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Do We Need an App for Fear?

Of all the Steve Jobs products that have become essentials of daily life, the one that may be most needed is echoing virally around the Web in the form of his Stanford commencement speech: iCan.
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Of all the Steve Jobs products that have become essentials of daily life -- iMac to iPod to iPhone -- the one that may be most needed is echoing virally around the Web in the form of his Stanford commencement speech: iCan. His advice to "stay hungry, stay foolish," and remember that, as mortal beings, we have "nothing to lose" has struck a nerve at a time when millions are up to their eyeballs in a babble of nonstop fear about what we can't do. He's reminded us that we can counter the fright fest with something we forgot -- courage, and our own wits.

The gloom-and-doom meisters have had their way for years now, freezing out belief and possibility with a steady dirge of dire forecasts. Jobs' message is a much-needed wake-up call. Yes, we have challenges, but we have it within ourselves to act despite our fears and rise above the naysayers and change phobics. Uncontested fear begets more fear. Like Franklin Roosevelt's exhortation that, "we have nothing to fear but fear itself," Jobs' speech tells us we can avoid the fear factor when we dig deep and rally self-belief over our insecurities.

Courage and self-belief are qualities we all have, but they often need outside stimulus to be activated. They can lie dormant for years like African killifish, whose eggs are buried in the ground and come to life only with the right amount of rain. Inspiration can rouse self-determination skills that trigger the risk-taking without which we can't move forward -- or be truly gratified.

Researchers tell us we can't satisfy our core needs to feel autonomous or competent, for example, unless we go beyond the familiar and do things that make us stretch. Our core psychological needs, says the University of Rochester's Edward Deci, author of Why We Do What We Do, are all about self-determination. The fulfilling life we want doesn't come from taking the safe road, but from what is challenging, reports Emory University brain scientist Gregory Berns (1).

As usual, Jobs' timing was impeccable. It's time to declare open season on fear and discover the courage to step into our futures without knowing the exact path they will take. It's time to break out the antidote to fear: risk. It's time to tune out the crystal-balling pundits and politicians and the incessant guessing about the calamity that's going to happen next. We're not psychics; we're adventurers. That's how we're made, from novelty-seeking brain neurons to big toes designed for marathon journeys.

Jobs' reference to the fact we can only connect the dots in retrospect hit the bullseye. Fear demands you know the whole journey before you've even embarked. If we have to know the end before we've even begun, we'll never risk or start anything. Joseph Campbell said the process of trial and error that is the human path is "like a tree growing. It doesn't know where it's growing next. A branch may grow this way and that way. If you let it be and don't have pressures from outside, when you look back, you will see that this will have been an organic development."

It's a choice between staying foolish -- not worrying what others think, taking the risks conventional wisdom says are dumb -- or staying in our bunkers. Foolish people are open to ideas wherever they come from. They're not afraid of making a mistake, since that's the nature of the learning process and all forward movement. They know that it's foolish not to make use of everything at our disposal to get the most out of our time on this planet. Foolishness short-circuits the left-brain rationality that says you can't do this and, instead, you say, iCan. Foolishness is freedom from fear. Fools are fueled by the most powerful motivator in life satisfaction -- intrinsic choice: doing what you like just to do it, not for a payoff. That's why fools have more fun.

To be more foolish and less defensive, we have to turn down the flood of fear and turn up inner strengths, such as locus of control, the belief that what you do and what happens to you depends on your choices. Overriding fear doesn't mean ignoring or avoiding it. That only eggs it on, since fear is a byproduct of unconfronted anxiety. The way out is managing it, reframing it, refusing to let what doesn't exist -- future projections, which is what most fear is -- to run your present.

Fear is a saboteur of bodies, minds, and workplaces, generating a host of stress-related conditions -- heart disease, back problems, stroke, burnout, irritable bowel, depression, diabetes, insomnia, paranoia, phobias, ulcers, damaged long-term memories, fractured attention spans and many more. Over 70 percent of doctor visits are stress-related. Companies squander $344 billion a year on stress-related issues, according to a study at Middle Tennessee State University. Fearful employees are two to three times more likely than non-fearful to have stress issues such as back pain or be taking tranquilizers (2).

