Fear is Good


Fear is the enemy. At least, that’s what we’re told.

Pick up just about any book from starting a business to getting in shape, and fear is the villain. It’s the obstacle every success must overcome and the reason behind every failure.

But what if fear is good?

Depression, Fear and Nature’s Not-So-Subtle Hints

If you put your hand over fire, you feel pain. It’s the not-so-subtle way of your body protecting itself. We all understand this intuitively. Pain is part of nature’s design to keep your hand out of the fire.

Somehow, with the “psychological” emotions, most people take a different stance. They’re irrational, people proclaim, and we’d be better off without them (the science says otherwise).

I remember reading a blog entry several years back where the writer talked about going through a major depression. She had taken medication, but her eventual solution was self-improvement. She felt, in some cases, you’re depressed because your life sucks, not because of a chemical imbalance.

I won’t comment on treating depression with medication. Some researchers believe depression is neurologically different than sadness, others feel it is simply a prolonged, intense version. Regardless of which is correct, medication can help people. I’ll leave that debate for the doctors and patients.

But what I did find interesting about the article was the writer’s comment on society as a whole. That many people view the negative emotions themselves as the enemy, be it depression or fear, and not what they signal. An attitude similar to unscrewing the fuel gauge on a car so it won’t read empty.

Can Fear Be Good?

The common attitude towards fear is much like the fuel gauge on the car. Instead of trying to make the gauge more accurate and useful, the answer is to pull it out from the dashboard.

No, I don’t think that every fear is rational and all fears are good. I feel fear is neutral—it’s how we channel it that makes it good or bad.

I believe fear can be a powerful ally, instead of just an obstacle to overcome. It has the power to focus you on what’s important, prepare for upcoming challenges and be cautious in unknown situations. Yes, it can be harmful, just as pain can be chronic, but that doesn’t mean I would like to eliminate pain while my hand is in the fire.

Fear can be helpful if: you fear the right things, you understand the fear, you control the fear and you use the fear.

Fear the Right Things

Too much energy is wasted being afraid of the wrong things. Being afraid of airplanes even though driving a car is more dangerous. Fearing failure when it costs you nothing. Phobias and worries about the improbable while ignoring the substantial risks we take every day.

No, I’m not saying you have complete control over what scares you. But you use your imagination every day to highlight certain worries and ignore others. Even if you don’t have 100% control over this process, you can focus on some things over others.

A useful fear for me when I started this business was that I wouldn’t be able to make a full-time income by the time I needed to start looking for a job. By emphasizing that fear in my imagination, I was motivated to work much harder.

I still feel that fear lingering, even though I’ve earned nearly double my expenses for almost a year. Having it in the background sharpens my focus to make sure I don’t stop working hard and lose all the effort I’ve put in.

Understand the Fear

A common suggestion to overcome your fears is to write out the worst case scenario. After looking at it and realizing it’s not that bad, your fear will seem ridiculous. I feel the exercise also assumes, in some ways, that most our fears have no basis in reality.

I prefer to see it another way: all of our fears have both a degree of truth and a degree of ridiculousness.

My chosen fear of not being able to grow my business in time is ridiculous when applied to the worst-case scenario test. After all, having to work an ordinary job for a few years or more is hardly a significant problem. But there’s also a degree of useful truth. Reaching that first milestone would allow me to work full-time, increasing my odds of sustaining success.

The same is true of asking someone on a date. The fear has both a degree of truth and ridiculousness. In reality, the worst-case is fairly minimal—no one will probably notice if you fail. The degree of truth in the fear is that your timing and delivery may affect the answer you get, and you could have a relationship or end up alone.

I’m not saying that this degree of truth is motivation to concede to the fear, far from it. Recognizing this duality—that fears are both somewhat true and somewhat ridiculous—is how to use them to your advantage. So you can take action where it matters.

Control the Fear

Fears can be good and they can be harmful. It depends on how you use them. Phobias, on the other hand, are almost always bad.

Similarly, sadness or anger can be useful. The former pushes you to solidify tight relationships and consolidate losses. The latter prevents you from being cheated or bullied. However depression and rage are almost never useful. Their intensity makes them impossible to channel effectively.

Controlling a fear means controlling the intensity. If you have a debilitating fear of something, you need to expose yourself in steps until that fear is manageable. Having some nerves before a speech is good—it forces you to prepare and concentrate. Being unable to ever speak in public because of fear is not.

