The great actor/comedian Jerry Seinfeld once said, “According to most studies, people’s number-one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. This means that to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” Sometimes fear is a reaction to an illusion we’ve created in our minds. But if we think these illusions are real, then our reactions need to be treated as such.
F.E.A.R. (False Evidence Appearing Real)
Fear as an emotional reaction to something that is threatening is appropriate, such as a car careening towards you or someone holding a gun to your head. In those types of situations, fear is designed to preserve your life. In other words, there are times when you should be afraid. But in the context of setting and achieving personal goals, once you’re clear on your objectives, you can quell illusionary fear by setting realistic expectations of what you want to achieve. Assess your competence as specifically as you can, and then align your expectations with that reality. In short, you can avoid feelings of false fear by making sure that your expectations about your performance are realistic and based on your actual competency.
While chatting with Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh about stage fright, he referred to the book Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun, which references evolution in relation to fear. “Ten thousand years ago,” says Hsieh, “if you had five hundred pairs of eyes on you and your back was against the wall, you were dead. Now if you’re in that situation, you’re a leader.”
Turning Fear Into Focus
When asked about how he deals with fear, blind athlete and motivational speaker Erik Weihenmayer explained to me, “On one side you have the adventure of life—the excitement and the fun and the thrill. On the other side, you have the fear. You have the positive stuff pulling you one way, and the fear pulling you the other way. It’s then a question of which one is more powerful.”
Weihenmayer recalled how terrified he was the first time he climbed the Khumbu Icefall. “I remember waking up early,” he said. “I had a cup of coffee in my hand, and my hand was shaking like crazy. I couldn’t even hold the cup. I remember thinking, Wow, I can’t even function. I can’t even tie a knot.”
But there’s a point at which you’re as ready as you’re ever going to be. At that point, Weihenmayer says, fear can only sabotage you: “You’ve prepared. You’ve done everything you can. You’re ready. This is your moment. At that point, all those fears and doubts start to pour in because your brain wants to protect you. It’s a mechanism left over from when we were cavemen. That fear protects you from walking out and getting eaten by a saber-toothed tiger.
“It short-circuits you,” Weihenmayer continues. “It says, ‘What are you doing—get off the mountain. Go down to the sunshine and sidewalks and hamburgers.’ You just have to accept that that’s the way the brain functions. It’s calling you away from adventure.”
If Weihenmayer had listened to his brain, he would never have summited Mount Everest. He’s learned to transmit his fear into focus and a hyper-awareness of his surroundings—clarity. “There’s a really cool Tibetan quote that I heard when I was on Everest,” says Weihenmayer. “‘The nature of the mind is like water. If you do not disturb it, it will become clear.’ Your mind can fill up with all these distractions and doubts that try to pull you away. You overthink. When I’m climbing and get freaked out, I go into a Zen state that’s about awareness and focus rather than mud and distraction. I keep my mind still, like water.”
Weihenmayer could focus on the enormity of the mountain and the failings of the human body, but he chooses to think only about the possibilities for success. “I envision myself crossing ladders—doing things right, going through the motions correctly in my brain,” he says. “Ultimately, I see myself celebrating on the summit with my team. Doing things right in your mind first is a lesson in positive self-reinforcement.”
Weihenmayer has an alchemy theory about turning the negative (lead) into the positive (gold). “There’s a point where I felt that fear was no longer in control,” he says. “You can panic, but that isn’t going to help you come down from a mountain in a massive storm when there are a million things that could go wrong. Out of necessity, I learned to translate the potentially uncontrollable panic that happens in my brain into a sense of hyperawareness. I think, I’m here, and I can do no wrong. This is a ‘Don’t Fall Zone,’ so I’m not going fall.”
Through all of his adventures, Weihenmayer keeps focused on his goals. When you get caught up in distractions, you’re concentrating on all of the things that could derail or undermine your purpose. Weihenmayer has developed the ability to translate panic into hyperawareness out of necessity—because he’s operating in actual life-and-death situations.
It’s humbling to compare my performance anxiety as a drummer to the fear of falling down the side of a mountain. Having said that, fear of any kind can still feel insurmountable, even if the actual consequences are not life threatening. This is why it’s important to push aside thoughts of everything that could go wrong in a given situation so we can forge ahead and achieve our true goals.
Mark Schulman is a first-call drummer who’s played for Pink, Foreigner, Cher, Billy Idol, Sheryl Crow, and Stevie Nicks. For more information, go to markschulman.com.