Stoicism at TED — Defining and Overcoming Your Fears

NOTE: The TED talk is now up! Watch it below: 

On Monday night, at the opening event of TED, Tim Ferriss, bestselling author, entrepreneur and podcast host, introduced the practical philosophy of Stoicism to an audience of scientists, innovators, entrepreneurs, politicians and some of the most influential people in our society.

The main subject of his talk was one of the most valuable Stoic exercises that Tim has developed over the years: Fear Setting. He credited this exercise for everything he has achieved in his life as well as all the disasters averted. It is rooted in a quote from Seneca that has been one of the most popular ones we have shared over the last few months: “We suffer more in imagination than in reality.”

As Tim has said, “Typically, people don’t overcome their fears because the fears are nebulous and undefined.”

The exercise forces you to do just that, to make your fears explicit and clear. You begin the exercise by putting on top of a piece of paper the action that you fear taking—it could be starting a new company, asking for a raise, ending a relationship, etc.

Next, you need three columns: Define — Prevent — Repair.

In the Define column, outline on each line a potential worst case scenario. You can easily have 20 or more here. Be specific.

In the Prevent column, write exactly for each bullet point what you could do to prevent the worst case scenario from happening.

In the Repair column, note how you can get back on your feet if the worst case scenario comes to pass. Who would you need to talk to? Tim also urges us to ask ourselves: “Has someone less smart and less driven figured and solved this out?” Usually the answer is yes.

What is important, Tim says, is to realize that a lot of times we are fearing a temporary setback that would have a negative impact, on a scale of 0-10, of maybe negative 1 to 3 but the upside of taking action would be a potential positive life-changing 8 to 10. That’s a bet you want to take. (You can watch Tim discuss the exercise on Big Think as the TED talk is not yet available online.)

P.S. You might also like this talk: “Stoic optimism: Ryan Holiday at TEDx UChicago 2014