The Purpose of Fear

The biological purpose of fear is to help the human body avoid pain. If you’ve ever burned your finger by touching a stove, you know what I mean. When you get too close to a hot stove, something you KNOW will cause you pain, it’s beneficial to feel fear. It prompts you to take action to avoid pain.

In a biological context, fear is useful. It helps you to learn from your mistakes and increases your chances of biological survival.

However, in modern society, the number of physical threats that can truly harm us or kill us is pretty limited. Yet, fear runs rampant in modern society.

In fact, fear runs rampant throughout the halls of McKinsey — though nobody from McKinsey will ever admit that publicly.

To be more specific, I don’t think the McKinsey culture overly uses fear as a management technique. Rather McKinsey tends to hire people who are fairly fearful by nature.

It’s probably more accurate to say that fear runs wild inside the minds of the people who walk the halls of McKinsey.

But how can this be?

I mean it’s not like there are lions roaming the halls of McKinsey as predators. Walking from one McKinsey office to another is hardly a life-threatening endeavor.

So, what is this fear that I’m speaking about?

It is not the biological fear that protects us from physical harm. Instead, the modern-day fear I’m referring to is entirely psychological.

This kind of fear doesn’t protect us from physical pain. Instead, it attempts to protect us from psychological pain.

This will all make a lot more sense if I explain the single most common symptom of modern-day fear. Once you link this symptom to fear, it will all make sense to you.

That single most prominent symptom of modern-day psychological fear is...

STRESS

Think about it.

Why do most of us feel stress? Underlying 90% of modern-day stress is fear.

Can you feel stress if you do not feel fear?

In most cases, you cannot.

Why is the case interview stressful?

Because you FEAR failure.

Why is a presentation to a client stressful?

Because you FEAR humiliation.

Why is asking someone to marry you stressful?

Because you FEAR rejection.

Why is taking the GMAT or GRE so stressful?

Because you FEAR the loss of an educational opportunity as a result.

In modern-day life, the vast majority of stress is based in fear.

This has several implications.

First, it means that the most stressed out people in your life may just be the most fearful people in your life.

Second, it also implies there’s a new “lever” to reduce your stress level. That lever occurs by reducing fear.

More Fear = More Stress

Less Fear = Less Stress

There are two kinds of fear:

1) Generalized fear
2) Situation-specific fear

Of the two, the first is the worst.

Generalized fear appears in someone who is so accustomed to being fearful that even when there is nothing specific to fear, they are still scared. This kind of person is typically quite anxious, has difficulty sitting still, and often works really hard (even if there is no reason to do so) just to avoid feeling the anxiety. Many workaholics have generalized fear and use work as a kind of self-medicating “drug” to avoid feeling the anxiety.

The solution to addressing generalized fear is to ask yourself, "What SPECIFIC worst-case scenario am I scared of right now?"

In other words, the solution to the first kind of fear — generalized fear — is to convert that fear into the second kind of fear — situation-specific fear.

This latter kind of fear occurs when somebody is fearful of a “worst-case scenario.”

There are three ways to address situation-specific fear:

1) DEFINE the specific worst-case scenario you fear
2) CHALLENGE the logic of the worst-case scenario
3) Develop a SPECIFIC contingency plan

For example, let's say you’re stressed out about the case interview.

STEP 1: DEFINE the worst-case scenario you fear

I would say, “What specifically are you afraid will happen if you don’t pass this particular case interview?”

In your stressed-out state, you might say, “Are you crazy? Isn’t it obvious!!! I am afraid that if I don’t pass the case interview I will be unemployed, homeless, starve to death, and die a gruesome death.”

STEP 2: CHALLENGE the logic of the worst-case scenario

I would say (or you could say to yourself), “Really? If you don’t pass this case interview, you’re really going to die? So, passing a case interview and getting shot with a gun has the same outcome? Death? Really? Are you sure about that?”

You: “Well, okay, maybe it’s not a death sentence. But it would stink.”

