"Our doubts are traitors,
And make us lose the good we oft might win
By fearing to attempt." -- William Shakespeare
The other day I was having coffee with my friend Heather, who is in one of the most fearless careers: documentary film. I know it's not working on an aircraft carrier, but documentaries rarely make money these days. They're even harder to fund. You do it for the love, period.
Heather was just back from an uber-chic film festival and her courageous story reminded me of a principle I've learned reporting my book, The Fear Project: Fear lies.
Heather ended up going to a screening of one of her favorite filmmakers of all time, a childhood hero. Let's call him Joe Cool Filmmaker. So Joe Cool screens his film. Heather is drooling at how good it is and dreaming about asking him if he'd like to co-produce her next movie. But the movie ends, Joe Cool is swarmed by fans and Heather is reminded that she is an unknown face in the crowd. "I was so scared," Heather told me. "Sweating. Everything was telling me not to approach. But I did something crazy, something I never normally do. I went anyway. I walked up to him and just told him the concept."
Did Joe Cool say, "Aw that's sweet, honey, but I've got autographs to sign"? Nope. He listened. They talked for 20 minutes, and now they're in discussion to make the film together. Seriously.
Social situations like Heather's are the best ones for testing how fear lies. They're situations where the risk seems very high, but in reality, it's extremely low. The worst that could happen was that Joe Cool might have blown her off.
Fear doesn't always lie. If you're afraid of sticking your tongue to a frozen metal pole and you want to see if that's a valid fear -- well, the risk is very high, the reward very low; and it turns out that fear isn't lying.
But there are so many social situations -- whether it's asking that super-cute girl or guy out or approaching Joe Cool -- where we unconsciously and wrongly equate potential social rejection with physical harm, even death. The reason for this, neuropsychologist Rick Hanson recently told me, is that we all evolved in tribes where our survival depended on the approval of the people around us. "Getting shunned in the Serengeti was a death sentence," Hanson told me. So it's understandable that our ancient brain can still fire up a fear response as if it's going to die at the first sign of potential rejection. It's understandable in evolutionary terms, that is, but not a good idea for success in the modern world.
I've had to learn this the hard way. Growing up in a family of California yogis, I had this implicit belief that things would just work out if I went with the flow. The job would come to me. The girl would come to me. All I had to do is be in a generally good mood and trust. It's true that there is benefit to being able to detach from outcomes -- this is what Buddhists mean by "non-attachment" -- but there is no wisdom to using non-attachment as an excuse to sit on your butt because you think the universe is going to manifest your dreams for you. I spent a good part of my life using a wrong interpretation of Eastern philosophy to coddle my fears of rejection. That's not Buddhist or yogic. It's just lazy.
It was actually neuroscience that showed me I was doing this. The fear factory in our brains -- the amygdala -- is one of the deepest and most ancient parts, one we share with reptiles and rats. It works faster than the conscious parts of our brain, such as the prefrontal cortex. It's all intuition. We feel afraid before we can even say "I'm afraid."
If you're a naturally go-with-the-flow type person, or just shy, you may have, like me, interpreted an instinctual fear of rejection as a reason you shouldn't talk to that cute girl or approach Joe Cool. You've developed a habit, and thus a personality, that transforms fears into subtle lies and excuses. It says something like, "I don't really need to be like everyone else and talk to Joe Cool. I'm fine. He looks full of himself anyway." If you really feel this way, fine. But if Joe Cool actually holds the key to unlocking one of your dreams, telling yourself you don't care is actually fear disguised.
It's hard to catch when fear is lying. I miss it all the time. But occasionally I have breakthroughs and it's amazing what can happen. I related to Heather's story because I recently had an almost identical experience. After my first book Saltwater Buddha came out, some filmmakers asked me if they could make it into a movie. I was skeptical. I told them that if they could fund the film, I would roll with it, but good luck finding the cash to travel to Hawaii and New York and Europe with a film crew (all necessary parts of the story).
They were able to get some money but nothing like a movie budget, which somehow made me feel justified in my cynicism. See, the movie business is impossible. It wasn't until I started studying how fear works that I realized, Wait: Here are two amazing documentarians trying to make my book famous, trying to make my dream come true, and I haven't lifted a finger.
I only had two friends who might have the kind of money to fund a film. The first friend said he just couldn't do it right now, which made me feel like a complete ass for even asking. I nearly stopped there. The other was my best friend from childhood, Urijah Faber, now a famous UFC fighter who I only saw once or twice a year now with his busy fight schedule. Asking a dear friend I saw so infrequently seemed wrong. But I did it anyway. I texted him because it felt the least scary: "Want to get involved in a film project?" I wrote, cringing as I pressed send.
He called me right away. Urijah is now the executive producer of Saltwater Buddha, the film, and we've traveled to all the places we needed to film and then some. We still have more to do -- but to think I almost trusted fear and never even asked....
Here's our trailer.
Here's a fun (scary) video about our fearless EP, Mr. Faber:
Click to see how you can get involved.
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