On 23 Jan 2020, I opened my inbox and read the subject title, “WHAT’S NEXT?”
It was a delayed message sent by my younger self to pause and reflect. I set the delayed message years back when I got admitted into university and was awarded a scholarship.
Looking back at my journals, I was worried that I would lose my drive and hunger over time after having mini-successes.
There were multiple questions my younger self wanted my present self to ponder:
Is this what you want to do?
What’s holding you back?
How can I overcome obstacles holding me back?
Through my growing up years, I always struggled to balance between two fears — the fear of cruising along my life and the fear of change.
I feared that I may have been settling for doing “just okay” because it had become comfortable. I feared that I may have let life escape past me by letting fear of change freeze me in my tracks.
But life is not long enough for fear of change to take control.
There will always be very rational reasons why you shouldn’t leave a job that doesn’t excite you, end a relationship that no longer works, or start saving and investing.
“The job market is bad.”
“I have invested too much into this, I can’t leave.”
“I don’t even have enough money to tide through this month.”
Underlying all these reasons are two fundamental causes — fear and homeostasis.
We fear the uncertainty that arises from change. Our mind is designed for survival. Fear is a natural response that helped our ancestors survive in the wild. In today’s world, this response, if unregulated, can hold you back from living life to the fullest.
Certainty is the enemy of growth and perfectionism is a serial killer of joy, spontaneity and hope. The truth is we will never have clarity of our future. Fear and indecision are often the obstacles that prevent us from moving forward.
Ironically, the only way to work with fear is to take action. As Jack Canfield famously said, “Everything you want in life is on the other side of fear.”
A question that I frequently reflect on is, “What happens if I don’t do this?”
In many of his interviews, Jeff Bezos explained that our biggest regret in life usually stems from acts of omission. These are the paths not taken and they haunt us, leaving us to wonder what would have happened.
When I’m 80 and reflecting back, I want to have minimized the number of regrets that I have in my life. And most of our regrets are acts of omission—the things we didn’t try, the paths untraveled. Those are the things that haunt us.
A life mainly guided by fear is a small, shrunken substitute for what it could have been.
That is not to say we should completely avoid fear. We should stop trying to overcome it, and work with it instead.
Fear is what protects and keeps us alive from dangerous situations.
But fear doesn’t know the difference between a genuinely dangerous situation and its irrational counterpart — casting self-doubt and raising anxiety.
Work with the irrational fear that is the culprit for causing anxiety and panic attacks.
In his TED Talk, Tim Ferriss shared that Fear-Setting is the most powerful exercise he does. Ferriss claimed it helped produced his biggest success, by allowing him to move onward despite fear and self-doubt.
Start by writing the thing that makes you uncomfortable on the top as the title. Split the page into three columns.
In the first column: Define your nightmare, the absolute worst that could happen if you did what you are considering. What doubt, fears, and “what-ifs” pop up as you consider the big changes you can—or need—to make? Envision them in painstaking detail. Would it be the end of your life? What would be the permanent impact, if any, on a scale of 1–10? Are these things really permanent? How likely do you think it is that they would actually happen?
In the second column: List down the actions you could take today to reduce the likelihood of these events occurring.
In the last column: Identify what steps could you take to repair the damage or get things back on the upswing, even if temporarily? Chances are, it’s easier than you imagine. How could you get things back under control?
By practicing Fear-Setting, it helps us rationalize our fears and use it as a tool for fulfilling our goals.
Backsliding is a universal experience. Everyone resists significant change, no matter it’s for the worse or for the better. Our body, brain, and behavior have a built-in tendency to stay within narrow limits and snap back when changed.
As George Leonard discusses in his book Mastery, this condition of equilibrium, this resistance to change, is called homeostasis.
