Stoicism is an ancient philosophy. And one that’s been relied on for centuries to determine things you can control and those you cannot, then focusing on the former through guided exercises. The goal is to increase our happiness and wisdom, while building up a resilience to the adversity that life throws at us.
It might sound outdated, but Tim Ferriss, the best-selling author, entrepreneur and productivity guru, likened Stoicism to an “operating system for thriving in a high-stress environment.” And we’ve all got plenty of stress these days, right? He has developed an exercise based on the philosophy of stoicism, that’s designed to help us take action when we’re afraid to ask, do or say something.
It’s called “fear-setting” and Ferriss outlined it in a now-famous TED Talk. He says he’s been doing it religiously for nearly a decade, and calls it the most powerful exercise he does. It all started when one of his companies appeared to be on the verge of failure.
Ferriss explains it like this: “I had no time and was working myself to death. I had started my own company, only to realize it would be nearly impossible to sell. This turned out to be yet another self-imposed limitation and false construct … I felt trapped and stupid at the same time.”
He knew he needed to some time off to recharge his batteries, but he struggled with “shame, embarrassment, and anger for six months, all the while playing an endless loop of reasons why my cop-out fantasy trip could never work.” Sound familiar?
So he decided to do things differently. Instead of focusing on the usual goals of what he wanted to accomplish, he instead focused on his fears and all the things that could go wrong. The idea being that once you identify them, you can usually find solutions or realize that they’re not as big of a roadblock as we imagine.
If you’ve been feeling a bit stuck lately, failing to make the progress you’ve been hoping for, this might be the exercise to break you out of your funk. Sure, you might not be weighing a six-month sabbatical, but if you’ve been scared to make a change—applying for a new job, asking someone out, pursuing a new hobby—fear-setting could help you see through all the things that could go wrong and guide you towards what you need to do to ensure they go right. Here’s his plan:
Define your fear
and write it down.
“Keep in mind that thinking a lot will not prove as fruitful or as prolific as simply brain vomiting on the page the absolute worst that could happen if you did what you are considering.”
What steps could you take to get things back on track?
“Chances are, it’s easier than you imagine. How could you get things back under control?”
What are the outcomes or benefits, both temporary and permanent, of more probable scenarios?
“Now that you’ve defined the nightmare, what are the more probable or definite positive outcomes, whether internal (confidence, self-esteem, etc.) or external?”
What is it costing you—financially, emotionally, and physically—to postpone action?
“Don’t only evaluate the potential downside of action. If you don’t pursue those things that excite you, where will you be in one year, five years and ten years?”