Me: “Okay, it would stink. In what way specifically would it stink?”

You: “I wouldn’t get the job I wanted.”

Me: “Do you have other interviews coming up? Can you interview for jobs outside of consulting?”

You: “Well, I do have consulting interviews with 3 other firms coming up and 3 interviews in industry coming up too.”

Me: “So are you saying if you don’t pass this case, you aren’t going to be homeless?”

You: “Umm... I guess not.”

(By the way, the purpose of this step is to tame emotional fear with logical thinking. The problem with this is when you’re really, really scared (a.k.a., really stressed out), the logical part of the brain stops functioning. Our instinctive fear response kicks in. We either freeze, fight, or flee.

Most people freeze, unable to think clearly. That’s why having a friend challenge your logic or forcing yourself to find the flaws in your own logic is so helpful. It allows the rational part of your brain to keep the emotional side of your brain from overwhelming your ability to think logically.)

(By the way, if you think you’re a logical person with a PhD in engineering or something, I would challenge that perception. Some of the most scared people at McKinsey (a.k.a., most stressed out) were the scientists, engineers and mathematicians. Fear is not correlated with intellect or lack of intellect. Fear is correlated with being HUMAN.

NEVER, NEVER FORGET THIS.)

STEP 3: Develop a SPECIFIC contingency plan

Me: "Okay, so let's say you fail the case interview tomorrow. What specific actions would you take if that were to happen?"

You: “Hmmm... I don’t know. I hadn’t thought about it.”

Me: “Think about it and write down your plan of action.”

You: “Well, I guess I’d want to practice more for the remaining three case interviews I have left.”

Me: “Okay, how SPECIFICALLY would you do that?”

You: “Umm, well I didn’t have a lot of time to practice before tomorrow's interview. So, the first step would be to devote more time to practicing.”

Me: “Okay, how SPECIFICALLY would you devote more time to practicing?”

You: “Well, I guess I could cancel activity X which would free up 5 hours a week for practice. I could also get an extension on project Y, which would free up 25 hours over the next 2 weeks to practice. I could also talk to XYZ person and ask her for help since she interviewed at these firms last year.”

Me: “What else could you do?”

Hopefully, you get the idea...

The reason this helps is because fear THRIVES on the unknown ambiguity. Fear DIES with the known.

I learned this technique in 2009. At the time the Great Recession was taking place here in the United States. I was giving speeches to rooms filled with incredibly depressed CEOs.

My speech topic was "How to Thrive in an Economic Depression - Lessons Learned from Companies that Thrived (Not Just Survived) in an Economic Crisis Over the Last 200 Years."

At the beginning of my talk, the general mood in the room was that the situation was hopeless. Their businesses were heading towards a gruesome death and there was nothing they could do about it.

By the end of the speech, I gave all the CEOs in the room four SPECIFIC things they could do (the same things these other companies did to thrive in an economic downturn) to enable their businesses to thrive.

I told them, "Do these four things and you will succeed. Oh, by the way, these four things are really, really hard to do well. But if you can pull them off, you will not only survive -- you will come to dominate your industries."

These CEOs were thrilled. They realized the situation wasn’t hopeless, it was merely extremely difficult. More importantly, they had CONCRETE and SPECIFIC steps they could take to immediately improve their situation.

Again, fear THRIVES in the unknown. Fear DIES with the known.

Therefore, one of the best ways to combat fear (and the stress it produces) is to develop CONCRETE and SPECIFIC plans to take ACTION in response to a possible worst-case scenario.

The reason you fear the worst-case scenario is because if it were to materialize, you would have no idea how you would handle that situation. The lack of concreteness is terrifying.

HOWEVER, if you have a very clear plan of action that you would take in the event the worst-case scenario were to happen, you don’t have a hopeless situation. You merely have a PROJECT.

THAT's how you combat fear.

Turn your worst-case scenarios with many unknowns into projects with concrete action plans where everything you would do is known.

