adventures in making stuff with Daniel Higginbotham

Models for Dealing with Fear

15 February 2010

There is a popular kind of article on Hacker News that is always 1/3 self-deception. The content of the article can be boiled down to three parts:

  • A description of some cool accomplishment by the author or someone he knows
  • The behaviors which lead to that accomplishment
  • The world-view which allowed the accomplisher to feel comfortable with the behaviors

For example, recently How I Landed A $50/hr Side Gig With Very Little Effort & How It Relates To Picking Up Chicks made it to the front page of HN. It can be broken down to:

  • I landed a $50/hr side gig with very little effort
  • To do this I was concise, friendly, abundant, value-offering, indifferent
  • I felt comfortable acting this way because I believe:
    • You have complete control over the universe because it only exists in your head
    • Other people are only projections of your own consciousness. If you are not a friend to everyone then you are not a friend to yourself.

Which part do you think comprises the self-deception?

Models for Overcoming Fear

These kinds of articles are perennially interesting because, at their heart, they’re moral stories about overcoming fear. The author describes a situation where most people would feel fear – fear of humiliation, fear of loss, fear or failure – and shows how his world-view allowed him to cope with the fear well enough for him to exhibit the behaviors which lead to his success. These stories keep alive our hope that we, too, can overcome our fears and live how we want.

However, these stories present their world-view as fact, and I think that’s where the self-deception lies. The world-view is considered to be absolute truth, when really it’s just a model that’s proven useful.

I think this is easy to see in the example above. You probably would not agree that “you have complete control over the universe because it only exists in your head.” You could try this model out for yourself by compelling the universe-in-your-head to add millions to your bank account, only to find that all you’ve done is whittled away another fraction of your life. Yet, it’s undeniable that this model has helped the above author and others to overcome their fears and do cool shit.

The world abounds with wacky models that help actual people actually overcome actual fear. Some people believe their obstacles are put there by God as tests for them to pass. Others believe that mortal life is a game played by immortal energy beings, just for the fun of it. And some folks believe that there is nothing more to life than what we see; when we die, that’s the end, so we better make the most of it. Wacky!

Models for Justifying Fear

Just as models help us overcome fear, they also help us justify fear. When we were teenagers, one of my best friends made all her decisions based on the statistical likelihood that she would be successful. She adopted a model of the world where her fear of failing had to be heeded: “Since so many other people have failed at being an artist, it’s likely I will fail too. I will therefore become a teacher, avoiding the pain and humiliation of constant rejection.” Obviously she never said that, but that’s how it seemed to me.

I’m not saying she was wrong to think this way. What I am saying is that we adopt different models to help us cope with fear, and that we often deceive ourselves into thinking these models are absolute truth. When our models have outlived their usefulness — when they no longer allow us to be happy — we find it hard to change them because we believe that our models are reality itself rather than interpretations of it.

Which models are more useful — those that help us overcome our fears or those that justify them? Well, this is honestly a bit of ridiculous question. These models are more complex than the question allows, and besides that, I think that there’s no One True Model. Rather, it varies by person and context.

Regardless, it’s worthwhile to breakdown our world-views, our models of reality, so we can better understand them and, possibly, change them.

World-Views Dissected

Our world-views are made up of three parts: the universe, you, and your relationship to the universe. I’m stealing from Ayn Rand a bit here, but those parts can be broken down further (I apologize for compressing all of philosophy into three ridiculous lists):


Yeah, this has gotten deep. Are your abilities fixed, or are you capable of improving them? How about your emotions, your personality? Are you good, bad, amoral? Does it depend? What does it depend on? Does it depend on who you have been up to this point? Does it depend on who’s asking?

The Universe

Is the universe benevolent? Malevolent? Indifferent? Is it chaotic or orderly? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it meaningful or meaningless? Are you capable of comprehending it? Is it all in your head? Do you control all of it? Part of it? None of it?


What is your place in society? Are you able to influence other people? Are you controlled by other people? How much control do you have, and in what situations? Do you fit in? Will you never fit in?

Obviously, it’s possible to ponder these questions for millennia. Hopefully what’s listed here will help you to analyze your own world-view and to analyze other possible world-views.

The Model to End All Models: Life as an Improv Game

This article wouldn’t be complete without my own unimpeachable advice on what works. Lately I’ve been experimenting with approaching life as an improv game, and I’ve really enjoyed it.

Improv games have the following guidelines:

  • There’s a set of rules, but within those rules anything can happen.
  • You don’t control what will happen next, but you control your reaction.
  • Whatever happens, run with it. Say “yes” to it.
  • It’s only a mistake if you say it’s a mistake.
  • You’re there to make your team look good.
  • Your team will support you.
  • Have fun, or else.

This model has greatly helped me overcome social fears. It’s helped me approach life with a much more adventurous spirit.

Perhaps in another article I’ll give a real-life example about how this approach has served me. I could call it “How I Went from Folding Laundry for The Man at $8.75/hr to Living in Hawaii and Making $90/hr Working for Myself at 21 Years of Age”. It’d be about accomplishing cool shit and overcoming fears along the way. It would be ninety percent true.

In the mean time, I hope this article has helped to clarify your own thinking about the way you cope with fear in your life. My belief is that once you accept that your world-view is only a model and not absolute Truth, it’s easier to discard it in favor of a more useful one. One that will make you happier.