Fear and Action

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I’m nervous, my daughter shared as we walked with my wife to the staging area for a 4-mile obstacle run in the mountains…

For years, my default response to comments like this was to try to explain why there was no reason to be nervous. To try to defuse the anxiety and show how everything would be just fine. To eliminate the possibility of things not going as planned and make the unknown known, make the new old, even if just in appearance.

But, I began to realize that response was doing a disservice.

Because anything worth doing, any creative endeavor, any new experience will come with a healthy dose of uncertainty. With an inability to know how it’ll all work work out. Trying to paint a picture that turns unknown into known is not only unrealistic, but also frames uncertainty as a bad thing. And action in the face of uncertainty as something to be avoided.

As Kierkegaard said:

“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”

It’s a signpost of possibility.

So, now I take a different approach. One built around a different line of thought.

I understand you’re a nervous, I say, so am I, but that’s okay. It’s really just your mind and your body saying that what you’re about to do is something that really matters, that can be really cool and it’s something that’s a new experience for you. That’s an amazing thing, because that’s where the great stuff in life happens. In this place where we feel a little nervous, where we’re doing something we’ve never done before.

It’s okay to be nervous, even a bit afraid, and still do it, I tell her (and, frankly, half the time I’m saying it to convince myself as well).

Because the core skill set I want to help cultivate in situations like this as a dad is not the belief that eliminating uncertainty is a pre-condition to action. Rather, nervous energy is often a signpost that what you’re about to do matters. The real challenge is to learn to intuit whether the visceral response is shutting down opportunity or keeping you from physical harm.

There are times when it’s the latter. And those are the moments, when there is very real risk of physical danger, when you seriously consider the intelligence of backing away. But, in my experience (at least once you’re out of your teens), the vast majority of times, it’s the former. And that’s all about leaning in.

What do you think?


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57 responses

57 responses to “Fear and Action”

  1. Yep, I feel it often. In fact, I was telling my wife about it last night. I’m in the very early throes of something I believe will be special. And I feel that fear…right up to the point where I take action. And then it (fear) all fades away…

    • Trent says:


      I can totally relate and here’s how I manage to keep my attitude pointed in the right direction. In my office, I have a white board on the wall with the (big) goal at the bottom. Then, above that are all the steps needed to get there…and here’s my trick: each step is phrased as a question. Can I do this..? Could I do that…? etc… and whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed, I just look at all the questions and remind myself that the answer to each question is yes…so therefore, the big goal is totally doable 🙂


  2. That is exactly how I felt when I started the #BrainDownlod project. All of the inspiration and support I had given to others before seemed to elude me ( when i needed it), until I realized WHOA-this is good. It means Michele, you are about to step into another breakthrough and when you emerge on the other side you will be able to help others find their way theirs too.

    Jonathan your ability to be in our heads and share your vulnerable moments is what I love about you.

  3. Chris Shouse says:

    I love that response and will use it on myself as well. I think it is a good explanation on pushing through an obstacle instead of allowing it to put you at a stand still. Thank you for allowing me to put into words what I often feel and how to talk myself through with good self talk.

  4. That’s exactly what I tell my 5 year old. His outlook on fear is vastly different than mine was when I was his age. I hope it continues to help him when he’s older!

    I can only imagine of what things would be different if I was taught that same thing at a young age. Changing the world through our children 🙂

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      No doubt, I’d love to see the message touch down a lot earlier in peoples’ lives. So much suffering comes in the name of trying to lock down a future that’s unlockable.

      • Debra @TheConfidenceRevolution says:

        What a fantastic post Jonathan! I agree with both you and Jaime that it is SO important to teach this to our children (while we’re teaching ourselves)! It’s a big reason why my 16 yr old daughter went to Kenya for 3 1/2 weeks last summer to build a school…she was able to look fear in the face (and I had too as well), and still take action! Now she’s going to do it with University in the city in September…and so on. She has big dreams and it will require being able to face fears, understand if it’s trying to shut down her opportunities, and then take action anyway!
        Thanks so much!

