Fear Setting
by Carla Silver

This month in the Unspeakables Project we are talking about fear and all of the ways we try to avoid it or pretend it doesn’t exist   Last week we heard from Ryan Burke as he explained fear and how we often want to push it away, hide from it, and protect others from it, when, in reality, fear is just a human emotion that we all experience. Ryan wrote about “Capital F” Fear and “Little f” fear and how these two types of fear are experienced both physiologically and psychologically. If you have not yet explored that article, give it a read before delving into this week’s issue.
This week, we are talking about how to face our fears head on and exploring a ritual made famous by entrepreneur, author and podcaster, Tim Ferriss. This ritual is called fear setting.

It is the beginning of the school year, and you might have gathered your leadership team or your board and engaged in some sort of goal setting activity for the year. Tim Ferriss, however, would suggest that in a moment like this one - where we are managing a context that includes a global pandemic, a polarizing national election, and mounting tensions around racial justice and equity - that a fear setting session would be more appropriate and more helpful.

Fear Setting is Better than Goal Setting:
In 2017 Tim Ferriss delivered a Ted Talk “Why You Should Define Your Fears Rather than your Goals."  In it, he shares his experiences of being bi-polar and managing severe depression that led to suicidal ideation and then finding a way through his hardest moments. We love this talk, but it is raw and real, so watch with that in mind. Ferriss knew he had to find a way to manage his anxiety and the looming fears that he dealt with everyday, and so he created a framework to work through fears and face them rather than flee from them

Ferriss shares that our fears often begin with the question: “What if . . .?” And, when the answer is unknown, our fear grows exponentially. Our mind plays tricks on us, and we can work ourselves into a state of severe panic with just those two words. Only by exploring the worst case scenarios, can we get to a place where we not only address our fears, but we use them as a lever to be courageous.

The Three steps of Fear Setting

Start with that question: “What if. . .?”  These questions may come with a full range of potential consequences, but when you are asking them, they all feel scary. Here are a few examples:

  • What if we reopen school?  What if we don't?
  • What if I have authentic conversations about race and white supremacy in my class? 
  • What if we decide to get rid of a popular tradition at our school because we know it excludes some students and families? 
  • What if we talk about the election openly at our school?
  • What if we get rid of APs this year?
  • What if our enrollment is cut in half this year?
  • What if I speak openly about what I really think at a faculty meeting?

Once you have your question,  go through the following three steps:
  1. Explore your fears - Define the worst case scenario, determine what outcomes might be preventable, and then if the worst outcomes come to pass, determine how you might repair the damage.
  2. Explore the benefits of an attempt or partial success.
  3. Explore the cost of inaction (emotionally, physically or financially) - and to look at each of the consequences in the short term (the next six months), in the mid-term (the next one-three years) and in the long term (the next three to five years).

These three steps aren’t easy to tackle - especially if you are prone to anxiety or if there are significant consequences on the line. What if it is your job or something that will impact your livelihood or your identity? But Ferriss would push us to ask, "How can we expect to manage your fears if we can't talk about them?"

He reminds us at the end of his Ted Talk: “The hard choices -- what we most fear doing, asking, saying -- these are very often exactly what we most need to do. And the biggest challenges and problems we face will never be solved with comfortable conversations, whether it's in your own head or with other people.” 

So we leave you with a challenge. Do some fear setting this week. Pick something, big or small, that scares you.  We all have something scary - especially now - that we are managing.  Try fear setting and see how it changes your relationship with both the immediate issue and with fear itself. Use this very simple cheat sheet as a starting place! If you get bold, consider bringing the exercise to your leadership team. Fear-set together.

When we bring the Unspeakables into the open and shine the light on them, we gain power over them.

We are excited to hear how you use Fear Setting. If you are a member of L+Doers Unite, please post on the slack channel this week. And if you aren't a member, what are you waiting for?

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