Looking over the precipice
All of my life I’ve been terrified of heights. Really terrified. To the point that, even aged 23, I would have to take the elevator in one of my University buildings because the stairwell was too intimidating.
I feel the pit of my stomach fall out, my hands tense up, my pupils contract. My balance goes. I feel unconfident on my feet. I avoid looking down to make it worse.
And so I found myself — suffering an extreme version of such conditions — looking over the precipice of a 100m drop in Northern Argentina a few years ago.
I edged closer to the edge, inch by inch, then centimetre by centimetre.
I peered over the edge, down at the water below, noting quite how far down it was. Quite how VERY far down it was. And what would happen if I fell from such a height and hit the water.
And the fear kept ratcheting up a notch. One. Notch. At. A. Time.
Fight or flight is our natural response to such a situation, biologists tell us. Our body tells us to flee in the face of a threat. In this case, that threat was the monumental drop I saw in front of me.
But I froze. I couldn’t move. Neither forward, nor backwards. Forwards because I was too terrified to jump. Backwards because I was too proud to go back on a commitment I had made to myself.
And it seemed like minutes ticking by, but was probably only a few seconds.
And then I jumped.
And immediately screamed, as every part of my being told me this was the end.
But my instincts hadn’t been built in a world of high-tension, modern elastic. So as I hurtled towards the water — my hair just about brushing the surface — I sprang back up with a shout of joy, adrenaline coursing through my veins.
And afterwards, I felt liberated: I had overcome my fear & survived. I had shown myself that the instinct of fear was something that didn’t need to limit me.
Turning the corner and seeing this strolling towards you will always — and rightfully so — instill you with fear When Instinct Betrays Us
Thinking back on that experience bungee-jumping, it made me think of the power of instinct. Of that base-level human emotion: fear.
To be scared of heights makes sense. You fall off a cliff, even a small one, in any period of human history (up until the 20th Century) and you’re probably going to die. A broken leg in the wilderness is far more dangerous to survival when you can’t just rest up in a nice clean, modern hospital.
To be scared of predators, or of a venomous spider, also makes sense.
The outcome is likely to be near-immediate death, and we rightly avoid such threats.
Yet, in the modern world, that same instinct that saves us from immediate danger, such as from a lion, also works to threaten our wellbeing.
To be scared of being a social outcast, for example, made sense in a tribal society. As the tribe hunted as a group, fed one another as a group, protected one another as a group, there was safety in the group.
Be outcasted for stealing or not contributing your fair share to the group and you quickly found yourself in a world of hostile tribes, predators & at the whim of illness or injury.
In short, you were unlikely to survive for very long on your own.
But we no longer live in a tribal society. We live in an individualistic one, based on a shared belief in capitalist principles of individual freedom & money as an object of exchange.
And, in such a world, that very instinctive fear of social rejection betrays us.
It betrays us because it makes us conform to the norm. It makes us feel pressured to climb the corporate ladder. To marry too early, or to the wrong person. It makes us focus on wealth, instead of happiness. It makes us live our lives based on what others expect of us, rather than what we expect of ourselves.
It is the reason we are terrified of doing a presentation to a room full of people.
It is the reason we are terrified of leaving a big-name corporate job.
It is the reason we listen to similar music, wear similar clothes and espouse similar beliefs to those around us.
It’s social validation. It’s conformity. It’s security.
But we easily forget that we are just animals in clothing, with complex social conventions & rules determining our interactions.
And, tragically, many of us fail to realise this, so we never pursue that new job, new business or leave that toxic relationship.
Instinct will always remain with us.
However rational & objective you think you may be, much of your thoughts & actions will be driven by instinct.
You may not conform to societal norms, but there will still be a voice in your head telling you you’re doing something wrong.
The battle between your monkey mind (i.e. the one still trying to keep you alive on the open savannah) and your rational pre-frontal cortex mind (i.e. the ‘modern human’ brain) is a perpetual one.
You just need to help your modern, rational mind to come out on top.
To achieve this, start with two simple techniques to ensure rationality comes out victorious:
- Write a simple list of pros and cons on a single blank page
This will allow you to rationalise & give substance to whatever decision you are struggling with.
You will likely see that the negatives are not that serious and that there are more more advantages to you making this decision than there are negatives.
The simple act of writing it down stops the maelstrom of confused thoughts in your head being dominated by the instinctive fear & apprehension you may have felt before writing.
Writing the pros and cons is a good way to rationally determine why you should do something and whether it’s feasible.
However, it still doesn’t remove that irrational, powerful fear preventing you from taking action.
To help you take action, write down the following questions:
- What’s the worst that could happen if you take action? Be very detailed & specific.
- What specific actions could you take to reduce the likelihood of these situations happening?
- If this situation does happen, what would you need to get back to where you are now?
(I would highly recommend watching Tim Ferriss’ TED talk on the subject.)
Spending 5–10 minutes writing out the ‘What ifs’ to taking action should make you realise that your inner critic’s arguments are flawed, irrational & entirely over-exaggerated.
My attempt at fear-setting in Jan 2018, before starting Scribe When deciding to start Scribe, this fear-setting exercise was the main catalyst in making the decision to start it. When I first considered it, there was an endless list of reasons to not do it: secure, well-paid job; enjoyable work; I was friends with my colleagues; it wasn’t particularly stressful; etc.
However, just one of the points in my list of ‘pros’ outweighed all of the others: ‘I am not fulfilled by my current job’. It was still a job.
Without fear-setting though, I think that fear of the unknown would have got the better of me & kept me living an unfulfilling life for a good few years longer.
Fear-setting made me confront and break down my main fears:
What if I run out of money? What if I fail? What will others think of me?
When I actually broke these down, there was really nothing to be fearful of. The worst case scenario would be a failed business and no money, but what would I lose there?
I could move back to my Mum’s house in London, find a new job with my UX Design experience & start again. Not only would I have learnt a huge amount about myself, but a huge amount about entrepreneurship & life lessons that would enrich me for the rest of my life.
Instinct is powerful. You quickly notice this fact, at least in my experience, when looking over a 100m precipice.
Yet we can mitigate that power.
We can tell ourselves, ‘No, it’s OK. We don’t live in a world of constant existential threat. Survival is no longer an issue. Happiness is.’
And happiness is under threat in the modern world, with most people sticking with jobs they hate, relationships that make them miserable, tied down by a huge mortgage & lavish lifestyles.
You owe it to yourself to overcome these very natural fears, such as to conform to what society expects of you.
You owe it to yourself to rationalise your decisions on paper, to try fear-setting in order to better help you achieve your goals.
You, like me, can face your biggest fear and jump.