  5. Yes. This is what I tell my clients when we are working on speaking anxiety, “It makes sense that you are nervous. It’s because you care. This matters.” In fact, it is often the CEOs and other high leaders in companies that are the most anxious about speaking (which surprises people in other parts of organizations when I share this tidbit in trainings.) They are anxious because they want what they say to matter, to change things, to make a difference. That’s why I get nervous every time I hit a stage, too. Most of us do.
    What I especially love in this post, though, is that it’s applied to parenting. I notice that I, too, try to decrease uncertainty with my daughters when they are nervous. I love this idea of focusing way more on recognizing and giving value to the fact that the nervousness is because this new unknown matters.

  6. My wife and I were just discussing this yesterday. We have an opportunity to to travel to a place we’ve never been to, with all boarding paid for, with the purpose of my responding to and capturing the local culture and people through my paintings. Where I see it as an exciting opportunity, my wife was nervous about the not-so-good variables (that exist anywhere). Though the variables are imagined, the fears are a reality that I need to handle gently and respectfully, and it takes much other-centered thought to patiently and lovingly do so. Not easy for me when I’m ready to jump!

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      It’s a definitely a different process when you’re exploring comfort-pushing plans with others. We all have our own lenses. No easy answers, but honest conversation and compassion is the starting point.

  7. Candice says:

    Last Thursday my 13-year old daughter tested for her brown belt in traditional Japanese karate. On the seven minute ride to the dojo she developed a sudden stomachache.My response was similar to yours, but not nearly so well articulated. (I’ll borrow from you next time.)

    I have moments of terror about the product I’ll soon launch, (yes, terror, though there’s no threat of physical harm). Terror and nervousness and anxiety–I’m still grateful for the freedom and opportunity to take this risk.

  8. Kerri Miller says:

    Love this! Thank you.

  9. Anne Wayman says:

    Love the synchronicity… had just realized that’s what’s been left out of the query writing workshop I’m building is the fear that prevents writers from writing query and in popped your email with this piece… which I will quote!

    I’m starting to take a hard look at the unconscious fears that drive me… by looking at the results I’m actually getting and seeing what that tells me…

    Thanks Jonathan.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Ha, I’ve breathed into that query process myself, just a wee bit of fear and anxiety there. lol

      • Just a wee, as I read this message, having just meditated upon the web designer who pulled out of a project that was going molasses slow…

        Where am I expecting myself to be left. Where do I leave?

        I am super conscious right now of the choice I have… Not over what happened, but over how I choose to respond.

        Just having produced a video for my blog: How Fear of the Unknown Can Fuel Your Passion, I am getting a great chance to learn my lesson once again.

        Your mail comes at the gifted synchronistic time Jonathan.

        Thanks for the gift.

  10. Anne Tengler says:

    Yes! You took me back to when my eldest was a very shy, but fantastic middle-schooler, and we had jut moved her halfway across the country. She was understandably nervous about making friends, school, the works. The mantra we gave her was “One brave thing.” If she did one brave thing each day, despite her worries, she’d create the new life she wanted. I often thought about that as I changed fields and had to manage my own anxiety about my ability to be successful. It has helped carry me through some pretty intense situations and, I hope, it’s helped her too.
    Thanks for the flashback! She’s now 25 and a confident, fantastic person working in non-profit development.

  11. Irene Ross says:

    I seem to have to remind myself of this several times a week, if not every day.

    Several years ago I made a complete career switch and, while I love what I do–more than I ever could have imagine–I went from being considered a “guru” and “fabulous” success in my original career to one where I basically had to start all over.

    As a matter of fact, I have a fear-driven upset stomach as I write this!

    Thanks so much for bringing up a subject that I am sure is on many, many minds….

  12. Todd Lynch says:

    Terrific post. I just came off district baseball tournament with my 10 year old, his first run-in with earning rather than being handed accolades. He experienced a whole new set of nerves, and for the first time, things didn’t come as easily. Great life lessons and one’s ability to embrace the moment, event if it comes with a queasy feeling, rather than being paralized by it are important.

    A little bit of nerves leads to a more thoughtful and thought out approach.

  13. I was a competitive rider for many years and the sports psychologist worked with each of us on our optimal performance level of ‘excitedness.’ Some people needed to be so nervous that they were throwing up in the morning to perform at their best; others needed to be in a much calmer place to perform well. It was never about not competing because you were nervous; it was all about how nervous do you need to be to perform your best.

