Why you should define your fears instead of your goals | Tim Ferriss

So, this happy pic of me
was taken in 1999. I was a senior in college, and it was right after a dance practice. I was really, really happy. And I remember exactly where I was
about a week and a half later. I was sitting in the back
of my used minivan in a campus parking lot, when I decided I was going to commit suicide. I went from deciding
to full-blown planning very quickly. And I came this close
to the edge of the precipice. It’s the closest I’ve ever come. And the only reason I took
my finger off the trigger was thanks to a few lucky coincidences. And after the fact, that’s what scared me the most:
the element of chance. So I became very methodical
about testing different ways that I could manage my ups and downs, which has proven to be
a good investment. (Laughs) Many normal people might have,
say, six to 10 major depressive episodes in their lives. I have bipolar depression.
It runs in my family. I’ve had 50-plus at this point, and I’ve learned a lot. I’ve had a lot of at-bats, many rounds in the ring with darkness, taking good notes. So I thought rather than get up
and give any type of recipe for success or highlight reel, I would share my recipe
for avoiding self-destruction, and certainly self-paralysis. And the tool I’ve found which has proven
to be the most reliable safety net for emotional free fall is actually the same tool that has helped me to make
my best business decisions. But that is secondary. And it is … stoicism. That sounds boring. (Laughter) You might think of Spock, or it might conjure and image like this — (Laughter) a cow standing in the rain. It’s not sad. It’s not particularly happy. It’s just an impassive creature taking
whatever life sends its way. You might not think of the ultimate
competitor, say, Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots, who has the all-time NFL record
for Super Bowl titles. And stoicism has spread like wildfire
in the top of the NFL ranks as a means of mental toughness
training in the last few years. You might not think
of the Founding Fathers — Thomas Jefferson, John Adams,
George Washington to name but three students of stoicism. George Washington actually had
a play about a Stoic — this was “Cato, a Tragedy” — performed for his troops at Valley Forge
to keep them motivated. So why would people of action
focus so much on an ancient philosophy? This seems very academic. I would encourage you to think
about stoicism a little bit differently, as an operating system for thriving
in high-stress environments, for making better decisions. And it all started here, kind of, on a porch. So around 300 BC in Athens, someone named Zeno of Citium
taught many lectures walking around a painted porch, a “stoa.” That later became “stoicism.” And in the Greco-Roman world, people used stoicism
as a comprehensive system for doing many, many things. But for our purposes, chief among them
was training yourself to separate what you can control
from what you cannot control, and then doing exercises
to focus exclusively on the former. This decreases emotional reactivity, which can be a superpower. Conversely, let’s say
you’re a quarterback. You miss a pass.
You get furious with yourself. That could cost you a game. If you’re a CEO, and you fly
off the handle at a very valued employee because of a minor infraction, that could cost you the employee. If you’re a college student
who, say, is in a downward spiral, and you feel helpless and hopeless, unabated, that could cost you your life. So the stakes are very, very high. And there are many tools
in the toolkit to get you there. I’m going to focus on one
that completely changed my life in 2004. It found me then because of two things: a very close friend, young guy, my age,
died of pancreatic cancer unexpectedly, and then my girlfriend, who I thought
I was going to marry, walked out. She’d had enough, and she didn’t
give me a Dear John letter, but she did give me this, a Dear John plaque. (Laughter) I’m not making this up. I’ve kept it. “Business hours are over at five o’clock.” She gave this to me
to put on my desk for personal health, because at the time, I was working
on my first real business. I had no idea what I was doing.
I was working 14-plus hour days, seven days a week. I was using stimulants to get going. I was using depressants
to wind down and go to sleep. It was a disaster. I felt completely trapped. I bought a book on simplicity
to try to find answers. And I did find a quote
that made a big difference in my life, which was, “We suffer more often
in imagination than in reality,” by Seneca the Younger, who was a famous Stoic writer. That took me to his letters, which took me to the exercise, “premeditatio malorum,” which means the pre-meditation of evils. In simple terms, this is visualizing the worst-case
scenarios, in detail, that you fear, preventing you from taking action, so that you can take action
to overcome that paralysis. My problem was monkey mind —
super loud, very incessant. Just thinking my way
through problems doesn’t work. I needed to capture my thoughts on paper. So I created a written exercise that I called “fear-setting,”
like goal-setting, for myself. It consists of three pages. Super simple. The first page is right here. “What if I …?” This is whatever you fear, whatever is causing you anxiety, whatever you’re putting off. It could be asking someone out, ending a relationship, asking for a promotion,
quitting a job, starting a company. It could be anything. For me, it was taking
my first vacation in four years and stepping away from my business
for a month to go to London, where I could stay
in a friend’s room for free, to either remove myself
as a bottleneck in the business or shut it down. In the first column, “Define,” you’re writing down all of the worst
