At this year’s Academy Awards the Oscar for Best Documentary went to the movie ‘Free Solo’. ‘Free Solo’ is a portrait of the climber Alex Honnold, as he prepared for, and executed a ropeless ascent of the notoriously dangerous El Capitan mountain in Yosemite National Park.

El Capitan is a 3000ft granite wall, which, from a distance, looks as featureless and smooth as a stone. It’s hard to imagine anyone climbing it under any circumstances, much less without ropes, harnesses, or safety equipment of any kind. Watching in a packed cinema, the most astonishing part of the whole experience was witnessing the contrast between the squirming, groaning anxiety of the audience and the cool, casual, almost detached calm of Honnold on screen.

Somehow, in the presence of very real danger, he was able to stay in the moment and do what he did best, apparently effortlessly. On the other hand, some of of us watching from the safety and comfort of our movie theatre seats were so disturbed we could barely look at the screen.

What does this tell us about the nature of fear? How might we not just manage it so that it gets in our way less, but how might we use fear to inspire us to feats we might not have thought possible?

The evolution of fear

As human beings we are meant to feel fear. We’ve evolved to experience this emotion for a reason. At the most basic level, fear helps to keep us alive and has contributed to our species’ survival for the past 200,000 years.

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived lives fraught with peril – every day was a fight for survival. They tended to live for many months in relatively small geographical areas. They came to know the terrain intimately, and were able to live in relative safety.

But – in an age before farming and horticulture – eventually all the plants would be eaten, all the animals would be killed, and the tribe would have to move on into unknown territory. At this point their threat-detection systems would go on high alert. They would move slowly, and cautiously, scanning their surroundings for any of the many animals, such as hyenas, bears, cave lions, even giant kangaroos that considered them prey.

Today – in the modern Western world at least – there has never been a safer time to be alive. The chances of being eaten by a tiger are minimal. Most infectious diseases are well controlled. But our brains are still hard-wired to relax when we are in our comfort zones, and to switch onto high-alert when we venture out of our safe spaces and into the unknown.

The Edge

At Global Warriors we talk about ‘the Edge’ – the dividing point between the comfortable and the uncomfortable, the known and the unknown, the familiar and the unfamiliar. Alex Honnold would probably appreciate that we sometimes characterise it as being like a mountain – on one side, the life that we know, and on the other side, life as it could be.

And at the peak of the mountain, there is ‘the Edge’, the place of all possibility. Here we are on the cusp of something entirely new, but still essentially unknown. And it is how we choose to engage with this moment that has a huge impact on whether we remain in the safety of our comfort zones, or whether we step out into new territory.

Fear and storytelling

In her fascinating TED talk, the author Karen Thompson Walker talks about fear as a form of storytelling. When fear is present the human imagination fires up, creating powerful, vivid images of what might happen. For most of us, when we are about to step into something new and unknown, some of the stories that our minds tell us are exciting, full of possibility and expectation; and others are scary stories of failure and catastrophe.

Both of these are totally normal! The question is, how do you engage with the stories that your mind naturally, healthily throws at you as you stand at the Edge?

Many are so consumed by the terrifying visions of failure and threat that they immediately retreat back into their safe space. They automatically interpret fear as being a sign that something is wrong, and to be avoided at all costs.

A reckless few barely consider the stories of catastrophe, and focus entirely on the exciting possibilities of what could be. They charge headlong over the edge, doing nothing to mitigate any potential risks. It’s a high-risk, high-reward strategy! Some win big…. and some come badly unstuck.

Most of us – unaware of this process unfolding largely in the unconscious mind – flit between these positions.

But some have a different relationship entirely with fear. They regard it not as something to be avoided at all costs, nor as a challenge to be raced towards unheedingly. They treat it as helpful information, which they can use to inform their actions.

Karen Walker Thompson talks about a habit observed in many successful entrepreneurs known as ‘productive paranoia’. She says that, “instead of dismissing their fears, these people read them closely, they studied them, and then they translated that fear into preparation and action. So that way, if their worst fears came true, their businesses were ready

Alex Honnold seems to be a student of productive paranoia. Talking about the process he goes through in preparing for a challenging climb, Honnold says: “…it’s important to differentiate fear and risk. If there is a high level of risk, you should be feeling fear. It’s a warning that there is real danger. Typically if I’m feeling a lot of fear, then I wait and prepare more, do whatever it takes to mitigate that, and then do the climb when I feel comfortable.” 

Honnold is not consumed by fear, nor does he ignore it. He studies it, he uses it as both information and inspiration, and it has helped him not just to become the world’s greatest ever free-climber, but also to stay alive whilst pursuing his dream.

Crossing the Threshold

Last month we focussed on the ‘Call to Adventure’ – that stirring inside you that tells you that change is coming, or that opportunity awaits. In the context of Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’, the following two stages are ‘Refusal of the Call’ and ‘Crossing the Threshold’.

Perhaps the times when we allow fear to paralyse us, and the stories of failure and disaster take over, are the times that we refuse the call. And perhaps we are more likely to cross the threshold, not by pretending that fear doesn’t exist, but by embracing it – by accepting that it is a normal and natural part of any journey, and studying it for information that might be of value.

Because, here’s the thing: not only is the presence of fear not necessarily a sign that something is wrong – often it is a sign that you are doing something that matters! Being able to distinguish between the fear that arises when you are truly in danger and the fear that arises as you move towards something you really care about is an essential edge-crossing ability.

Alex Honnold is talking about the fear that he experiences when free-climbing mountains, but think about the kinds of situations that provoke fear on a day-to-day basis for most people – public speaking, starting a new job, or speaking to someone you are attracted to. These situations all tend to bring some discomfort, and for some people that will be enough to make them turn and run.

The experts in productive paranoia have learned to pause at the edge and diligently search for information that could make their crossing safer. And maybe there is something else available in this moment – some other information that might not easily fit into a risk management strategy.

Savouring the tension

There is a tremendous, fizzing aliveness to that moment of tension as you are about to cross the edge into something that is really important to you. You will have felt it in your own life – that moment of anticipation before proposing to a partner, walking into a job interview, awaiting the birth of a child.

If you learn to sense out these moments of tension as you cross smaller edges – if you learn to pause in that space – you can learn more than about how to mitigate risk. You can learn what this really means to you, you can access new creative solutions, you can learn about you’re your own limits as a person and as a leader,

From a physiological perspective there is no difference between what is going on in the body of somebody who describes themselves as ‘afraid’ and somebody who describes themselves as ‘excited’. The only difference is the story that each person is telling themselves.

So how about this? Next time you find yourself standing at an edge, experiencing what you interpret as fear, then pause. Feel the electric tension of that moment. And ask yourself: “What if this were a feeling of excitement? What would I be excited about? If something wonderful was about to happen, what would that be?”

The top of a mountain can be scary…and it can be beautiful and inspiring as well. There is nothing wrong with hanging out in your comfort zone, but to really grow as people and leaders, we need to be willing to live life on The Edge…

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