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Fear & Cages

I often see people talking about experiencing fear as if it represented something externally wrong with the world. As if fear, by itself, meant something was amiss.

Fear is a response to things that we don’t feel prepared for. There are only two ways to reduce fear in your life, and zero ways to eliminate it completely. Of the two ways to reduce fear, only one is healthy.

Method One – the unhealthy way to avoid fear is to reduce new events in your life to the point that you never encounter something you’re unprepared for, because you never encounter anything new. This is called a cage. You can’t even eliminate fear in a cage, because your agency is removed, and at some point the people who control the cage will change something. Ask yourself if people in prison live without fear.

Method Two – the healthy way to avoid fear is to increase your own agency so that you are more prepared for a variety of situations.

“The world,” as a static entity, is never safe nor unsafe. It’s unsafe for me to try to walk a tight-rope wire forty feet above the ground with no net. It may be much more safe for someone else, if they’ve trained to do that and are prepared for the challenge.

No one is going to save you. No one can make the world more “safe,” because that’s nonsense. People can change the world or aspects thereof, but that only shifts around relative positions (and often in favor of the so-called savior). The only way to increase your own safety, to reduce your own fear, is to prepare from within.

One Size Fits None

People often say they want a customized, personalized solution to their problem. They say that because it sounds good, but the reality is that most people want a one-size-fits-all solution.

That’s because a universal solution comes with no blame, guilt, or work. If it works for everyone, then everyone has the problem – my individual effort (or lack thereof) wasn’t the cause. And if it works for everyone, then I won’t have to work especially hard (or at all) for my problem to be solved.

Those kinds of solutions are scams. Solving your unique problems will always require unique effort. Anything else is a con.

The Fear Voice

“A Bad Thing Might Happen!”

You’re sitting at a gambling table, and the stakes are high. If you win, you win big – but if you lose, you’ll lose your house, your car, all your savings, everything. The Fear Voice says “don’t do it, something bad will happen!”

Notice what the fear voice doesn’t ask. It doesn’t ask the odds. Change it up so that you have a 1 in 1,000 chance of losing and a 999 out of 1,000 chance of winning. The voice stays the same. It imagines the bad thing; it doesn’t calculate the odds.

But it’s even deeper. The fear voice gets so deep that it doesn’t even know what the bad thing is, it just assumes there could be one.

That same game could have a 999 out of 1,000 chance of winning and the other 1 in 1,000 you just don’t get anything – in other words, it’s win or neutral, with no chance of actually losing anything. The fear voice still doesn’t want you to play. It might get drowned out at that point – but it might not.

Fear is something that wants to keep you safe. That’s its only goal. It doesn’t care about what you gain; fear can’t see those things. Fear is binary – you’re alive or you’re not. If you’re alive, fear is doing a good job. Which means fear doesn’t have your best interests at heart, even though it believes it does and tries to convince you of it, too.

Fear doesn’t calculate odds. It can’t. Fear doesn’t evaluate risk versus reward. It just imagines the risk, as big as can be, and tells you to run the other way.

There are moments when you need that fear; these are the moments when fear accurately describes reality. If you ever find yourself alone in the northern Canadian wilderness at night, you go ahead and let fear drive for a bit while you find shelter and avoid bears. But fear isn’t tuned for the job market or the stock market. Fear isn’t calibrated for online dating or recreational sports. In other words, fear doesn’t accurately describe reality as most of us experience it.

If there were an actual person following you around, verbalizing the things your fear voice tells you, you would quickly think that person was insane. So don’t give that voice any more control over your life just because it’s internal.

Once More With Feeling

We are biased, emotional, irrational, borderline insane creatures.

It’s good to recognize it.

It’s good to work against it in yourself.

It’s not good to complain about it.

Look, you can gripe all day long about how other people are all of those things, wishing all day long that your fellow humans were all perfect calculating machines (and along the way, not-so-subtly implying that it’s only other people who are like that, not you, nuh uh), but the reality is that you’re not going to un-program a few hundred thousand years of evolution and biological impulses.

But you can study those things, learn their patterns and trajectories, and then move out of the way.

You can complain about the rain while standing in it getting soaked, too. Or you can have enough sense to read up on the common signs that rain’s a’comin’, and go inside when it happens. If you get really savvy, you can even learn how to put out a few buckets to collect rainwater. Now we’re talking.

People have feelings and they act on them, news at 11. Control your own as best as you can, and then learn the patterns of everyone else’s. That’ll do a lot more for you than complaining.

Infinity Dollars

Would you give me a penny if I asked you? If the answer was “yes,” then would you give me all of your money?

Seems like an odd jump, but this is just the heap problem in reverse. If you would say “yes” to giving me a penny, then in theory you’d say “yes” again and I can just keep asking until you’ve given me all of your money.

