Fear is a perception relative to one’s confidence that everything will be okay.
On one end of the spectrum are Phobias, while daredevils exist on the opposite side. The only difference between them is the relationship between past experience and future expectation. To a person with a phobia of driving, every person hauling to work across the Golden Gate Bridge is Evil Knievel. Alternatively Jimmy Chin is not overly concerned with sleeping in a basket on a granite cliff-face, in a storm, after climbing for 4 days in a row.
Fear-rehearsal, as introduced in Tim Ferriss’ book Tools of Titans, is what we therapists call Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) Therapy. In the last post we discussed the first step in ERP: defining your fear. The method here is that if you can progressively introduce yourself to a fear-trigger you can eventually overcome it. Along the way you are honing your skills for distress tolerance, mindfulness, and coping. It’s kind of like saying you want to bench your body weight so you start increasing the weight on the bar by 5 lbs a month. (Look! It’s that small steps thing again. That must be really important.)
The best example of fear-rehearsal in Tools of Titans is Rolf Potts’ section and his book Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to World Travel. Rolf is committed to sharing the value of testing assumptions and expanding our portfolio of experiences. Similar to Andrew Zimmern and food, Rolf doesn’t want us to miss out on all the world can offer. Not only for the experience but for the growth-potential as a human.
What I love most about Rolf’s approach to travel is that it is developed to allow any human to do it at any moment in time. It’s a method you can adapt to your opportunities. You can vagabond this weekend for a single day without question. I get a little frustrated when self-help guys (which Rolf is not) offer answers that the general person cannot afford. “Find wellness inside this cryotherapy device that costs thousands of dollars.” Gee, thanks. For me, don’t even talk about those ideas. Tell me how to do it in my home tonight.
Another reason I think that Vagabonding is a great prescription for fear-rehearsal is that in our society money is a very significant component of a wide-array of fears. Work stress. Being a provider for one’s family. Projecting future prosperity. Engagement of fun, leisure and wellness. Money can have some impact on each of these and many others. If we can insulate ourselves from that fear we can find freedom and power.
In America’s capitalism-driven society we tend to answer any question involving money with the idea to make more. While that can work it creates a “have to” mentality and exposes us to not being able to retreat. I love how The Art of War informs this in emphasizing how important it is that a general not fear retreat. You are the general of your life. If you refuse to retreat you will lose the battle.
Vagabonding and Tools of Titans then are both emphasizing the need to practice retreating. Fear-setting is exactly that. If I lost my job tomorrow what would my life look like? Can I go practice that? Rolf has found more value in his travels walking around looking for a cafe full of old locals than he has on organized tours or site seeing. He also loves the experience of getting lost in a city with no agenda or plan. The best part is that both of these ideas are free and they can be done in Paris just as easily as they can in Fresno.
Rolf sells big on the idea that taking sabbaticals is a great way to achieve vagabonding. However I challenge that day-long sabbaticals are a great place to start. They are called “days off” and we have them every week (hopefully). What I will do now is work through how a person might approach setting up a vagabonding sabbatical for one day. I will do this through the character of Ellen.
Ellen is very unhappy with her life and feels trapped. She isn’t quite sure what would bring joy to her life. However she is fairly certain her job keeps her from it. When talking with her family about her situation she often finds herself saying “I just wish I could…”.
What follows from there is an idea that is then quickly defeated by “…but I can’t.”
Ellen did her fear-setting exercises. She is worried that if she leaves this job she will have to start at the bottom again. She has student loans to pay, a hefty health insurance payment, not to mention an emotional debt to herself for “failing”. Ultimately there is also a movie playing in the background of her mind that this job is the only think keeping her from joining Viggo Mortensen on “The Road”.
Effectively Ellen’s fear of these catastrophic outcomes is stronger than her disdain for her quality of life. For some reason it is easier to trade her own happiness to avoid an unrealistic, imaginative scenario. However, in her mind it is realistic and actual. So great, let’s call her fear’s bluff.
Ellen’s fear-assumptions exist in two spheres:
1. “It’s Not Possible For Anyone” Assumption– financial burden of health insurance and loans is not modifiable.
