boat.
Gary had a similar experience, and eventually we were both safe in the oar boat. He got right back in a kayak. I rode in the oar boat the rest of day three and day four.
Fear and Respect
That was it. I was shaken up by the experience, and didn’t feel like risking it again. For Gary, this was just like a losing month in his trading: maybe next month will be better. My reaction was, “I don’t have to overcome this fear. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone.”
When you have to do it
What I said is contrary to what they say about learning to ride a horse and getting thrown: they always say, “Get right back on the horse!” Let’s think about that.
Suppose you live on a ranch, and riding a horse is going to be part of your life. You can’t live normally without riding. In that case, you have to overcome your fear and get back on the horse. Maybe you’re more careful not to get the horse upset in the future.
Suppose you have a car accident and you’re seriously injured and traumatized. Most likely, you can’t or prefer not to stop driving, so you ease back into it, although you’re always nervous after that.
Maybe you’re afraid of flying, but you suck it up and do it anyway. It’s hard to visit your friends and relatives when they live 1,000 or 2,000 miles away without getting on a plane. And, of course, going to countries outside your own continent nearly always means flying.
As I said earlier, if you’re a soldier in combat, of course you’re going to be afraid, and you do have to overcome it. Military training tries to teach you how to do that, and many combat veterans agree that it does.
An overwhelming number of veterans said they “didn't think” and just acted during combat — giving a positive nod to their training beforehand. Indeed, the majority of respondents said their training prepared them very well or somewhat well for combat duty (91.5%).
When you don’t have to do it
In the above examples, you pretty much have to do the thing, or at least really don’t want to avoid it.
Did I have to get back in a kayak? Certainly some people would call it cowardice not to. You know what? Screw ‘em. I didn’t have to take the kayak; I tried that, and now I didn’t feel like it anymore.
Jumping out of a plane like Will Smith is talking about? I don’t have to do that.
Flying in a private plane with an amateur pilot, i.e. someone who does not fly for a living and never has? I don’t have to do that, either. I used to, but I won’t anymore.
Here are some more things you (and I) don’t have to do.
I have a friend, let’s call him Lance, who enrolled in a surfing class as a middle-aged adult. He’d surfed before, but was in no way an expert. Most of the other students were very much younger than Lance, some as young as 12. He was caught in a rogue wave, dragged out to sea, and had his shoulder dislocated, requiring some serious surgery. He doesn’t surf anymore, because he doesn’t have to. He said,
Big gnarly rogue wave that surprised everyone - I’ll never forget that wall of water. But interestingly, I felt no fear at all during the impact, or when I was pulled out to sea, or when I discovered my shoulder was dislocated. As I was churning under the wave and then felt the rip current grab me, I recall thinking: this is so annoyingly dramatic.
Only when I finally got to the beach did I feel emotion. Fear was more of a retrospective phenomena. I wonder how common that is.
There were a other injured folks on the beach as well. One girl was bleeding a lot. But everyone was calm and matter of fact.
Something Lance said to me about the after-event fear is quite enlightening, and we’ll come back to it: he learned to respect the ocean, just like I learned to respect the rapids. They both can kill you. This may be just an abstract concept and not real at a physiological level until it actually happens to you, or someone close to you.
(I include this section not because you’ll be tempted to try it, perish the thought, but because I know a couple guys who do it. The opinions of one of them are pretty striking and are quoted below.)
Wing-suiting means flying without a plane. Here’s a video of someone doing it. Of course, starting at 0:36 into that video: if that guy hits the rock, he probably gets killed. You can see a list of fatalities in the sport here.
But again, the point is not to dissuade you from wing-suiting. It’s this: I once said to my wing-suiting friend (we’ll call him Steve), “Why would I want to jump out of a perfectly good airplane?” This is a stunningly un-original quip, and he’d heard it before.
Steve smiled and said, “There’s no such thing as a perfectly good airplane! You can crash in any airplane.”
Think about that: Steve thinks that the fact that any airplane could crash justifies incurring a 1 in 500 chance of serious injury or death (according to that article). Your chance of crashing in a commercial plane flight is considerably better than 1 in 500.
Whenever I see a story about a wing-suiter being killed (which is often), I always think, “I sure hope it’s not Steve.”
But the overriding fact for me about wing-suiting (and parachuting; a more popular sport) is: I don’t have to.
I rode one of these (Honda Super90) in college. Since the University of Illinois campus is huge, it was very handy for getting around. Why didn’t I just get a bicycle? I can’t tell you.
I fell off it several times, once when I slipped on the ice. I was never seriously hurt.