The simplest example of homeostasis can be found in your home heating system. The thermostat on the wall senses the room temperature; when the temperature on a winter’s day drops below the level you’ve set, the thermostat sends an electrical signal that turns the heater on. The heater completes the loop by sending heat to the room in which the thermostat is located. When the room temperature reaches the level you’ve set, the thermostat sends an electrical signal back to the heater, turning it off, thus maintaining homeostasis. Keeping a room at the right temperature takes only one feedback loop. Keeping even the simplest single-celled organism alive and well takes thousands. And maintaining a human being in a state of homeostasis takes billions of interweaving electrochemical signals pulsing in the brain, rushing along nerve fibers, coursing through the bloodstream. One example: each of us has about 150,000 tiny thermostats in the form of nerve endings close to the surface of the skin that are sensitive to the loss of heat from our bodies, and another sixteen thousand or so a little deeper in the skin that alert us to the entry of heat from without.
An even more sensitive thermostat resides in the hypothalamus at the base of the brain, close to branches of the main artery that brings blood from the heart to the head. This thermostat can pick up even the tiniest change of temperature in the blood. When you start getting cold, these thermostats signal the sweat glands, pores, and small blood vessels near the surface of the body to close down. Glandular activity and muscle tension cause you to shiver in order to produce more heat, and your senses send a very clear message to your brain, leading you to keep moving, to put on more clothes, to cuddle closer to someone, to seek shelter, or to build a fire.
After years of not exercising, your body regards a sedentary life as normal. The beginning of change, even if it is for the better, is interpreted as a threat.
Let’s say, for instance, that for the last twenty years—ever since high school, in fact—you’ve been almost entirely sedentary. Now most of your friends are working out, and you figure that if you can’t beat the fitness revolution, you’ll join it. Buying the tights and running shoes is fun, and so are the first few steps as you start jogging on the high school track near your house. Then, about a third of the way around the first lap, something terrible happens. Maybe you’re suddenly sick to your stomach. Maybe you’re dizzy. Maybe there’s a strange, panicky feeling in your chest. Maybe you’re going to die.
No, you’re going to die. What’s more, the particular sensations you’re feeling probably aren’t significant in themselves. What you’re really getting is a homeostatic alarm signal—bells clanging, lights flashing. Warning! Warning! Significant changes in respiration, heart rate, metabolism. Whatever you’re doing, stop doing it immediately. Homeostasis, remember, doesn’t distinguish between what you would call change for the better and change for the worse. It resists all change. After twenty years without exercise, your body regards a sedentary style of life as “normal”; the beginning of a change for the better is interpreted as a threat. So you walk slowly back to your car, figuring you’ll look around for some other revolution to join.
Homeostasis is not entirely negative. It keeps systems alive and well. Our bodies wouldn’t work without it, nor would our social systems.
The problem is that homeostasis, like fear, is undirected and does not have a “value system” — it doesn’t keep what’s good and reject what’s bad.
It is up to us to work with homeostasis.
Leonard lays out 5 guidelines on how to approach the issue:
Be aware of homeostasis. Expect resistance and backslash. Don’t give up at the first sign of trouble. In fact, take it as a positive indication that your life is definitely changing.
Negotiate with your resistance to change. Use pain as a guide to performance. Be willing to take one step back for every two forward, sometimes vice versa. Have the determination to keep pushing, but not without awareness. Pushing your way through despite the warning signals raises the possibility of backsliding.
Develop a support system. It helps a great deal to have other people with whom you can share the joys and challenges of the change you’re making. The best support system involves people we have gone through or are going through a similar process.
Follow a regular practice. When embarking on change, gain stability and comfort through a routine. Practicing some worthwhile activity, not so much for the sake of achieving an external goal as simply for its own sake.
Dedicate yourself to lifelong learning. To learn is to change. The lifelong learner learns to deal with homeostasis because he is doing it all the time.
I don’t think that I, in my early twenties, would have expected myself to still have to work with fear. I probably expected that I would have my sh*t sorted out and all. But I have learned the need to respect and work with both fear and homeostasis—to embrace our flaws and acknowledge that while we will not be perfect, we can be better.
Thank you for taking the time to read my blog.
In my next post, I will be sharing advice I would like to give my younger self. These are lessons I have learned over the years which will be helpful to you, especially if you are in your early twenties or going through change.
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