Now, let me ask you an important question...

What are you fearing right now?

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33 comments… add one
  • Steve Apr 8, 2015, 11:59 pm

    I fear that less than exemplary performance will reflect badly on me and threaten my livelihood.

    As a consulting manager who provides clients with software suite upgrades for a complex accounting package, I rely on numerous resources over whom I have limited control but influence, have frequent and diverse demands from various peers in other activities, have more projects assigned than can reasonably manage well, lack the time to provide adequate client focused attention to each and am working with software that that’s been slowly improving from absolutely awful to just adequate

    • Victor Cheng Apr 9, 2015, 1:38 pm

      Steve,

      Assume you get a lousy review. What will you do then? Plan for the worst.

      Somehow I doubt with your skills and talent that you will be homeless and die of starvation. You might not like or enjoy the worst case scenario, but if you actually plan it out you might find it’s tolerable.

      -Victor

  • Eelin Apr 8, 2015, 10:27 pm

    This came right when I needed it, thank you!

    My current fear is not doing sufficiently well for my finals next month.

  • Somto Obuzor Apr 8, 2015, 11:48 am

    Dear Victor,

    Thanks a lot for sharing again another lovely piece. You have been a blessing to me. It may surprise you to know that I have a collection of every single mail I have received from your platform. Yeah, they are that good. Whenever you feel fear just remember these words. Thanks again Victor.

    • Victor Cheng Apr 9, 2015, 1:35 pm

      Somoto,

      I will take that as a major compliment. You’re not the first person to mention they collect all of my emails. Ironically, I don’t even have a collection of my own writing (thankfully there is the blog). I also tend to forget what I write once I write it. For me writing is like cleaning the closet, getting all that stuff floating around in there to make room for new stuff.

      -Victor

  • Moritz Apr 8, 2015, 11:25 am

    Very much enjoy reading your emails – thought provoking.

  • Jon Apr 8, 2015, 9:55 am

    I fear balancing consulting (travel) with a wife and baby on the way. I fear that if I miss this opportunity, I will have to settle for a mediocre career.

    -Jon

    • Victor Cheng Apr 9, 2015, 1:34 pm

      Jon,

      This is a classic tradeoff decision with each scenario having unclear outcomes.

      On your death bed, which outcome do you think you might regret more?

      Food for thought.

      -Victor

  • Benjamin Apr 8, 2015, 9:54 am

    Thank you for a thought provoking article Victor

  • Vyom Mittal Apr 8, 2015, 9:51 am

    Hi Victor,

    It is always great to read your pieces of wisdom. They have helped me a lot, personally and professionally.

    I am 27 years old and I am currently working in a corporate job. I am planning to start something of I own. For this, I will have to leave my corporate job. This is fearful as I am anxious about the success of my idea and the numerous challenges on the path.

    What is the startup is not successful? What if the next two years are a waste? What if I fail? What if it is a bad decision to leave my corporate job and start a startup?

    These questions are bothering me. I need to gather courage so that I can combat these fears.

    • Victor Cheng Apr 9, 2015, 1:12 pm

      Vyom,

      Courage is helpful. A backup plan is too.

      “What is the startup is not successful?”

      Okay, assume it is not successful. What SPECIFICALLY will you do in that case?

      “What if the next two years are a waste?”

      If so, so what? Will you die? Will you be homeless?
      (Maybe yes, maybe no. I don’t know your situation. But you should answer these questions for yourself)

      “What if I fail?”

      What specifically does that mean “fail”? What specifically about “failing” is problematic for you? Your resume? Your reputation? Your status? Your financial resources? Your ability get another job?

      “Failure” is excessively macro. Be specific about the negative outcome you fear — and build a plan to mitigate that risk. Specific problems can be solved, excessively marco ones can not — but generate lots of anxiety.

