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…
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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