Act into Fear and Abandon all Hope

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The first time I received truly life-changing advice was when a friend pointed me in the direction of David Allen’s Getting Things Done. I was in the middle of getting my graduate degree, struggling to keep up with the demands of school, teaching, friends, and romance, and although I wasn’t drowning — that would come a couple years later — I was fighting to tread water. Learning about GTD was like being thrown a life preserver.

The core idea of GTD is simple: write down everything you want to do in a trusted system, keep the info in the system honest and up-to-date, then look at the system to figure out what to do. It doesn’t matter if your system consists of scraps of paper, emails, a spreadsheet, or fancy to do software: as long as you trust it to include everything and be available, it acts as a sort of extended memory that you can offload your worries to. This let’s you get things done because the system is more reliable than your memory alone and it frees your mind to focus on the here and now rather than everything else you could be doing.

I’m happy to say that GTD changed my life! I went from forgetting to do things to remembering everything and from spending hours worrying about all the things I wasn’t doing to spending hours in flow. My grades improved, teaching was less stressful, I had more time for friends, and I managed to do one or two romantic things. It gave me so much more capacity for doing stuff that it even created time for me to spend telling other people about how great GTD was. Everywhere I looked I saw problems in people’s lives that could be solved if they would just read Allen’s short book. My life was made better, and I wanted share my new-found wisdom with anyone who would listen.

But I often found myself in the position of a zealot preaching salvation upon deaf ears. Most people weren’t that interested in my advice to try GTD, and some people even found it offensive. “What do you mean I should use a system instead of my memory? That doesn’t feel natural — it takes all the soul out of my actions!” I myself even eventually turned against GTD, finding a strong need for less structure. The great advice that had helped me so much just didn’t seem to work for other people, including my future self.

I’ve seen this happen to lots of other folks, too, where they discover an idea that changes their life and then have difficulty sharing it with others. Instead of increased productivity, they might get advice that helps them lose weight or dress better, or they might pick up a whole bundle of ideas like a religion or philosophy that helps them experience greater satisfaction with their life. In all cases it feels from the inside like finding the secret to winning at life. But then something happens when you try to share the secret with others, and most people ultimately reject it. And after you see this pattern enough times you start to notice that advice is awfully hard to give.

From an economic perspective this must be so. For one, if advice were easy to give there would be no business in it, yet we find entire fields of professionals — therapists, doctors, pastors, gurus — who make a living in part or in whole because people pay them to be expert personal advice givers. Further, if it were easy to give advice we’d expect there to be very little of it left to give that could help much: we’d expect everyone to have already taken up all the advice that generates most of the value leaving us with diminishing marginal returns on additional advice. But since we don’t live in such a counterfactual universe where few give advice and most advice is heeded, giving advice must be hard.

Despite this, I’m going to try to share some advice anyway. I have no reason to suspect I’m more likely than most to have greater than average success at conveying advice. Nor am I even sure this is the advice you need, because as often as not someone needs exactly the opposite of the advice you’re giving. But I’m pretty sure that this advice may be tremendously useful to some, and so on the occasion of a new year when people are traditionally more open to hearing advice and trying new things to achieve their goals, I’ll take the risk that I might help someone.

It’s in this spirit that I advise you, act into fear.

The idea is simple. If you are afraid of something, do it. Afraid of talking on the phone? Talk on the phone. Afraid of telling your crush of your unrequited affections? Tell them. Afraid of not standing up for yourself? Let someone dominate you. And if no fears immediately come to mind, go looking for them so you can act into them. In doing so you can free yourself from fear and gain the capacity to more often make well-considered decisions.

It’s not immediately obvious that you’d want to overcome fear, though. It alerts us to dangerous situations and causes us to avoid such situations or engage in them with hyperarousal. Fear exists because it kept our ancestors alive, and given we see evidence of fear in almost all animals, it likely originated hundreds of millions of years ago, so we’re probably already operating near the evolutionarily optimal amount of fear. Except that humans have undergone recent, rapid increase in brain size which, based on comparisons of humans to other animals, gave us greater ability to think about patterns abstracted away from details. This gives us an advantage in long-term planning and ratiocination in general, so it seems likely we could use that to achieve more preferred results than our ancient fear responses produce, especially since survival in the modern world depends less on making quick decisions and more on impulse control. But, that’s only possible if we can think and act based less on fear and more on reasoning.

To lessen fear, we must understand it. In the broadest sense, fear is an emotional response to the possibility of violated preferences. At the extreme, fear neuroses and phobias tend to be focused on a strong preference to not experience particular things, like spiders, open spaces, or heights. More commonly, fears tend to be about those things we’d rather not face or will only face from a fighting stance, like confrontation, failure, and hardship. That we talk of “facing” fears means we often perceive them as external to us and that we can make ourselves safe from them if we stay away from, defeat, or otherwise eliminate them. But as anyone who has tried to contemplate their own death knows, fear can also come from within, and so fear must encompass many feelings born of not getting what one wants.