Later on, in my late 20’s, remembering how much fun the bike was, I got one of these:
Once I was riding near Venice, CA, went over a small hill, and at the top suddenly saw a long line of cars where I wasn’t expecting it. I hit the rear brake too hard, the bike skidded, and I went down, a totally normal motorcycling accident.
I was wearing a helmet, but not the full face kind. I had gashes on my chin, hands, and wrists. The bike was undamaged and I rode it home. I didn’t go to the ER because it didn’t seem that serious. Maybe that was a mistake. I still have a few scars from that accident, 45 years later.
I did ride the Kawasaki after that, but I never enjoyed it as much. Eventually I sold it. No matter what anyone tells you, they are more dangerous than driving a car (here are the stats).
Here, again: I don’t have to ride a motorcycle.
The Lindy Effect
If you’re reading this, you survived, and since I wrote it, I did, too. If you’d really had “NO FEAR” as the T-shirts proclaim, you might not have. The Lindy Effect proclaims that survival is the most important thing.
those who underestimate Black Swans will eventually exit the population.
I’m a disciple of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and in fact, I got to hang out with him a little when I hosted his talk at Google. His book Antifragile describes the concept of things that are not only resistant to chaos, but thrive on them. A “fragile” person or thing is vulnerable to a Black Swan event.
I had a discussion with an amateur pilot where I noted the frequency of fatal private plane accidents. He said, paraphrasing, “I’ve examined every one of those accidents, and I’m confident that I would have avoided all of them.”
Exactly. “A Black Swan event can never happen to ME! Because I’m careful.”
You think nothing weird and unexpected can happen to you? Well, you’re wrong.
Fear of Commitment
When you read any story featuring single woman, they always seem to claim that all the men they meet have a “fear of commitment.” This has even been given a pseudo-scientific name: gamophobia!
Men, you must get treated for your gamophobia! I call Bullshit.
There are lots of articles aimed at women, like this one,
First off, let us be clear. Men with commitment issues will have these issues no matter what woman they are with. It has nothing to do with you. So please stop doubting your attractiveness, your intelligence, your great personality, your loving and generous nature. If a guy is scared of commitment, he displays this fear with every woman he dates.
Ladies, I know that it can be hard to deal with a man who isn’t ready for the same level of commitment that you are. So, as someone who has had commitment issues in the past I think I should share with you some of the reasons why a man may not be willing to commit to you.
“It has nothing to do with you.” Wrong, ladies. He just doesn’t want to marry you.
Youth and Risk-Taking
So why is it even necessary to recount all these stupid pastimes and say, “I don’t have to do that?” It’s because some people feel vaguely guilty about being risk-adverse, in the same way they’re embarrassed at putting on weight or catching themselves sounding like their mothers.
I’m here to tell you: don’t be. You survived all those stupid things you did when you were younger (I guess, or you wouldn’t be here reading this), but you’re smarter now. And so were your ancestors, all the way back to the Stone Age.
Younger people, especially, are big on “overcoming your fear.” Actually, they’re big on denying that they even have any! Here’s a whole page of “no fear” T-shirts. I doubt many AARP members wear one.
Research has been done using fMRI, or function magnetic resonance imaging, to figure out the youthful brains and why they seem so incapable of assessing risk. It turns out that they’re not! They know they’re doing something stupid, just like adults do.
Instead of being ignorant, they’re overly sensitive to peer pressure; ask any middle school teacher who’s tried to get them to focus on anything except each other. As you can tell from all those T-shirts, they need to advertise to each other that they’re not afraid.
A scientific study found that the propensity to take risks in adolescence is common across the entire world. In some cultures, the opportunity to take them is heavily restricted, but the inclination is still there.
Results suggest that although the association between age and risk taking is sensitive to measurement and culture, around the world, risk taking is generally highest among late adolescents.
But you’re past all that. Aren’t you? Actually, if we judge from all those TedX talks, you might not be.
There’s a very funny movie, Defending Your Life, with Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep, where the dead get to review their life and defend it. Their trial includes a prosecutor and a defense attorney. One of the worst things the prosecutor can say about them is that they didn’t overcome their fears. As the Washington Post critic said,
With the ineffective assistance of defense lawyer Rip Torn, he must refute charges that his life has been ruled essentially by fear.
So somehow, “overcoming your fear” has become a goal that Hollywood can sell to you. I think we’ve disposed of that now.
Fear is good. If it keeps you from doing something you really have to do, or want to do, then by all means, strive to overcome it. Otherwise, it’s helping you stay in one piece. Go ahead; be afraid.