Lonely man looking at the distance

understand fear to have courage

“When I was a little kid, I was really scared of the dark. But then I came to understand, dark just means the absence of photons in the visible wavelength — 400 to 700 nanometers. Then I thought, well, it’s really silly to be afraid of a lack of photons. Then I wasn’t afraid of the dark anymore after that.” —Elon Musk

Learning about Elon Musk’s relationship with fear helped me realize: the best way to ignite courage is to understand your fear.

Fear is a deeply primitive emotion: an ancient instinct for safety we inherited from our ancestors on the savannah.

And on the savannah, safe we were not. Threats existed everywhere. Fear was part of our evolutionary development: an automated response to these threats crucial to our survival as a species.

Fast forward to present day, we no longer live in a world of scarcity. Safety is abundant, along with health, nourishment, longevity, and resources. But as we evolved along with our environment, this fear of harm did not.

That is why so many of our modern day fears originate in our minds — and in many senses, are irrational. They represent this need for psychological safety.

My fear of publishing, like many of our other modern day fears, is also irrational. Irrational it may be, but the physical response is pretty effing real.

This fear stems from our evolutionary need to feel accepted, to not feel failure. Failure lends itself towards rejection.

Which for our ancestors often meant that we would be outcast. And as social, extremely vulnerable creatures compared to the predatory lion, we fare much better in a crowd than on our own.

So, I’ve realized: this irrational fear is just my body’s ancestral desire to crave acceptance.

My fear wants to make sure I won’t be left behind, hence it wants to stop me from taking these creative risks. To ensure I won’t be banished from the herd.

But if this experiment fails, I still have shelter. I still have food. And people that care and accept me. I am not in physical danger.

It’s strange. But by realizing this connection to my ancestors, suddenly I feel less afraid. And so, I will leave you with this final afterthought:

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” —Marie Curie

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