  14. Debbie says:

    I love this. As of late my pet peeve has been when I express something someone telling me I shouldn’t feel that way. The hairs go up on my back when I hear others do it. I think it is really dismissive and is not honoring where that person is at. Not to mention is you really don’t know if all will be ok. .”Trying to paint a picture that turns unknown into known is not only unrealistic, but also frames uncertainty as a bad thing.”
    Your response met your daughter where she was at and honored what she was experiencingFuture opportunity for her to tune in and decide for herself what the nervous feelign is vs. shaking it off.

  15. Thanks so much for this! I was widowed last year, and finally summoned up the courage to say “yes” to going out on a date last week: I had enough nervous energy to light up NYC. 🙂

    Not sure where it’s going yet, but we’re going out again….

  16. Nichole says:

    OMG. I needed to read this… I just got a huge contract/opportunity I’ve been waiting for… for literally months and months now last week… let’s just say… as soon as I got the email… it was almost anticlimactic… this is probably one of the biggest opportunities I’ve ever gotten in my life and all I felt was resistance and sick to my stomach. After reading the quote above from Kierkegaard “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom,” I felt a strange sense of relief… how couldn’t I be grateful for what’s just fallen into my lap? There’s not one ounce of excitement running through my veins…. Let the leaning begin… Cheers!

  17. What a timely post! And thanks for helping me to see fear as a normal and healthy reaction – appreciating it, even, as a clue I’m on track with my growth. THANKS!!!

  18. Mary says:

    Hi Jonathan,
    Your posts are always so relevant. I’m in the midst of hosting my first telesummit for my business. As a solopreneur, the level of anxiety can be pretty steady. The what is most interesting for me is the way a sort of out of body dizziness floats in and out of my day. I focus on staying grounded and doing things that keep me grounded. That and recognizing that sometimes my mind is a bad neighborhood to be hanging out in by myself. So I go and find someone who is more sane than myself in those moments and listen to what’s going on in their minds. Like your article today, that always helps me shift my state and get back to being productive and positive. Thanks for writing. Mary

  19. John Murphy says:

    How did you know I was talking about this subject just a few hours ago???? Regretfully many of us are brought up in societies that are governed by fear, and we learn to be afraid to make mistakes, afraid to get it wrong and then afraid to try.
    If we can just teach the next generation that being afraid is normal and to be embraced, they will be the better for it.
    Thank you, Jonathan

  20. It’s really funny how that works.

    Just the other day I had the same experience with my daughter. She was climbing and said she was scared of falling.

    I told her to keep that fear, because it’s what really keeps you alive when you climb.

    As someone who spent many years hanging from ropes, I always said I never really trusted someone who said he/she wasn’t scared of heights.

    Fear keeps us alive, so the big question is when do you listen to your gut?

    • Good point, John. I think that while fear is sometimes False Evidence Appearing Real (as the old saying goes), there are are also times when it’s a valuable “survival signal” (as Gavin de Becker put it, in ‘The Gift of Fear’ http://amzn.com/B0036Z9U2A). I agree with you that developing, and then heeding, our gut instincts is one of the keys to thriving in business and life.

      Thanks for another thought provoking post, Jonathan.

  21. teri says:

    I LOVE that Kierkegaard quote! This is exactly what I’m speaking about tonight – and it’s something that I’ve recently started to address within myself as I do more and more public speaking…that fear is really the energy of transformation! It is to be harnessed and used for that purpose..and I love the framework you put this in – that nervous energy is a sign that you’re about to do something wonderful. I’m going to keep that in my back pocket. Thanks JF!! You’re the bomb. xx

  22. David says:

    I love this thought: “…not the belief that eliminating uncertainty is a pre-condition to action. Rather, nervous energy is often a signpost that what you’re about to do matters.”

    Too often in my life, I’ve let that nervousness stop me from taking action. I definitely want to instill a different interpretation of nervousness in my son.

    Thanks for the thoughts!

  23. I completely agree that nervousness is often about, as you say here, “your mind and your body saying that what you’re about to do is something that really matters.”

    I used some version of this talk with myself recently when I went all in for a big project I wasn’t sure I had any hope of getting. Then when I did get it, oh the fear and nervousness!! I thought, Holy Cow, what’s wrong with me, why am I so terrified? I was almost paralyzed with the fear that I couldn’t do this thing, or that I would begin the project and three weeks later be fired and humiliated. I went deep into the fear of the worst possible outcome. : )

    Of course none of that has happened, and everything is going smoothly and well with the project. I think the key for me was, as I was navigating the almost debilitating fear, I reminded myself that this discomfort is a natural byproduct of the upleveling process, just a normal side effect of going out for something way out of your comfort zone that you really want and really matters. Which is the sign that you have to go for it!