      -Victor

  • Ashley Goulding Apr 8, 2015, 9:13 am

    Victor,

    I appreciated your email today regarding stress and fear. It made me realize something important about myself – rather than experiencing stress as a response to fear, I usually experience an adrenaline rush. I suppose, in the fight or flight response to fear, I typically experience “fight” first.

    Can I give you an example?

    Currently, I’m working on a case competition with a team of people from my department. This competition also happens to fall on a week where our department has a large annual event that the four of us are also predominately in charge of putting on. This doesn’t even account for the normal day to day work I am expected to be doing as a PhD engineering student. So right now, you could say my week is primed to feel stress. There is a fear of missing deadlines, embarrassing myself, my department, hurting my credibility with my advisor as a student or my potential employers as a consultant.

    In the face of my current 12 hour work days I have felt stress only once – and that was when I knew I was going to miss a deadline with my team for the competition because of something that was outside of my control. As soon as I calmed down and found an action I could take, not to solve the situation, but to move past it, I felt fine. Something as simple as moving our meeting tomorrow to a different time.

    Typically, when faced with fear I find myself thinking about the ACTIONS that I could take to avoid whatever I am fearing. And when I remember that I am in control of myself I experience adrenaline. When I feel like I’ve lost control of a situation, then I feel stress – which unlike adrenaline is hurtful to me, my work ethic, and those around me.

    Thanks for writing such a thoughtful blog post and email today to make me reflect on this topic. I found it really helpful.

    Cheers,

    Ashley

    • Victor Cheng Apr 9, 2015, 1:05 pm

      Ashley,

      Thanks for sharing. All people are capable of all reactions to fear. I have several people in my social circle that were formerly in law enforcement. Unlike when you or I experience fear, when they experience fear it is due to the legitimate fear of dying.

      The interesting thing is they do the same thing to overcome the fear you describe — taking in action. In their case, they practice and train at much higher levels of intentional (practice) stress so that when facing real stress they are still capable of thinking about what actions to take.

      -Victor

  • Kaumudi Joshi Apr 8, 2015, 9:07 am

    Hi Victor,

    With this email, you have covered a topic that is top of mind for me these days. I am about 8 months into my job as a consultant at a top 3 firm. I have an advanced degree background (PhD in Genetics + 4 years post-doc in Neuroscience). In my research life, conquering stress was all about content mastery. There was job uncertainty, but at least my belief in my abilities was strong and based on a foundation of knowledge. In consulting, I have experienced that knowledge mastery is rarely there. The minute you get something, you are thrown into something you don’t understand. Based on this, I have decided to leave consulting. It is just not the right fit for my personality. My bar for calling myself an expert is so high, that I constantly feel ill-equipped.
    Then the thought of quitting also gave me stress. I hate being a quitter. But I have lately come to terms with the fact that not everyone CAN and SHOULD do every job. Sometimes it is enough to recognize that your job is not a good fit for you, and that conquering that is going to be time-consuming, and damaging to your career, health and well-being. Some stress can be cut out by consciously opting out of the race. This is my current understanding of stress management, not in any way my final word.

    Thanks for discussing these topics that most people do not associate with your standard A-type personalities. I feel less unusual

    • Victor Cheng Apr 9, 2015, 1:01 pm

      Kaumudi,

      Congratulations on your own level of self awareness and making a decision that feels right for you.

      I definitely agree with your statement about just because you “CAN” does not mean you “SHOULD”.

      Ironically, I came to that conclusion about a career in science. In high school, I achieved perfect scores in all of my science and math related entrance exams for college. I definitely was capable of science, but I also knew it was not me.

      At the time, it was thought science and engineering were the safe proven paths. The problem was it just didn’t fit who I am and what I wanted.

      It has been many years since that decision and I’m glad I followed it. Best wishes to you and the doors that may open in your future as a result of deciding what doesn’t work for you.

      -Victor

  • Daria Apr 8, 2015, 8:47 am

    Amazing!
    Completely agree! I constantly force myself to logically think about the reasons for my fears; then, to have clear steps forward. Otherwise, it is easy to loose sanity.

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