things you can imagine happening if you take that step. You want 10 to 20. I won’t go through all of them,
but I’ll give you two examples. One was, I’ll go to London,
it’ll be rainy, I’ll get depressed, the whole thing will be
a huge waste of time. Number two, I’ll miss
a letter from the IRS, and I’ll get audited or raided or shut down or some such. And then you go to the “Prevent” column. In that column, you write
down the answer to: What could I do to prevent
each of these bullets from happening, or, at the very least, decrease
the likelihood even a little bit? So for getting depressed in London, I could take a portable blue light with me and use it for 15 minutes in the morning. I knew that helped stave off
depressive episodes. For the IRS bit, I could change
the mailing address on file with the IRS so the paperwork would go to my accountant instead of to my UPS address. Easy-peasy. Then we go to “Repair.” So if the worst-case scenarios happen, what could you do to repair
the damage even a little bit, or who could you ask for help? So in the first case, London, well, I could fork over some money,
fly to Spain, get some sun — undo the damage, if I got into a funk. In the case of missing
a letter from the IRS, I could call a friend who is a lawyer or ask, say, a professor of law what they would recommend, who I should talk to,
how had people handled this in the past. So one question to keep in mind
as you’re doing this first page is: Has anyone else in the history of time less intelligent or less driven figured this out? Chances are, the answer is “Yes.” (Laughter) The second page is simple: What might be the benefits
of an attempt or a partial success? You can see we’re playing up the fears and really taking a conservative
look at the upside. So if you attempted whatever
you’re considering, might you build confidence,
develop skills, emotionally, financially, otherwise? What might be the benefits
of, say, a base hit? Spend 10 to 15 minutes on this. Page three. This might be the most important,
so don’t skip it: “The Cost of Inaction.” Humans are very good at considering
what might go wrong if we try something new,
say, ask for a raise. What we don’t often consider
is the atrocious cost of the status quo — not changing anything. So you should ask yourself, if I avoid this action or decision and actions and decisions like it, what might my life look like in,
say, six months, 12 months, three years? Any further out, it starts
to seem intangible. And really get detailed —
again, emotionally, financially, physically, whatever. And when I did this, it painted
a terrifying picture. I was self-medicating, my business was going to implode
at any moment at all times, if I didn’t step away. My relationships were fraying or failing. And I realized that inaction
was no longer an option for me. Those are the three pages. That’s it.
That’s fear-setting. And after this, I realized
that on a scale of one to 10, one being minimal impact,
10 being maximal impact, if I took the trip, I was risking a one to three of temporary
and reversible pain for an eight to 10 of positive,
life-changing impact that could be a semi-permanent. So I took the trip. None of the disasters came to pass. There were some hiccups, sure. I was able to extricate myself
from the business. I ended up extending that trip
for a year and a half around the world, and that became the basis
for my first book, that leads me here today. And I can trace all of my biggest wins and all of my biggest disasters averted back to doing fear-setting at least once a quarter. It’s not a panacea. You’ll find that some of your fears
are very well-founded. (Laughter) But you shouldn’t conclude that without first putting them
under a microscope. And it doesn’t make all the hard times,
the hard choices, easy, but it can make a lot of them easier. I’d like to close with a profile
of one of my favorite modern-day Stoics. This is Jerzy Gregorek. He is a four-time world champion
in Olympic weightlifting, political refugee, published poet, 62 years old. He can still kick my ass and probably
most asses in this room. He’s an impressive guy. I spent a lot of time
on his stoa, his porch, asking life and training advice. He was part of the Solidarity in Poland, which was a nonviolent
movement for social change that was violently suppressed
by the government. He lost his career as a firefighter. Then his mentor, a priest,
was kidnapped, tortured, killed and thrown into a river. He was then threatened. He and his wife had to flee Poland,
bounce from country to country until they landed in the US
with next to nothing, sleeping on floors. He now lives in Woodside, California,
in a very nice place, and of the 10,000-plus people
I’ve met in my life, I would put him in the top 10, in terms of success and happiness. And there’s a punchline coming,
so pay attention. I sent him a text a few weeks ago, asking him: Had he ever read
any Stoic philosophy? And he replied with two pages of text. This is very unlike him.
He is a terse dude. (Laughter) And not only was he familiar
with stoicism, but he pointed out, for all
of his most important decisions, his inflection points, when he stood up
for his principles and ethics, how he had used stoicism
and something akin to fear-setting, which blew my mind. And he closed with two things. Number one: he couldn’t imagine
any life more beautiful than that of a Stoic. And the last was his mantra,
which he applies to everything, and you can apply to everything: “Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life.” 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 I encourage you to ask yourselves: Where in your lives right now might defining your fears be more
important than defining your goals? Keeping in mind all the while,
the words of Seneca: “We suffer more often
in imagination than in reality.” Thank you very much. (Applause)