Decisions made out of fear are never in your best interest. That's because no one thinks clearly when they're frightened. Fear activates the hub of your ancient emotional brain, the amygdala, which shuts off the rational thinking of the higher brain and defaults to a state of panic and catastrophic thoughts. Unless it's life-or-death, it's a false alarm.

When the amygdala is in charge, sanity isn't. You lose your ability to concentrate, to weigh pro and con, to see the big picture, to be creative, to see that the thoughts in your brain are distortions of a cornered caveman/woman. The stress spiral fixates on irrational thoughts until they appear real. Thinking is so impaired, it's hard to find a way out. In fact, resulting sadness has been shown to reduce the actual volume of your thoughts, according to Daniel Goleman in Social Intelligence.

Humans have an overactive fear reflex, dating back to the days when it helped the species survive sketchy hunter-gatherer days. But the amygdala wasn't designed for 21st century stressors, such as too much email, traffic, or wall-to-wall prognosticators of imminent apocalypse. None of those things is a life-or-death threat, but they can trigger fears and the stress response just the same, if they make you feel you can't cope (a subconscious message misinterpreted by the amygdala as Grim-Reaper time).

Researchers are getting closer to understanding the mechanism that runs the fear show, the amygdala, an organ which isn't all bad, since it also alerts you to real dangers. Scientists at the University of Iowa studied a woman with a rare disorder that destroyed her amygdala (3). They found that, without an amygdala, she couldn't experience fear. None of the usual suspects -- snakes, fright flicks or bugs -- scare her. She also can't recognize fear in facial expressions. The rest of her emotions, from joy to sadness, function normally. She just has no fear. What would you, could you, do without fear? Since amygdala removal isn't a practical option, learning how to live with risks and take them is a less invasive option. There's a risk in just about everything we do once we step outside the house each day -- or don't. The bathroom is a very dangerous place, from tubs to hair dryers and the person staring back in the mirror at you at 5:30 a.m. The only way to avoid risk is to be dead. The only way to move forward is to advance into the unfamiliar, where we find what we didn't know was out there that is essential for our path.

One of the most effective places to build risk-taking skills is something we would never expect: play, something I found in the course of my new book, Don't Miss Your Life, on the power of engaged experience. You can take risks without judgment or "failure" when you play. You're just playing, but in the process of being foolish -- which is what play is; there's no purpose whatsoever, no external payoff needed -- you get used to doing things you didn't think you could, and that carries over to the rest of your life.

That happened to Sara Lingafelter, an attorney I met who took up rock climbing at a local gym but had to overcome acrophobia when she started up cliff faces. She knew the fear was irrational, but it would force her back down from climbs in her early days on the rocks. By continuing to develop her skill level and persisting through the fear, she was able to beat not only acrophobia but take big risks in her professional life. She turned her back on a safe legal career for a path that led to a successful climbing blog ( and her dream job, social media maven for an outdoor company.

The right motivation crushes fear. When you are motivated by an internal goal, such as mastery, fun, excellence, helping others, listening to your gut, you're more likely to think "iCan" and take a leap -- plus stick with it, researchers say. The more caught up in external expectations and the value of future time you are, the less likely you are to risk. Potential loss in the future drowns out a vital present.

We know where that future is headed, so there's no time to waste in the foolish pursuit of an "insanely" fulfilling life, as Jobs might have put it.

Joe Robinson is author of "Don't Miss Your Life," on the science, spirit and skills of activating the fullest life. He is a work-life balance and stress-management speaker, trainer and coach at Work to Live.

1. Gregory Berns. "Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment." Henry Holt, 2005.

2. Gianfranco Domenighetti. "Health Effects of Fear of Unemployment among Employees in the General Population." 1998

3. Justin Feinstein, Ralph Adolphs, Antonio Damasio Daniel Tranel. "The Human Amygdala and the Induction and Experience of Fear." 2011