If there is one thing that these insipid self-help seminars teach us, it’s that fear is somehow holding us back. Fear is like a bottleneck that stands between us and our goals, and the elimination of fear enables us to reach those goals.
Removing fear allows us to achieve the impossible. Without fear, we can walk across hot embers (aka, “fire walking”) without flinching or shards of glass without a single cut to the bottom of our feet.
Having no fear means we are free to explore our world with reckless abandon, throwing caution to the wind, leaving us with no other choice but to kick so much ass in virtually every facet of our life. There isn’t anything that we can’t do.
Get the hell out of my way, fear! You suck. I’m awesome.
Except for one thing…fear is one of the healthiest emotions in existence and one that humans have used for thousands of years to stay alive. It keeps us safe. It gives us confidence. In many ways, fear is empowering.
We want fear. Fear is a critical element to our very livelihoods. What we don’t want is for fear to overtake our lives.
The key is to control fear, not eliminate it
I wrote in my shitty happiness piece a few weeks ago of the virtues of not giving a shit about the trials and tribulations of life that we consider being “problems”. The fear of charging full steam ahead after your dream job, asking for that promotion or, hell, quitting your full-time work for a lifetime of early retirement happiness all fits nicely into this category.
We learn in self-help seminars that once we eliminate our fears, we create an environment ripe for success. But, that is not always the case.
Fear is healthy.
After all, fear keeps us from creeping a little too close to the edge of a cliff. Fear also stops us from walking straight into the middle of an out-of-control mob in the street while yelling at the top of your lungs that they are all full of shit. You’re cruisin’ for a bruisin’ doing something stupid like that.
Fear keeps us from quitting our jobs without a viable alternative. Healthy fear is akin to reason and sensibility. It is one of the most natural emotions that any living creature possesses.
The self help-inspired “we can achieve the impossible!” fantasy is neither a safe nor healthy state of mind. In fact, it can be downright devastating. Fear keeps us from attempting the impossible.
That said, it is true that many people do have an unhealthy relationship with fear. The fear of failure is a powerful emotion that legitimately keeps us from reaching our full potential. Even the fear of success stops many of us from elevating our careers, hobbies or goals.
It’s true, some people let fear sabotage their lives.
The solution should never include the elimination of fear. Instead, fear needs to be controlled so it does not become unhealthy. A belief in these “I can do anything” fantasies often create unrealistic expectations about life and can very often destroy our ability to properly reason and approach our lives with a sound mind. Worse, this belief is only temporary anyway, just like losing weight through pills and radical diets instead of sensible lifestyle changes and exercise.
Fear is good, but it needs to be controlled. How do we do that?
How to control your fears
Let’s use early retirement as our example fear. It is only natural to be fearful of quitting your job – especially without any intention of getting another one. Will my savings actually hold up? What if the stock market tanks? What if I under-estimated my expenses? What if a hurricane levels my house and forces me to start over? What if…what if…what if…
Controlling your fears can be broken down into three basic steps:
1. Understand that we cannot control everything – Despite our best (and worst) efforts, there are circumstances in life that we cannot control.
2. Determine the risk that you are willing to accept – What if things do not work out as you expected? What are the consequences?
3. Make a yes/no decision and stick to it – there are no “maybes” – Once a decision has been made, we no longer have fear. Fear is very much connected with anticipation, and the longer that we anticipate, the longer we feel a sense of fear.
Perhaps better said – the quicker we make a decision, the sooner we achieve fearlessness.
Once we accept the fact that we can’t control absolutely everything in our lives, we begin to open up our minds a bit more to charging forward with goals that might seem fearful, especially early retirement. We cannot control the stock market. We cannot control getting sick or suffering expensive medical conditions. Sometimes, we are in the wrong place at the wrong time. It happens.
If we let this fear control us, we’d never leave our homes. We would never drive a car (okay, THAT might be a good thing), scuba dive, skydive, jet ski, ride a motorcycle or anything else outside of sitting on our couch and taking in another episode of The View (is that show still on?).
When we understand that things happen, our ability to manage our fears becomes much easier.
We also understand that things can go wrong, and if they do, what happens? Can we recover? Are there safeguards to help us when things do not go exactly as planned? In early retirement, passive forms of income is a popular safeguard. The ability to downsize into a smaller and less expensive homestead is another. How about reigning back our lifestyle for a while by cooking at home more or canceling our premium HD cable television service?
The more risk we are willing to take, the easier it gets to overcome fears. And likewise, safeguards help put our minds at ease. But remember, our fears are what build these safeguards. Healthy fears keep us sane.
And lastly, being undecided is like tossing gasoline on a bonfire. It only makes things worse, and fear tends to grow in intensity the more we let it fester within us. Luckily, making a decision and sticking to it has a powerful way of eliminating our sense of fear. The decision has been made. We’re going for it. I’m retiring in a year come hell or high water, damn it. It’s done.
In other words, we are taking control of our minds during this process.
Bringing it all together…
Now, let’s put this together and apply it to our early retirement scenario. Naturally, we are fearful of the unknown. There are all kinds of what ifs involved and we can’t know exactly what the future is going to bring us. We can’t control what the stock market is going to do with our investments. That is okay. After all, nobody can control what the stock market does with their investments, so I’m in good company.
I am willing to accept risk in early retirement. Hell, I have to accept risk. Retiring at 35 is a risky endeavor. My safeguard, built through healthy fear, is flexibility and a willingness to work camp a bit more, reduce our expenses or even pick up some part-time work every now and then. It’s cool. I also know that nothing is permanent. If things REALLY go to shit, we park somewhere and find some work. Big deal.
If things don’t go exactly right, I find a way to make them right. Opportunities abound in this country and nothing is ever permanent.
Lastly, the decision has definitely been made. I’m done by the end of the year. I don’t care what the market does. Let it crash. I’ll buy cheap stocks. Let it rise, I’ll bask in the glory of capital gains. Whatever it does, I’m good, because I have made the decision to retire. No more maybes.
For us, early retirement is not cloaked in fear.
We know the risks. We have prepared the best we can. The decision has been made and we will try our very best to make it happen. Boom – done. It really is that simple.
Oh, one last thing. Fire walking is a common ritual with thousands of years of history, and walking across embers – which are poor conductors of heat – is a very easy thing to do.
Steve is a 38-year-old early retiree who writes about the intersection of happiness and financial independence. Steve is a regular contributor to MarketWatch, CNBC, and The Ladders. He lives full-time in his 30′ Airstream Classic and travels the country with his wife Courtney and two rescued dogs.