Of course, this is absurd. But it’s kind of important to identify the mechanism that makes it absurd, because that mechanism teaches us a lot about other, more realistic interactions.

First, in order to say “yes” to giving me a penny, a few things have to be true. The transaction cost has to be so minimal as to be almost non-existent. For most people, that would mean that you had to have a penny already on you, maybe even already in your hand, and the person asking has to be pretty much directly in front of you. Even if you’d say “yes” in that circumstance, it doesn’t mean you’d agree to giving someone a penny via Venmo, or that you’d agree to go to a local bank and make change for one. In fact, if you would theoretically agree to give someone a dollar and they ask for a penny, you’re more likely to just give them the dollar than to find a place to extract a penny from it.

That’s actually a trick that some panhandlers use: ask for a small-but-inconvenient amount, like 3 dollars, for “bus fare” or something. People are more likely to have fives, tens or twenties than exactly three ones, but by asking for less they seem more reasonable while still likely getting a higher amount.

Which brings up the next point: every time you ask someone for something, you expend social capital just for the ask, regardless of whether they agree. The larger the ask, the more social capital you expend. If I ask you for a thousand dollars, I radically diminish my social value in your eyes, even if you don’t give it to me. On the other hand, if I ask you to “spot me a dollar,” that’s barely any capital at all. Asking for a penny seems like such an inconsequential ask that for most people the curiosity alone would outweigh the miniscule social capital loss. (And of course, it depends on how much social capital you have with that person to begin with – strangers on the street have very little beyond the baseline that you give all humans, which of course varies from person to person.)

But as soon as you ask for a second penny, I see the grift. Now the social capital loss is the same as it would be if you ask for whatever number I eventually expect you to build up to. That’s why being willing to give me a penny doesn’t automatically mean you’ll give me all of your money. The subsequent asks change the equation.

This translates to how we interact with others in a lot of circumstances. Some people will (intentionally or not) take advantage of others to great degree, but hide it behind never asking for anything big. They’ll hit you up for $10, but they’ll do it 15 times a month. And when you refuse, they can paint you as the unreasonable one: “come on man, it’s only ten bucks!” This is especially effective if you’ve already agreed to the ask in the past, because they’re penny-ing you. You agreed once, so it’s unreasonable for you to refuse now. And if you don’t realize all of this, that trick can be really convincing.

My little personal filter for this: whenever anyone asks me a favor, I quickly ask myself: “would I do a favor ten times as large for this person?” I’m mentally multiplying the social capital cost of their ask times ten before agreeing. If I would do a favor ten times as large, I’ll do the small one.

Of course, this implies that doing the favor has no value to me – but in most cases, doing favors benefits me tremendously. First off, I’m good at getting value one way or another. Secondly, I know the power of social capital, and so I’m always happy to increase my own.

But don’t let yourself be taken advantage of. Giving to the world is wonderful – but pouring juice down the drain isn’t. Know the difference.

Automagic

There are a bunch of things that happen pretty much automatically in your life until you hit about age 30. They’re not guaranteed and there are certainly things you can do to actively sabotage them, but for the most part a lot of things just fall into your lap in those years.

You make friends pretty much automatically. You experience new music and other pop culture. You can become healthy/in shape as a “side effect” of just having an even mildly physically-demanding job or reasonably active lifestyle.

As you cross over that threshold, those things can still happen – but they stop being automatic. A lot of your life sort of calcifies, and you end up never really forming deep bonds with new people unless you really try. You can’t just stay in shape without working at it. And, if you’re not careful, you can listen to the same set of songs you liked when you were 22 for the rest of your life.

If any of those things are important to you, you have to put effort into them. (Maybe those things aren’t important to you – but my guess is that something else probably is, and that something also got less automatic when you hit ~30 years old.)

So it is with great awe and wonder that today I used my secret cheat, my special weapon against this effect. Today my oldest daughter and I were building her an art studio in a corner of the house so she could expand on her various creative endeavors, and while we cleaned and built she asked if she could play me “some music that I think you’ll like.”

It was perfect. I liked the music, not just because it was good but also because of the shared experience, the bond. We rocked out to that album together, dancing in the basement while we worked. And now my life is brighter.

Many things are automatic while you’re young. When you’re not – build bonds with people who are, however you can.

Clan

A tremendous source of energy for me is spending time with as much of my extended family as I can.

I am blessed beyond measure in this regard. My family is wonderful. I often hear people tell stories of traumatic or at the least unpleasant experiences with their family, and it makes me very sad. I want for them what I have.

