Erik Van Alstine

Erik Van Alstine

Author. Leadership strategist. Expert in Perceptual IntelligenceTM.

Good Fear, Bad Fear, and Motivators Who Confuse the Two

Most motivators classify all fear as bad. This is a mistake.

Why? Because some fear is good and some fear is bad. I’ve been blogging about the difference between useful and useless fear in several posts now:

When we learn to put fear into two classes instead of one, we get wiser and more courageous at the same time. Wiser because we use useful fear to avoid real harm. Courageous because we take steps to overcome useless fear and get past imaginary harm.

With that in mind, here’s a few fear quotes and my commentary.

“Resist your fear; fear will never lead you to a positive end.” ~T.D. Jakes

Jakes’ quote is true of useless fear. We should resist useless fear, because useless fear will never lead us to a positive end.

But Jakes’ quote is false about useful fear. We should cooperate with useful fear instead of resisting it, because useful fear almost always lead us to a positive end. When the danger is real, it’s extremely prudent and positive to take steps to avoid danger. Take saving money as an example. When anxiety inspires us to save for a rainy day, it leads to a strong cash position when the rain starts. That’s a positive end – inspired by fear.

“Fear is stupid. So are regrets.” ~Marilyn Monroe

Not quite. Some fear is stupid, and other fear is smart. I remember reading a book by Intel CEO Andy Grove titled Only the Paranoid Survive. Business success requires alert and active leadership. When the market changes, leaders must be quick to adapt. Fear helps motivate this agility.

Then consider what Marilyn says about all regret being stupid. Not quite right there either. Some regrets are constructive, while other regrets are destructive. When we do wrong, regret it, and learn from it, that’s wise. Spanish philosopher George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” When we label constructive regrets as stupid regrets, it is we who are stupid.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” ~Franklin D. Roosevelt

This mind-bender takes more to sort out, because first of all, there is much more to fear than fear itself. Fear of fear isn’t the only thing we have to fear.

But let’s get past that puzzle and think about how useless fear can hold us back from doing the right thing. If the right thing is to take the job interview, and we don’t take it because we’re afraid, then we harm ourselves. We’re failing to make the most of our job opportunities. In that case, fear is bad, and we should be afraid about what our interview anxiety is doing to us.

But if we’re contemplating something stupid, like maybe fearlessly cussing out our boss, the fear that holds us back is useful. It helps us keep our jobs. If we don’t have that useful fear for authority, then the lack of fear is a fearful thing. Roosevelt’s quote gets turned on its head to become, “The only thing we have to fear is the lack of fear itself.”  We should be afraid about our irrational boss-boldness.

When understood in the context of his presidential speech, Roosevelt’s quote is brilliant. But on a standalone basis, it’s ridiculous. We have to keep the quote in context and use it for useless fears, not useful ones.

“Do not fear mistakes. There are none.” ~Miles Davis

Some mistakes are minor and carry no consequence. There’s no real danger in making them. If someone flubs a line in a speech, that’s not a big deal. If in Miles Davis’ world of jazz tries something new and makes a mistake, that’s the improv of jazz itself, and we shouldn’t fear inconsequential mistakes.

But other mistakes are critical and consequential. If we fail to follow the safety protocols in a job that involves heavy equipment, a mistake could get us killed or seriously injured. In this case we absolutely should fear making mistakes.

I wish more motivators would fear the mistake of confusing two categories of fear for one. Whenever we class all fear into one category, we mislead people. But when we correctly identify the difference between useful and useless fear, we help people.

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