Michael Ashcroft

How to use fear as a tool for growth

I’m scared.

I’m scared that I’m not good enough. I’m scared that you’ll judge me. And I’m scared that if I put myself out there I’ll feel shame, not pride. But my biggest fear is, and has always been, feeling too comfortable, hiding from risks and missing out on growth.

This website is bringing me face to face with my fears. I plan to write about the playfulness of the universe, the value and cultivation of awe and the intrinsic value of humanity. It’s appropriate for me to be scared, because I’m talking about real things that matter to me.

I want to attract people who can challenge and turbocharge my thinking. The vibrancy of these ideas matters to me more than any claim I may feel I have to them. Rather than hiding in my room and publishing only when I feel safe, I want everything I write to be pushing up against the limits of my abilities.

This article is about how I can find those limits, avoid the comfort trap, and make sure I never stop growing.

WE NEED THE RIGHT LEVEL OF CHALLENGE TO GROW

Consider weight lifting. Lifting weights that are too light won’t build muscle, but weights that are too heavy can cause injury. You have to stay in a place that is just difficult enough to trigger growth.

Milo of Croton, an ancient Greek wrestler, was said to have carried a young calf on his shoulders every day. As the calf grew bigger, Milo grew stronger, until one day he was carrying a bull.


I love this approach. It means that even though I increase the weight I lift over time, my workouts generally feel the same. It’s always difficult, but it’s always the same difficult. As long as I stay in a place that feels difficult, yet achievable, I know I’m getting stronger.

I believe this principle also applies to my fears. Consistently and regularly experiencing the right amount of fear will make me grow. Right now, the idea of sending my newsletter to 1,000 people is crippling – it just seems too large – but one day I want to be able to do it. I need a way to get from here to there: transformation happens during the journey, not on arrival at the destination.

Milo had the right idea, but weight training is a special case as it’s easily quantified and tracked. I know exactly how many times I lift something and I know exactly how much it weighs. All I have to do is look at the numbers from my last session and add a bit.

Fear is more nebulous. The feeling of fear isn’t part of an objective reality, should such a thing exist, and there are no numbers I can write down. I know that fear goes away as I get comfortable and that I need to maintain my feelings of fear to keep growing, so how can I systematically increase my fear to stay in that growth zone?

THE FEAR DIALS AND FEAR GAUGE

For me, the fear is influenced by three factors: the size of my audience, the type of people in my audience, and how personal my message is. I imagine these as dials.

These are personal to me, so your dials might be different. You might feel more comfortable talking about yourself than about facts, for example, but the principle is the same: moving the dials affects fear.

This isn’t rocket science and you almost certainly have a natural sense for it. Making it more explicit helps to understand some of the mechanics behind the scenes and how they can be used to our advantage.

Writing on a technical subject that I know well for a small, engaged audience is not scary for me. I’ve done it for years professionally, it’s familiar and I enjoy it. The dials are set low and my fear gauge registers a calm, unchallenging green. While I enjoy it, I suspect there isn’t much growth here.

This website and my newsletter are different. This is all new, so for now not many people are reading and the people who are reading are on my side. But I am slowly ramping up how much of myself I’m putting out there and being more vulnerable. My fear gauge is registering a healthy and growth-triggering amber.


The point is not to eliminate fear, but to harness it. Giving a great best man’s speech isn’t about being polished or smooth, it’s about being sincere and genuine. Letting the audience feel your fear connects you to them far more than being slick and aloof.

That said, you also don’t want to be so scared that you can’t give the speech at all. Right now the idea of writing a vulnerable article and sharing it on LinkedIn is too scary, because it’s a very large audience of people who see me only as an energy innovation professional. That means I can tell myself the (as yet untested) story that they won’t be receptive to this kind of content from me.

In fact, I can already feel my body recoiling at the thought of it, and If I experience too much of that strong aversion to writing and publishing, it might derail the project entirely. I’m not ready yet. The weight is too heavy to lift for now: I need to get stronger.

USING THE BODY AS A GUIDE

That recoiling feeling is important and gives me everything I need. The body is an incredible source of information, one that I have learned to trust over time.

It was my body that told me to pursue training in the Alexander Technique and coaching. It was my body that told me to sign up for the online courses that led to this website. And it has always been my body that has told me when to move on from jobs, people and places.

I have come to believe that we have an inner guidance system and that the best results come from following it. That’s not to say that I disregard rational and critical thought, but that I have learned to expand my awareness to include both my thinking brain and my feeling body.

While this may sound spiritual, it doesn’t have to be. Psychologists are increasingly exploring the role of the body in cognition. The thinking parts of our brains evolved very recently in the context of evolutionary time and to disregard the value of emotions and the internal ‘felt sense’ seems naïve.

Where I described the three dials above, there are actually countless factors that affect how much fear I feel. Where my thinking brain can only consider a small number of them, my feeling body can look at all of them at once. If I know what an ‘amber fear gauge’ feels like, and I know I want to be there, I can ask my body where to go next.

I can do this simply by looking at my list of ideas for articles. With each one I can l feel my body shift and respond. If I just listen I get all the answers I need. Here are the first ten colour coded against my internal fear gauge – the way each article idea feels when I think about publishing it here.

This colourful list immediately gives me three useful choices.

The amber ones are the articles that I’m ready to write now. They’re just the right amount of scary.

The red ones are mostly too scary for now. For these I can either wait until I’ve grown enough so that my fear decreases, or I can do them now by turning down some of the dials. I could write an article on ‘shame as a compass’ and send it privately to a few trusted friends. That’s less scary than publishing here and it keeps me moving forwards.

The green ones aren’t scary enough, but that doesn’t mean I should ignore them. Instead, I can use the dials to turn the fear up. I can write an article on starting a blog in 2019 and publish it on LinkedIn. That would push the fear back into the amber, and again, keep me moving forwards.

It’s the moving forward that matters. This blog, and all the background work that goes into it, is an exercise in extended cognition. It lets me massively enhance the quality of my thoughts and store them outside my head, where they can be shared and further upgraded – by you. And I can write more articles with new ideas that reference and build on old ones, liberating my mind from having to hold on to everything.

Tapping into the wisdom of my body also gives me access to my embodied cognition, where I can understand things without having to know how I understand them. This is a completely different, but just as essential way of gaining insight. Listening to how my body responds to what I share here, in my extended brain, will let me find and stay in that growth zone.

By combining the two I can get the best of both worlds. I can stay just scared enough to grow, sharing ideas that resonate with readers like you. And I just can’t wait to find out what’s possible from there.

Want more?

I publish a regular newsletter called Thinking Out Loud, which covers things like stuff like building in public, Total Work, solarpunk, carbon removal, sense-making, building communities, creating positive narratives for the future, identity and various other things.
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