    I’ve been thinking about this alot lately, then read your post here, which reaffirms my belief that uncertainty and fear can be a very good sign of what you’re meant to do next. : )

  24. Clara says:

    Thanks, this puts the fear thing n a whole ‘nother’ perspective! I’ll use it:)

  25. Sagaren says:

    It’s interesting how we perceive uncertainty, the risk of rejection, failure and humiliation in the same way we feel the imminent approach of a life threatening situation.
    It may be because these responses are learned in childhood when love, acceptance and approval were of vital importance to our sense of okayness and sense of safety.
    As adults unless we learn to transcend our feelings of fear and not being good enough with self love and more empowering beliefs, it can be difficult to break the cycle of fear and insecurity.

  26. Thank you, Jonathan, for this post! One of my favorites 🙂 If I don’t have that peculiar feeling in my stomach, I am not pushing myself enough. I will share your words of wisdom with my child when she is a little bit older.

  27. I agree Jonathan!

    When I left a successful IT management career 2 years ago I was so nervous! But then I breathed a sigh of relief and harnessed the nervous energy to start a successful consulting and coaching business for IT companies.

    Now I’m nervous and scared like crazy as put most of my energy into building my business online and expanding it into other directions. AND we sold our beautiful home in the city and are moving in a few weeks to the middle of nowhere to a gorgeous nature-rich large off-grid hobby farm to live sustainably with the earth.

    Hard work? Scary? Everyone thinks we’re crazy? Finance-strapped during transition? Heck yes. But it’s awesome and worth it!

  28. Andres Silva says:

    This is a great article and encourages all of us to take more risks and learn new things… what would be out of life if it wouldn’t be for those who someday dared to make something risky???
    What about Apple’s ipod? If like any CPG they would tested the ipod, consumers would’ve say no way.. but there was somebody who said “let’s do it”!
    There’s a thin line between “encouraging and creating confidence to take risks” and “avoiding doing nothing because of uncertainity or fear”
    Will do your approach from now on!!

  29. Mike says:

    Fear can freeze us from taking action. I know I deal with that myself everyday. Fear is a strong emotion that can feed you, or starve you. Being aware of it, and facing it helps me come to grips with it, and hopefully enable me to take action. Still a work-in-progress, as life is.

  30. I love this post!!! I was in a similar situation about two years ago with my seventeen year old niece. Only, the roles were reversed LOL. We went on a trekking trip in the mountains of Mendoza, I was the one who was not only nervous, but, thought I was going to die up there. I wanted to stop and ask the guide if someone could come get me by helicopter!!!!

    Daniela, on the other hand, was going up like a walk in the park. She said, “it is so beautiful and peaceful here, I can’t wait to see the whole city from the top.”

    That was it, she inspired me to keep going, CURIOSITY did it for me. Now, I was not completely fearless, but, let me tell you, I got creative making up there!

  31. Elona says:

    I have a four year-old daughter. I keep the message succinct, but essentially the same. “It’s OK to feel nervous and do it anyway – you must be brave.” When we’re at swimming lessons and she must practice putting her face in the water, I tell her it’s bravery practice. Bravery and courage – we all want them, we’re just too scared to practice!

  32. Denise says:

    What a great lesson to teach your daughter at such a young age.

  33. sukhi says:

    Your daughters very lucky to have a father that’s such a critical thinker, that’s pretty cool. Many years ago I read a quote that said “We must do what we fear most”! It hit me straight between the eyes and my life has never been the same. For many years I thought that fear would eventually just go away, yet today I know it’s a monster that keeps the juice alive in us and just needs to be managed. One of my mantras is that if we’re not growing, we’re dying, so I try to do at least one thing everyday that scares me. Great post Jon, couldn’t have been said more eloquently.

  34. it is wonderful advice for all of us. Feel the fear and do it anyway. create some space and awareness to observe. Be kind to yourself and understand it is normal. Bill Russell threw up before EVERY game. My heart still beats so hard at times that i think you can see my shirt moving. and at the same time, it is our responsibility as parents to TELL them what to do or not to do if they will hurt themselves. That is also part of the process.