About the author


  1. You took the plunge and another really awful thing happens and now you're not sure when youll recover or how to be relieved of disorientation. Now what?

  2. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – this is what he figured out on his own. This is the recipe he is discussing here. There is research behind this. This requires a lot of focus and time to address one issue. This also helps people with panic disorders, ptsd, etc.

  3. That was your brain trying to sabotage your plans. It convinced you to underestimate yourself to the point that you resigned yourself to failure.

  4. Thank You Thank You Thank You… What a brilliant insight into such an ancient technique. Premeditation of Evils: Visualizing the Worst Case Scenario… How this Fear Setting is more important than Goal Setting. Will definitely try this technique. I wish I knew about this earlier in my life… but never too late.

  5. thanks God ! Highly effective Life changing Talk 🙂 a lot of gratitude for Beloved Tim Ferriss 🙂

  6. I like this a lot, Tim. Will think about my fear and define them shortly. I do have quite a few. Hopefully this will prepare me for upcoming salary discussions and possible job change.

  7. Being stoic is being calm and almost without any emotion. It is to apply reason to any given situation instead of responding with emotion. So is the goal to be less emotional at any given time in your life? And you do that by defining your fears? What about surprises? What about the unexpected? To be self-aware, 24/7 is not an easy an thing to be. I still find Ferriss to be a charlatan of sorts even when he means well and thinks he's sharing good advice. Strangely enough, Tim pains himself as someone who knows failure and feature and has been a victim of both. Yet, look at all of his books, all of them best-sellers. And best-sellers because he meticulously crafted a marketing plan to sell each of his books to near guarantee that they would be a success. Does that sound like an individual who has known failure and fear? For Tim Ferriss, he is petrified by fear that is why he spends as much time as he does making sure none of his books fail.

  8. @ 11:52 – Help all you vocabular geeks out in YouTube/Internet Land!!! What word does he say there? "He is a * turst * [phonetic] dude." What??? What is the correct spelling of that word (I tried to spell it but can't find it on dictionary.com). Anyone?

  9. In the 80s, this was called, “positive pessimism”. Define the worst thing that can happen, how do you prevent it, if it happens is there anything positive that can come of it, if I avoid taking action what happens…

  10. 2019 anyone?

  11. Hi

  12. Great talk. Full of really great experience and advice yet delivered very naturally, humbly and effectively.

  13. I haven’t watched the video and based on the title I won’t . I have a suggestion . Why not both? Why not try to identify your fears and goals . Success is not a straight line because it involves a lot of tools and ways to get through obstacles . You don’t have to choose which tool to use , use all of them…

  14. wow that's great no pain no gain life is what we make it no excuses you can't blame others but blame yourself why you still in mediocre

  15. Not helpful, not at all. Also, not everybody is workaholic, or wealthy enough to spend one and a half year traveling around the world.

  16. How interesting that this is so closely related to the NIST "five functions" – https://www.nist.gov/cyberframework/online-learning/five-functions – just applied at a personal level. He then makes the point of reviewing one of the most common personal protective controls, "do nothing". Understanding that we have an ancient (meat) risk engine that needs to be adapted to modern risks is a key take away for me.

