Here’s how to harness your fear and make it work for you.
In Adam Grant’s New Book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, he talks about how to manage fear and anxiety. He calls it “the positive power of negative thinking.” He cites the work of psychologist Julie Norem and her study of two ways to cope with anxiety. She calls them strategic optimism and defensive pessimism. I’ve written about these concepts before and how they help world class athletes win; strategic optimists set high goals and visualize success.
Defensive pessimists, on the other hand, spend time imagining the worst case scenario, which often makes them anxious before high stakes events like job interviews. Adam Grant writes about how to master both these strategies and make them work in your favor. Timing is everything, he says.
Before you commit to a goal like changing jobs or going to an important interview, it’s better to think like a strategic optimist. You’ll need the vision of a better job, more fulfilling work and higher income to help you commit to a big aspirational goal. Defensive pessimists tend to talk themselves out of trying for what they want; it’s hard for them to build up the courage to take on change.
Once you’ve committed to the goal, however, it makes sense to spend some time in a defensive pessimist state of mind. Grant says that defensive pessimists deliberately invoke their anxiety and convert it into motivation. I call this phase “productive worry,” since it helps you prepare for all the things that might go wrong. Worried about getting lost? Google the address and print out detailed directions. Concerned about parking? Make a quick call to the company receptionist and ask about nearby lots. Thinking through the worst case scenario helps you prepare for it. You’ll eliminate most of the problems through careful preparation and practice, and feel more calm and centered as the big day approaches.
Being nervous before an important event is natural, but it doesn’t have to be negative. If you’re unable to calm yourself, try reframing your nervousness. A Harvard professor asked college students to deliver a presentation that would be videotaped and critiqued – something that made all the students nervous. The professor assigned half the students to say to themselves before performing “I am calm.” The other half said “I am excited.” Labeling their nervousness as excitement improved their performance dramatically; their speeches were rated as 17 percent more persuasive and 15 percent more confident than the students who labeled themselves as calm.
Adam Grant says that we have physiological systems that serve as accelerators and brakes, telling us to “go” when things look good and “stop” when we might be in danger. When we face the uncertain future, we are naturally anxious about what might happen. But because the outcome isn’t known yet, there’s still a chance that things could turn out great. Focusing on the excitement you feel about that chance of success helps you signal your “go” system. Focusing on fear activates the “stop” system, which prevents us from skydiving, going off the high board, or calling someone to ask for a date.
I’ve long understood that one man’s fear is another man’s thrill – one look at a roller coaster taught me that. Understanding how and when to acknowledge fear can go far in helping you cope with it – perhaps even thrive with it.
If you try this technique of labeling your fear as excitement, let me know. Did it work for you?