  35. Phill Smith says:

    Well done. This is such a complex and yet common sense observation but you have phrased it in a simple to understand way. I am really enjoying going through the blog. Nice work. And very inspirational.


  36. Right on, Jonathan! I’ve been scared shitless pretty much since it occurred to me to turn the wild words of my journal into the book they’ve recently become. I took a huge leap to be an author (as you well know, I’m sure), and I am still in free fall, almost as terrified by the prospect of success as I am at the idea of “failure.” It’s exactly because big leaps are so scary that most of us continue to play mediocre. But it’s time to step up to our innate greatness, people, because the world can’t wait. You are teaching your dear daughter well.

  37. Andrea says:

    Another great post, Jonathan, and so eloquently put! I’m completely on board that this message should be reinforced earlier in life. I think it’s human nature to recoil away from things that cause fear and anxiety but most of the time it’s these very things that bring about the greatest growth. So let’s keep encouraging and nudging our young ones. Let’s move with grace and courage through our own fears to be awesome role models and accomplish those things we thought were beyond our reach. After all, its our birthright to shine brightly, right?

  38. Shyne says:

    Great post.. just what i needed to read right now. The fear of uncertainty has made me stall and shut down a bit, but when i think about it in this way that it must be something that really matters in life, it really helps put a positive spin to the whole thing. Thank you!

  39. “Fear is the mind-killer” ~ Frank Herbert (Dune)

    We all deal with uncertainty in our own way. Some internalize, some project and others just run away.

    I’ve found discussing options helps. Do you do this?

    Of course, I do it in extremes- the most ludicrous positive possibility and the most ludicrous negative possibility (best & worse case scenarios).

    Even though you don’t know exactly what will happen, for many people, just having a broad range of outcomes in their mind helps lessen the fear and anxiety of uncertainty.

  40. Jonathan,

    I have been having many similar conversations with a kiddo who is capable but anxious. I really appreciate your phrasing, and will probably borrow it for talking with her–and reminding myself.


  41. […] a related post, Jonathan Fields talks about a shift in his conversation when talking to his daughter about fear.  The conversation he described sounded very familiar to me–and I appreciated his reminder […]

  42. A gorgeous post, and an important one. How have I never heard this quote before: “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” I have a 13-year old daughter. We have been faced with similar scenarios recently, and I am going to remember your words.

  43. Those are lovely words Jonathan. Soothing and realistic at the same time, they stop the nervousness from developing into a full-blown blind panic.

    I was nervous about moving to Dubai and leaving everything familiar… but found myself using the nerves as a propeller to contingency-plan all the potential problems that were making me nervous. It took me about 2 weeks to feel at home in Dubai – who knows perhaps I have my nerves to thank!

  44. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m most impressed that your daughter was able to freely admit to being nervous. That suggests to me that she already knew that it was ok to feel that way (perhaps based on the role models she has had around her). Nice.

    And cyclist Deborah is spot on; each of us has an individualized Zone of Optimal Functioning within which we are most likely to perform our best. Given a choice, most would prefer to be calm, but that’s not actually where they perform best. It’s rare to see someone be at their best when they’re totally calm – even folks like musicians and pistol shooters.

  45. Thanks Jonathan. I truly think you need to make action a habit and then slowly certain fears will start to fade away. We will always be nervous, but we need to rid ourselves of fears and the anxiety that holds us back in life. The 25 Rules of Action always helps me out http://wp.me/p2945p-pt.

    -Seth D. Cohen

  46. Stephen says:

    This article has just reminded me the day I decided to quit my job, that was six years ago. The future looked so uncertain but deep within me I knew I have to make a move.

    But here I am today and enjoying the fruits of taking risks.

  47. Parenthood brings so many wonderful lessons. I find the things I want to instill in them are also the things I must live myself. This post is a great reminder to trust ourselves.

  48. Tony Adams says:

    What a fabulous post…as a parent, I grapple with this experience constantly, as do we all.
    We struggle to nurture and support our children through these situations and then often neglect to remind ourselves or apply the same principles to our own moments of anxiety or uncertainty

    It’s great to get a reminder every now and again.
    I think Carla @ All of Me Now (above) nailed it!

  49. Rob says:

    I think this a great thing to think about, thanks Jonathan!

    I also think it requires a great deal of inner work to (further) distinguish the differences between those former and latter feelings. I am, for sure, still working on it.