Use the Fear

In the end, fear is just another type of motivation. It’s not as pleasant as enthusiasm or mania, but it pushes you to take action on some things and avoid others, just as all motivations do. What matters with motivation is what you apply it towards.

In some ways, the world could use more fear in the right places. Fear of being mediocre, ignorant or wasting your life on pursuits that don’t matter.

Image courtesy of Capture Queen

  • Dorothy Sander

    You are quite wise for a “youngster”! 🙂 I will be passing this article along to by followers! and will be back!

  • Jason Dudley

    I think the major thing as you say, is to gradually increase the level of fear you can handle. Just like training your endurance, you train the amount of fear you can handle by gradually exposing yourself to “scarier” things.

    I’m not sure if a fear of being mediocre or of wasting your life is likely to be useful though. Such fears are likely to interfere with your enjoyment of life and your ability to be in the present moment. You’re liable to set yourself up for an unnecessary internal battle.

    Thoughts like “If I don’t achieve something epic in my lifetime, my life hasn’t been worthwhile…I will be mediocre,” may become a regular internal pattern.

  • Scott Young


    I think, like all things, it depends on the intensity. Too much fear is certainly a distraction.

    However, I’ve always feared being mediocre to some degree and it pushes me forward. Instead there’s fear of failing to meet expectations instead of exceeding your own.

  • Debi

    I couldn’t agree more, especially the part about depression. In the past I’ve battled with bouts of severe depression. I had tried every known anti-depressant, but nothing ever helped and the side effects only seemed to make me feel worse. I finally realized that my unhappiness was totally justified…I wasn’t living my life true to myself. I made the necessary changes, one at a time, and have never known depression since. Now, if I start to feel I’m slipping down that slope, I just take a good look what’s going on, implement the changes and I’m fine. For me, depression is that rub…of who you really are, going against how you’re living your life. I totally see it as your self letting you know you’re not on your path.

  • Chase Night

    Hi Scott,

    Great post. I’ve been terrified lately of leading an average, boring life so I must be thinking something right!

    I just discovered your blog last week through Zen Habits. I went back to the beginning and started catching up on all I’ve missed. I can’t believe you were starting this blog at 18 while I was 22 and whining on my personal Xanga for no particular reason at all except to see myself write. So good job accomplishing so much so early! I’m going to try to catch up with you now. 🙂


  • Jason Dudley

    Well Scott, if it works for you then I say do it. I’d be lying if I said I don’t fear being mediocre, but personally I find that worrying about that fear tends to inhibit me, so I try to ignore it while still remaining ever conscious that I want to achieve as much as is possible in my lifetime.

  • Anass Farah

    Simply we have to feel the fear and face it anyway 😀

  • Alejandro Sierra

    Interesting article, as usual. How many times I have not done something just because of some silly fear. When I was 16 I used to have some fear to darkness. I decided I could not turn adult while carrying that fear. So I started to move around the house with more lights off. Eventually I could move in complete darkness without fear.

    Only jumps to me the lousy way you talk about depression. Please use “sadness” if that’s what you mean, depression is not an emotion (and it’s not just “intense sadness”; with chronic depression you don’t even feel sad most of the time), it’s a neurological condition, and that’s a fact in modern neurology. But it seems you are too young and inexperienced to understand the difference.

  • Vlad Dolezal

    I find that negative emotions are like a messenger. They want to deliver their message, and the longer you ignore them, the more urgent and violent they get about it.

    If you instead hear the messenger out and act on their message, you can easily dismiss them afterwards.

    Of course, then there’s the crazy psycho messenger who starts running around topless covered in chicken blood, screaming obscenities and smashing everything. You might need other tactics to deal with that one 😀

  • Michael A. Robson

    Yeah, a funny things happens, the signal you get is over the top, “watch out! watch out! turn back!” and when you come back home (for example) you’ve lived through the experience (eg. your first week at a new job, scary), and you realize how silly your initial feeling was! It feels great! The new perspective.

  • @fizweet

    This Is really an interesting.I came across this while googling something on Fear.Fear has being an intoxicating experience in my life when it comes with dealing with what has to be done and worse when am under pressure.but I finally came to realize that it is not Fear that is the problem but It is Us and how we plan to manage situations.If we plan our lives and tackle each problem one at a time with God on our side at all times,then fear will be nothing but an invisibile shadow hovering around trying to penetrate.I’m impressed with this article and I have to say Good Work.keep it up