It’s Ok to be Afraid – But You Should Still Take Action

If you don’t step out of your comfort zone, you won’t grow

The word fear has a very clear meaning. Nobody is ever unclear of what fear means. But sometimes, it can be unclear what drives it or if we are experiencing it. If you encounter a wild animal in the woods or a ghost-like figure, it’s clear what you feel right before you scream, turn the other way, and run. However, in everyday life, we can be quick to deny or hesitate to acknowledge the existence of fear especially when it might signal our weakness or simplicity. “I’m not afraid I’m just being cautious”. Ever said that? Me too.

Fear is not a sign of weakness. Fear is a survival tool, a siren that goes off when something is or could be wrong. It is your mind and body’s effort to keep you safe. In the journey of your life, that safety can be a hindrance. In that instance, fear can also be a cage. A safe, comfortable, warm, and cozy…cage.

I was listening to a TedTalk by Peter Sage on How to Eliminate Self Doubt and he said something that stuck: “…Us human beings, our nervous system is hardwired for comfort, and the essence of what makes us US, our soul, is hardwired for growth”. The safety of the familiar and the fear of the unknown are two sides of the same coin.

Our nervous system wants us to stay comfortable and does not like surprises. However now and then and definitely at different points in our lives, our soul would yearn for growth and for change. That pull or calling comes from within and it can plunge us into a state of discomfort and discontent until we do something about it. If you want to grow, make an impact, and achieve something that makes you fulfilled, you have to learn to act on that calling despite your fear. If you’re at a crossroads right now trying to decide if you should start that project, go back to school, make that move, send that email, or do that thing that makes you so anxious and afraid, the decision might be hard to make but the reality of your choices is simple: If you don’t step out of your comfort zone, you won’t grow.

This is true in your life even if you know it or not. Think of all of the progress you’ve made in life so far, the things you’ve achieved, and the moments that changed and elevated your life experiences — the first day of school, interviewing for a job, going on that date — they all came from moments of overcoming your fear and embracing uncertainty. What if it doesn’t work out? What if it does?

Uncertainty and Infinite Games – Life is an Infinite Game

Fear can be a paralytic, but as I continued to analyze my relationship with fear I realized it was the uncertainty that was paralyzing. The uncertainty of where my next decision would lead or what it could bring about caused me to want to stay put. However, I’ve learned that aversion to uncertainty comes mainly from seeing decisions as having only binary outcomes. We often think “If I make this move, it will either end working out for good or it will fail and then that’s it”.  This binary outlook comes from looking at life as a finite game vs an infinite game – a concept popularized by James P. Carse that I recently learned about and have clung to.

The theory of finite vs infinite games states that as opposed to finite games where the purpose is to win and you only have binary outcomes,  life is an infinite game where the purpose is not to win but to keep playing. If you do that thing that scares you and it doesn’t work out, that doesnt mean it ends there. Your initial choice opens up new avenues for other opportunities, experiences, and options for your next path. And so on and on your life expands and weaves through new roads and widening experiences.

I’ll give you an example from my time in Spain studying for a Ph.D. in Business Finance. First, I was afraid to apply for the program because getting accepted would mean I get a full scholarship and a chance to relocate to Spain. It seemed too good to be true and I didn’t want to get my hopes up. And then, at my next crossroads, I was afraid to discontinue the program when I knew with certainty it wasn’t right for me because the idea of turning my back on a full scholarship scared the s**t out of me.

Eventually, I overcame my fear and left the program. After taking that leap, I stayed back in Spain for three years. Those three years became some of the most enriching and creative years of my twenties with experiences and encounters that will stay with me forever and impact how I see the world. Every fearful point that I pushed through whether it turned out to be a positive outcome or not, has led me to a fuller life. To embrace uncertainty is to embrace change and growth.

The Power of Small Wins

In a Havard Business Review article, The Power of Small Wins, the concept of the progress principle is discussed. It states: “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work”. They are talking about work in this instance, but I find the progress principle true in many areas, including overcoming your fears.

You have to have a certain level of tolerance for the unknown and a comfort level with ambiguity to make bold choices that embrace uncertainty. The more you do things that scare you, the better you’ll be at knowing when to stay put, when to move, when to wait, when to leap.

You could also practice getting comfortable with ambiguity and making bold choices in some areas of your life while you establish stability and stay put in other areas. I’ve gotten comfortable with ambiguity and making drastic moves in my career but when it comes to hobbies, I’m less brave. I like to stick with the familiar and the idea of trying something new scares me. I find solace in the familiarity of having the same hobby all my life (writing) and I come to this headspace to cool off from the colorful and exhilarating adventures of overcoming my fear every day in my career. Find the areas of your life where you need or want extra stability, establish that, and then experiment with other parts. For example, change careers but stay put in the city or town you know and love. Change cities but stay put in your career choices. You get the idea.

Every new step and small win will build your resilience, flexibility, and ability to improvise while staying true to your North Star.

I leave you with the widely known Carrie Fisher quote: “Stay afraid but do it anyway.

In another newsletter edition, I’ll discuss the different types of fear and how changing our perspective can help us start to overcome them.

This article was first published in an issue of the Wandering, Not Lost Newsletter f/k/a The QLC Newsletter.

The Wandering, Not Lost newsletter is for those who feel untethered or discontent, and those who are wondering what path to take in their journey of life. It covers topics like finding your purpose, self-actualization, job dissatisfaction, mental health, relationships, and more. Every two weeks our founder Jiji Ugboma, shares advice, insight, and unique perspectives on the typical and unexpected stressors of an emerging adult’s life. 

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Jiji Ugboma

Editor in Chief

Jiji is a writer, entrepreneur, and digital marketing specialist based in New York. She writes about personal development, self-actualization, mental health, and creativity as they relate to the quarter-life crisis experiences of millennials and gen-z. She has a deep love for quirky podcasts, coffee, and chocolate desserts.