Defining fear so broadly, we must accept it to include and be tied to what we often consider separate emotions, such as worry (fear of future events), anger (a possible response to fear), and depression (systemic sadness from experiencing feared things). We can call all of this suffering in the Buddhist sense, where fear points to any violation of your expectations of how you would like the world to be and a failure to accept the world as it is. This is the broad sense of fear I mean when I advise you to act into it.

And with fear so broadly understood, it seems changing your behavior to act into fear could include nearly any intervention that remotely touches on fear. If we consider religious and philosophical interventions — asking yourself what Jesus would do, following the example of Confucius, aspiring to live by the Sharia — this seems to be the case. They are largely about increased self-control to approach an ideal, and as such must ultimately address fears that hinder acting on ideals. But some interventions do more to directly address fear than others, and psychology has made a science of directly intervening to overcoming fear.

Psychotherapy, which seeks to correct maladaptive thinking, has long recommended facing fears as a cure. The most recent form of this, cognitive behavioral exposure therapy, has been successful applied in treating phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder, and some cases of depression and anxiety. This is a direct application of the advice to act into fear, and it has given some people their lives back. But this only addresses pathological fear. What about addressing “healthy” levels of fear?

Positive psychology, which focuses on maximizing preference satisfaction, has also found value in acting into fear. We find this throughout the self-help literature, quintessentially expressed in Susan Jeffer’s Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, a book laying out a way of doing exactly what it says in the title. Similar sentiments can be found in Habit 1 of Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Nathaniel Branden’s The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, and even in the foundational How to Win Friends and Influence People. This pattern continues with modern applications of psychological research operationalized for management training and organizational development, exemplified by Kegan and Lahey’s immunity maps that lever on worries, which is to say fears.

And thus, as is so often the case in my thinking, it comes back to Kegan. Exposure therapy showed me that debilitating fears could be assuaged, positive psychology pointed me towards overcoming fear in broader contexts, but ultimately Kegan and developmental psychology showed me why we should ultimately expect this to work and be desirable.

The fundamental animating process of developmental psychology is resolution of confusion by creating more complex modes of understanding. To put it concretely, babies turn into children turn into adults by first not understanding the world and then exploring it until they understand it so well that it gives them new frames for thinking. When we’re young this process mostly happens without conscious effort because the world demands we develop a more complete understanding of it in order to get the things we need to survive and thrive, but as we reach adulthood it’s increasingly possible to get by without understanding more. By making clever choices in the company we keep and the cultures we engage, as adults we can insulate ourselves from the fullness of the world, and by doing so cut ourselves off from the need for further development.

Key to creating such a buffer against further psychological development is fear. Fear is like a fence, keeping a person “safe” by separating them from the things that would challenge their understanding of the world. Fear keeps out new info that would invalidate existing beliefs and creates a bubble inside which only confirming evidence can be found. Fear protects us from cognitive dissonance, but in so doing cuts off the vital confusion that helps us grow in our complexity to make sense of the world.

And making sense of confusion is not just the purview of psychology and science. Philosophy has long observed that fear inhibits growth by protecting oneself from the world. After all, developmental psychology came out of that very observation as expressed in Continental and Analytic philosophy. And as mentioned, in Buddhist thinking fear is key to understanding suffering and ultimately finding relief from it. So let’s conclude by seeing what we can learn about fear from Daoist philosophy.

In Chapter 13 of the Daodejing, Laozi says this on fear:

What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?
Hope and fear are both phantoms
that arise from thinking of the self.
When we don’t see the self as self,
what do we have to fear?

What does it mean that fear is a phantom that arises from thinking of the self? I interpret this as saying that fear is experienced only by virtue of seeing the self as something apart from the holon of the world. The Daodejing then recommends that fear can be eliminated via extinction of the self as something apart from the world by understanding it as both integrated with the whole and having differentiating internal structure. Such a complete stance evaporates fear by giving it no means of replenishing itself. It does the same to hope.

As Laozi says, hope is as much a phantom as fear. Properly stated, hope is the dual of fear — the feeling felt when you have a preference for things to be a particular way. And being its dual, all that is true of fear is also true of hope, so the dual of the advice “act into fear” is “abandon all hope”. This is the insight that Western thinking often misses, that psychological development requires not just succeeding in the face of failure but also failing in the face of success. To quote Chapter 13 of the Daodejing again:

What does it mean that success is as dangerous as failure?
Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
you position is shaky.
When you stand with your two feet on the ground,
you will always keep your balance.

So in this new year and all days to come, I encourage you to keep your balance by acting into fear and abandoning all hope, for as Laozi concludes Chapter 13:

See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self;
then you can care for all things.