To beat this Ellen could contact her health insurance company to learn the income qualifications for state-funded insurance. She can contact her student loan provider to understand the requirements for low-income repayment plan.
Doing this she may find that if she lost all her income and got a minimum-wage, full-time job she could qualify for health insurance at $1 a month after tax credits. Sure she may end up with out-of-pocket costs that exceed her income, but she may be able to negotiate that down. Regardless she’d have health insurance.
Her student loans are similar. If she got that minimum-wage job at a non-profit or government job she could make income-based payments for 10 years and be done with them. At 10% of a minimum-wage salary it would be tough but not the end. She may decide that a few years of no payment due to economic hardship may be worth the accrued interest if it really came to it.
Now she has some solid numbers. If she lost her job she would be looking at living off around $17000 a year after taxes.
2. “I Can’t” Assumption- I need my current lifestyle.
Now with some parameters in front of her, Ellen can set off on testing what she really “can’t” do. This part involves intentionally getting a little bit uncomfortable. Almost any lasting gain achieved in life comes on the back-end of tolerable, planned discomfort. This is the foundation of fitness training. It is why rags-to-riches stories happen. Chris Sacca talks about this “sweet and sour” in Tools of Titans. Rolf Potts and Tim Ferriss intentionally create it. Though Rolf’s is less directly therapeutic in design.
What Ellen needs to do is figure out what life on $17k is like. What is life on $1400 a month like? What is life on $50 a day like? One thing is for sure, she will likely be leaving the Bay Area. If she held to the tenet of spending 20% of income on housing she would be looking for a $350 a month room. Well now hold on… that’s an assumption.
Ellen should start with finding out how to sleep on $50 a day in SF. Take out the cash, clear the calendar on a Saturday, leave the cell phone at home, grab a photo ID, and go live. It’s funny how the idea of doing this in your home town may sound silly but if I said to do it in Madrid it would be novel. We often overlook the opportunity to be a tourist in our own space.
As Rolf Potts advocates, find ways to be a tourist without using money to create opportunity. Couchsurfing could allow Ellen to see what free housing may mean. How would she transform meals if she needed to eat for under $10? Would Rolf’s idea of meeting strangers offer opportunities to expand her people-skills? What amazing things could she find if she just got lost in her home town?
As we said, one reality Ellen may find is that the Bay Area is not a place that helps people “get by”. In this regard Ellen should research lower cost of living places. Once she finds it, take a vacation there. Go vagabonding. Start in the city center and walk concentric circles around the area. Spend the time observing the subtle things about her surroundings to learn what it would feel like to be a local here. Contrast that life to her own and explore what differences are tolerable and intolerable.
This will open up new questions. What does she really NEED to get-by in a place she lives? Maybe she decides it’s access to open water. “I could sit by the beach every day for free!” Where could she live near an ocean or lake and not be subject to being broke? Maybe she wants to be able to work somewhere that affords her benefits like free travel or recreation. What would being it mean to be an Amtrak employee or work at a ski resort? How about a gym? Each of these are questions she could answer by practicing them for a day or two. Even practicing an entry-level job can be figured out if you set your mind to it.
You’ll never find out without trying it. You’ll never know what you’re missing until you do.
A few notes need to be made here. One is safety. Obviously we aren’t saying that facing your fears means that you need to expose yourself to danger. Be very careful how you set your plan up. You don’t win any points for taking this more aggressive. The goal is not to endure hardship but to realize it’s not as hard as you thought. “Too hard” means not sustainable and will likely further entrench your fear. While spending a night on Skid Row could test some assumptions, it could go very bad as well so it’s not worth the potential upside.
The other is that our example of Ellen is used to illustrate how you can go about breaking down a fear and practicing it. It’s not so say everyone needs to rough it on $50 to be happy. We used vagabonding as a framework. Use her example as an equation- take your fear, break it down into components, then get out there and test them. Small incremental steps.
On the back-end of this exercise you will confidently be able to tell your mind- “you’re wrong, I can do this.”