I have a clan. The people in this clan are all connected, but they’re far from all blood relatives. Two of my most beloved uncles growing up, Uncle Tony and Uncle Louie (sadly, both gone from this world, but not without leaving tremendous impact and long lives) were both unrelated to me at all, but were neighbors-like-family going all the way back to my grandparents’ childhoods. Other people are connected by marriage, by godparent-godchild relationships, or simply (as is often the case) because we’ve adopted them in some way.

My family has gravity. People who don’t have a family like ours get pulled in. Our major family holidays have a hundred or so people at them. When I was growing up, I first assumed everyone was related to me in some way, as I have a wide and wild web of third cousins once removed and great aunts and everything else. Then, I learned how many of them were related in some way other than blood, and then at a certain age I figured out to ask, “wait, if we’re not their family, why do they spend Christmas with us? Don’t they have their own family?”

We were their family. We absorbed them because they were good and we loved them. Clan can mean what you make it.

Now I go to clan gatherings and there are twenty children running around, mine included. They laugh and play and form bonds the way we did. They don’t know who’s a second cousin and who’s a friend from daycare and it doesn’t matter. They’re all family, friends, clan.

There is so much benefit to putting effort into a clan. A group that doesn’t have to be united around common interests or shared professional goals. United instead by a kindness and love that can fill in all other gaps, support everything else, and give you a place in the world.

I know I am blessed beyond measure, and I know that not everyone has that. But every clan must start with one person, and you can be that. You too can gather the strays with good hearts, and you can help carve a place for them. You can be the clan you want to have.

Already Done

I’m going to tell you something that, for some reason, the world tries to hide from you. Your own inner voice tries to hide it from you, too.

You don’t have to keep doing anything just because you already have.

Your past isn’t a cage. It isn’t handcuffs. It’s a toolbox full of tools.

Additional tools should expand your options, but we somehow make them into restrictions.

Imagine a young person walking along, and they find a hammer. “Great! Now I can hammer things, and complete any task that may need a hammer.”

After a little more time, they find a saw. Should be glad, right? But no: “Oh no,” they think. “Now I can only do tasks that require a hammer AND a saw.”

You see the flaw in the logic here. But they don’t, and it gets worse every time. They get a wrench, and some pliers, and a screwdriver, and now they can’t do anything because nothing requires all of those tools.

You’re allowed to not use some of it. You don’t have to use any of it. You’re not obligated to do a thing just because you’ve done it before and know how.

Template

Writing a blog post is easier than starting a blog. Duh.

Doing stuff for the first time is harder. Yet people very often do stuff “for the first time” over and over again.

They’ll tackle a task, and because they know the task will be difficult, their focus will be on “just get through this, just get it done.” Head down, barrel forward, cross the finish line, don’t look back.

But then, the next time they have to do it… they have no idea how they managed it last time. Starting over from scratch.

Mostly, this happens because people fooled themselves into thinking they’d never have to do the task again (I see this a lot when people are applying to/interviewing for jobs!); other times it’s because they think the learning and experience gain will be automatic, and if they did it once they’ll just always be able to do it again.

That last one might be true, but if you only did the thing with massive effort, stress and pain – why go through that again?

The first time you ever do a thing becomes your template for that thing. Or at least, it should. You need to track your steps, chronicle your mistakes, write down the “general case” of whatever specific thing you did. Create something you can duplicate.

I don’t have to start a new blog every time I want to post. I’ve got my pattern down, my template. My format and forum. I just have to think, and then write.

Not only will this make your life easier, but it will improve it in other ways – from making it easier to pass your process onto others to making it easier to create new processes entirely.

“Life doesn’t come with a manual.” True. But you can certainly correct that oversight yourself.

The Invisible Toddler

I think more people should live out loud. Talking about what you’re doing publicly is a good way to learn things, meet people, and generally improve your situation. It’s a productive way to use social media, or it’s a viable strategy for a blog or YouTube channel or whatever. But a lot of people struggle with how they should go about it. “What should I write?”

I don’t have this problem, because I have been trained exceedingly well by a series of toddlers.

All you have to do is imagine that no matter what you’re doing, you’re being shadowed by a three-year-old. This invisible toddler asks you “what are you doing?” You’ve got to answer, and you’ve got to answer simply enough that a three year old can mostly get it.

Then they’ll ask “why?” You’ve got to answer that, too.

Then a few dozen more times.

It’s great training in patience, but it’s even better training in communication. Because contrary to the popular narrative, I’ve discovered that kids don’t just ask “why” endlessly. They ask until they understand. The better you get at communicating for understanding – even to people with very little background knowledge – the more clear your own understanding will become.

As a side effect, all of that becomes visible to others. You’ve lowered the walls. Keep lowering them until they’re gone. Or at least low enough that a toddler could get over them.