On August 12, 1819, the Essex—an 87 ft, 238-ton whaleship—left Nantucket, Massachusetts on what was expected to be a three-year voyage to a whaling ground off the west coast of South America. 
It wouldn’t return.
On November 20, 1820, after 15 months at sea, an 80-ton sperm whale (reportedly 85 feet long) ripped a catastrophic hole in the whaleboat and it began to sink.
The twenty-man crew frantically salvaged what meager provisions they could—navigational aids, bread, water and supplies—and clambered into three tiny whaleboats.
Two thousand nautical miles from the west coast of South America, the sailors faced an uncomfortable dilemma:
Set sail to the Marquesas Islands, 1,200 miles away, and risk getting eaten by native cannibals that supposedly inhabited the island. Or, try the longer route, eastwards, to Chile, and risk running out of food and water before arriving.
Terrified of cannibals, they decided to forgo the Marquesas and instead, embarked on the longer, more difficult route to South America…
The Narrative of Fear
While floundering in the Pacific Ocean isn’t a fear most of us have to contend with on a daily basis, the fear of the unknown, is.
- You’re afraid to ask your boss for a raise because you might anger or disappoint her
- You’re too scared to approach a beautiful stranger because they might reject you
- You don’t want to be vulnerable with loved ones because they might not reciprocate
Fear, when rational, is imperative to our survival, of course.
But when irrational, it leaves us frustrated, demoralized and stuck.
What I’m beginning to realize, though, is fear is a story, a narrative we weave to excuse ourselves from taking action on the things that matter most.
This story, like any other, begins with you as the protagonist.
Then, there’s a plot with a 3-act structure, an inciting incident, a confrontation and a resolution.
Lastly, there’s a cliffhanger. You ask your boss for a raise, you ask a stranger out on a date, you tell your partner you love them and … then what? What happens next?
This is where we hold ourselves back.
We tell ourselves a story where the ending that doesn’t inspire us to act.
But what if we told ourselves a different ending?
What if we told ourselves, we, the hero, can succeed?
…and it all starts with fear-setting.
Fear-Setting: A Step-By-Step Guide
To move from where you are to where you want to be, you need to tell yourself the right stories.
But in order to do that, you need to identify what you’re actually afraid of.
In his book, Great by Choice, Jim Collins discovered a practice that leads to great enterprises called “productive paranoia.”
In his own words,
10Xers remain productively paranoid in good times, recognizing that it’s what they do before the storm comes that matters most. Since it’s impossible to consistently predict specific disruptive events, they systematically build buffers and shock absorbers for dealing with unexpected events. They put in place their extra oxygen canisters long before they’re hit with a storm. 
By practicing productive paranoia, we, too, can imagine our worst-case scenarios and prepare for, if not mitigate, them entirely.
One of the best ways to do that is by “fear-setting” (an exercise popularized in The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss.) 
There are three steps to fear-setting:
- Do an 80/20 analysis
- Write a to-do and not-to-do list
- Define your fears clearly
Let’s look at each step in detail.
Step 1. Do an 80/20 Analysis
Take a sheet of paper or open a document on your computer and answer the following three questions:
- “Which 20% of sources are causing 80% of my problems and unhappiness?”
- “Which 20% of sources are resulting in 80% of my desired outcomes and happiness?”
- “Which 20% of sources are consuming 80% of my time?”
Be as specific as possible.
Note: Tim recommends doing this every other week.
Step 2. Write a To-Do and Not-To-Do List
Write down the five to seven behaviors or activities you need to do and five to seven behaviors or activities you need not-to-do.
Next, circle the one or two “force multipliers”, the behaviors or activities that would change everything.
- “Why haven’t I done my most important to-do?”
- “Why haven’t I stopped doing my most important not-to-do?”
Often, the things we procrastinate on are the things we fear most.
Step 3. Define Your Fears Clearly
Create three columns like this:
Then, in each column write the following:
1. What is the worst case scenario if I did what I’m considering?
In Tim’s words,
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?
Often, there’s a plot twist in the stories we tell ourselves.
The boss we imagine to be angry or disappointed is welcoming. The beautiful stranger we feared approaching feels flattered by your approach. Your partner reciprocates the love you were afraid to confess.
Test your assumptions by taking action.
2. What are all the things I could do to minimize that from happening?
While we can’t prepare for every eventuality, we can prepare for foreseeable obstacles.
One of my favorite ways to do that is to use an “if/then” strategy or “implementation intention.”
“IF I lose my place in my presentation, THEN I will pause for 10 seconds.”
3. If the worst case scenario happened, what steps could I take to repair the damage?
Sometimes, of course, our worst fears do come true.
The gap between our fantasies—the stories we’re telling ourselves—and reality is bridged, and we’re left wondering why we took action in the first place.
But the truth is…it’s often easier than you imagine to get things back under control.
Each “failure” is an opportunity to learn and grow.
And with each round of feedback, you move closer and closer toward your goal.
The Irony of Fear
By January, after months at sea, the crewmen of the Essex had exhausted their paltry rations, as they knew they might, and, ironically, resorted to the very condition they feared all along:
On February 18, after 89 days at sea, the five remaining men were rescued by two passing ships, the Indian, and the Dauphin, and returned home.
Perhaps, though, if they’d been able to read their fears more closely, with more rationality, they would have overcome their fear and headed for the Marquesas Islands, instead.
Everything you want is on the other side of fear.
You just need to take action.
 Collins, J. and Hansen, M. (2011) Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck—Why Some Thrive Despite Them All, New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
 Ferriss, T. (2009) The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, New York: Random House.
I want to acknowledge Karen Thompson Walker for influencing my thinking on how fear propels imagination and for introducing me to the story of whaleship Essex.