  17. Another very good one is:

    Good habits are hard to form, but easy to live with. Bad habits are easy to form, but hard to live with.

  18. Stoicism, The repression of emotion. Isn't that the core of Toxic masculinity according to current feminist theory?

  19. Great example he used. I'm sure we can all totally relate to being in a situation where our biggest problem is deciding whether or not to take a long European vacation, with access to attorneys and a personal accountant.

  20. How can someone with Schizophrenia adopt this mindset when your mind is your worst enemy? I need to know badly .

  21. I literally just got the answer I've always wanted to hear throughout my life but one that I've always known for each day that I've lived it.
    Just Thanks lol

  22. Tim, I just loved your best seller one of working 4 hrs a week ok. I ask you, is there any possibility of you generating new content with Portuguese subtitles or even launching very short motivational videos of 3 or 5 minutes dubbed for Brazilians? With caption and dub. I'm sure you can do it. We Brazilians await you with open arms my noble.

    I write directly from Rio de Janeiro RJ, here it is still my Home. Bring your lecture here as soon as possible.

  23. I believe 99% or more of the people who live in America would not be able to go on vacation if they lost the business that they somehow drummed up enough money to start in the first place. LOL

  24. I watch this every few months. I’m fear-setting for an intense 6 months of ramping-up in my life. LET’S GO

  25. tim rose my golfer business brother got me to tim ferriss…I have listened to the podcasts. excellent. but easily, this, addressing the chart and suicide, it was the best of Tim. But since he's BP…he has issues with humility…I get it well. It is more than what is appears to be…Tim F. is to listened to…after Montaigne, the Stoic who stole our world and heart, I have not even thought about it. Well done, Timothy.

  26. So I found the same thing and created a framework for myself. This guy is promoting it and earning money. Time to reach out

  27. I'm so glad that this video was in my search results on YouTube on goal setting. The past two years have been very stressful for me and just last year, got even more overwhelming through a betrayal. I've been feeling so stuck in life that I really have no emotion to anything that should be exciting. I only feel "alive" when I'm rushing against time to get to work or study for school but even then my head is not in the game. After dinner with a family member this past April, I've decided to move out of state and somewhere where I can feel again.

    Right now, I'm creating my list of fears as Mr. Ferriss suggests and hopefully I will feel something while I tackle my list. I know some of my fears if not most will cause me to come out of my comfort zone/survival mode. And I do believe this to be coincidental because today is July 14, 2019, exactly two years from the publish date of this video. 🙂

  28. I've been unhappy with the place I live and the profession I chose for years now, ever since the beginning of college – and it's been two years I graduated. I'm still 25 so my mind keeps telling me that this is the time to change things and be brave, so once more I'm planning to move to another city and start from scratch, but I've had these times before and I always give up after some months of planning because it is so scary. My father is willing to help me with money and/or support and he doesn't pressure me that much yet 'cause I'm young but I'm afraid I'll grow old and find myself in the same position. Of all the steps he described that last one is undoubtedly the scariest.

  29. i had easyily over 200 and i never learned if i had a gun and i could revive id kille my self twice a day if i couldnt only once well since i have no motivation to get up i cant get a pass to own a gun here in germany so i stay alive…. for now

  30. I've been using stoicism for quite some time, and i did not know what it was about till a year ago or so, it not just helped me but saved me when many despised and decided to have a bully, and indiferent posture and talking behind my backs…cause was covenient side the most powerful and influential people of the story.

    anyway, still some traumas come to mind, but now can't compare to the past, stoicism, made me strong to the point I'm glad these people did those horrible things at my lowest in the past.

  31. That philosophy boils down to three questions I ask myself everyday. What do I know? What do I want? Knowing those two things, what is my responsibility? I spend literally hours asking myself those same three questions over and over.

  32. Really cool talk!! Not gonna lie tho I was thinking half the time how attractive a Scottish accent would be on this man…

  33. That is awesome! I've experiences the method of writing down the "worst case" 5 years ago (even before i knowed Tim Ferris) and it was and is the ultimate helper against anxiety. I'd say, it rescued my life: Whatever happens, there is anytime a way out of it and even improve the situation. If things are going to end – they end and something new can be build. Life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *