15 Ways To Overcome The Fear That’s Killing Your Potential

We’re afraid.

We know what we want to do, what we could do, what we should do. 

It’s an idea for a new business. It’s dropping out of college. It’s telling someone how we feel. It’s trying something radically different. 

But something gets in the way. The voice in our head. The voice of others inside our head. People tell us that our idea is crazy, that the odds are slim, that people like us do things like this, not like that

Oh, what this costs us. “Apprehension, uncertainty, waiting, expectation, fear of surprise, do a patient more harm than any exertion,” Florence Nightingale, a woman who resisted her calling for a good chunk of the first thirty years of her life, once wrote. Yet these pedestrian but powerful fears—they keep so many of us from our destiny. They give us a million reasons why. Or why not. 

But it must be said that greatness is impossible without taking the risk, without leaping into uncertainty, without overcoming fear. Name one good thing that did not require at least a few hard seconds of bravery. If we wish to be great, if we wish to realize our potential, we must learn how to conquer fear, or at least rise above it in the moments that matter. So here, adapted from my just-released book Courage is Calling: Fortune Favors The Brave, are 15 ways to do just that…and to hopefully get a little closer to reaching your potential. 

Defeat Fear With Logic

In sobriety circles they use the acronym F.E.A.R. “False Evidence Appearing Real.” That’s what fear is. False impressions that feel real. We must break fear down logically. Go to the root of it. Explain it. Tell yourself: It’s just money. It’s just a bad article. It’s just a meeting with people yelling at one another. Is that something you need to be afraid of? “There are more things,” Seneca wrote, “likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” Break it down. Really look at the facts. Investigate. Only then can we really see.

Block Out Other People’s Opinions 

Almost everything new, everything impressive, everything right, was done over the loud objections of the status quo. Most of what is beloved now was looked down on at the time of its creation or adoption by people who now pretend that never happened. When I talked to the rapper Logic on the Daily Stoic podcast, he talked about how every time he puts out a new album, the haters come out in droves. When he put out his first album, they wanted the sound and style of his mixtapes. When he put out his second album, they wanted the sound and style of his first album. When he put out his third album, they wanted the sound and style of his second album. And on and on. This is how it goes. This is how it has always gone. Some two thousand years, Cicero wrote about the haters, the gossipers, the side-line commentators. “Let other people worry over what they will say about you,” he said. “They will say it in any case.” Don’t value the opinion of faceless, unaccountable strangers above your own considered judgment.

Question Your Extrapolations

In Courage is Calling, I tell the story of Ulysses S. Grant early in his military career on a long journey across East Texas. It was just him and one other man crossing creeks and rivers in hostile territory filled with thick scrub bush and rattlesnakes and “the most unearthly howling of wolves.” Grant wanted to turn back and prayed that his companion would suggest it. The other officer, a little more weathered and experienced than Grant, smiled and pushed on. “Grant, how many wolves do you think are in that pack?” he asked. Not wanting to seem stupid or a coward, Grant tried to casually underestimate the threat that terrified him. “Oh, about twenty,” he said with nonchalance that betrayed his racing heart. Suddenly, Grant and the officer came upon the source of the sound. There, resting comfortably, with mischievous confidence, were just two wolves. So unnerved by a danger with which he was unfamiliar, it had never occurred to him to question the racing of his heart or the extrapolations of his mind. The night is dark and full of terrors. We face many enemies in life. But you have to understand: They are not nearly as formi- dable as your mind makes you think.

Define Your Fears

What we fear, we do not exactly know. We never actually define what so worries us. Our fears are not concrete, they are shadows, illusions, refractions. The entrepreneur and writer Tim Ferriss has spoken of the exercise of “fear setting”—of defining and articulating the nightmares, anxieties, and doubts that hold us back. Indeed, the ancient roots of this practice go back at least to the Stoics. Seneca wrote about premeditatio malorum, the deliberate meditation on the evils that we might encounter. Vague fear is sufficient to deter us; the more it is explored, the less power it has over us.

Focus On The Other Side Of Fear

Don’t worry about whether things will be hard. Because they will be. Instead, focus on the fact that these things will help you. This is why you needn’t fear them. Our bruises and scars become armor. Our struggles become experience. They make us better. They prepared us for this moment, just as this moment will prepare us for one that lies ahead. They are the flavoring that makes victory taste so sweet. If it were easy, everyone would do it. If everyone did it, how valuable would it be? The whole point is that it’s hard. The risk is a feature, not a bug. Nec aspera terrent. Don’t be frightened by difficulties. Be like the athlete, knowing what a hard workout gives you: stronger muscles.

Find Your Agency

Fear determines what is or isn’t possible. If you think something is too scary, it’s too scary for you. If you don’t think you have any power…you don’t. If you aren’t the captain of your fate…then fate is the captain of you. We go through life in two ways. We either choose that we have the ability to change our situation, or that we are at the mercy of the situations in which we find ourselves. We can rely on luck…or cause and effect. It’s said that in the midst of adversity, there’s two types of people. There’s the type who asks, What’s going to happen to me? And then there’s the type who asks, What action am I going to take? Or as General James Mattis often reminded his troops: “Never think that you are impotent. Choose how you respond.”

Fear What You Won’t Become

All growth is a leap in the dark. If you’re afraid of that, you’ll never do anything worthwhile. If you take counsel of your fears, you’ll never take that step, make that leap. There’s no way around it—there is no progress without risk. If fear is to be a driving force in your life, fear what you’ll miss. Fear what happens if you don’t act. Fear what they’ll think of you, what you’ll think of yourself, down the road, for having dared so little. Think of what you’re leaving on the table. Think of the terrifying costs of playing small.

Take Heart From This Tradition

People who walked over land bridges to new continents, who rebuilt after fires, who cinched on armor and ran into battle, who demanded inalienable rights from their governments, who stared down mobs, who stole away from slavery or lack of op- portunity in the dead of night, who explored the frontiers of science—those people, eventually, indirectly and directly cre- ated you. Their blood surges through your veins. Their DNA is infused in yours. You come from fighters and survivors. You come from people who squared up against fate, took her punches, threw their best shot. They failed, they made mistakes, they were knocked down, but they survived. They survived long enough to put in motion the events that carry us forward today. When we are afraid, we can look up at those who came before us.

Replace Fear With Confidence

“Know-how is a help,” opens the Army Life handbook that the U.S. Army brass handed to each of its millions of soldiers in the Second World War. Although fear can be defined and explained away, it’s more effective to replace it. With what? Competence. With training. With tasks. With a job that needs to be done. Training is not just something that athletes and soldiers do. It is the key to overcoming fear in any and all situations. Confidence is a simple matter of knowing your shit.  As Epictetus says, the goal when we experience adversity is to be able to say, “This is what I’ve trained for, for this is my discipline.” What we are familiar with, we can manage. Danger can be mitigated by experience and by good training. Fear leads to aversion. Aversion to cowardice. Repetition leads to confidence. Confidence creates the opportunity for courage.

Start Small

The French speak of petites actions— those first small steps, the builders of momentum, the little things that add up. We would do well to think of that concept when we feel afraid or when we despair in the face of an enormous problem. We don’t need to lead a grand charge. Put aside thoughts of some death-defying gesture. Sometimes the best place to start is somewhere small. “Never lose an opportunity of urging a practical beginning, however small,” Florence Nightingale said, “for it is wonderful how often in such matters the mustard-seed germinates and roots itself.” Eliminate one problem. Move things one iota. Write one sentence. Send one letter. Make a spark. We can figure out what’s next after that.

Just Do. Just Go

How do you get over the fear? All the reasons not to do whatever it is you’re thinking about setting out to do? In the words of the decorated Navy SEAL Jocko Willink, to get over fear, you go. You just do. You leap into the dark. It is the only way. Because if you don’t, what looms? Failure. Regret. Shame. A lost opportunity. Any hope of moving forward. Fear wants you to spend the day in deliberation, courage knows you have to get on with it, you have to get going. “In matters like this,” de Gaulle once explained to some reticent members of his administration, “one must move or die. I have chosen to move; that does not exclude the possibility of also dying.” No one can guarantee safe passage in life, nothing precludes the possibility of failing or dying. But if you don’t go? Well, you ensure failure and suffer a different kind of death. Later, you’re going to wish you did something. We always do. Which means, right now, you gotta go.

Make Courage A Habit

There is that clichéd bit of advice: Do one thing each day that scares you. As it happens, it’s not bad. How do you expect to do the big things that scare you—that scare others—if you haven’t prac- ticed them? How can you trust that you’ll step forward when the stakes are high when you regularly don’t do that even when the stakes are low? So we must test ourselves. We seek out challenges. “Always do what you are afraid to do,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said. Or as William James wrote, we want to “make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy.” We must make courage a habit. 

Associate with Brave People

When another country called on Sparta for military help, the Spartans wouldn’t send their army. They sent one Spartan commander. This was all it took. Because courage, like fear, is contagious. One person who knows what they are doing, who isn’t afraid, who has a plan is enough to reinforce an outnumbered army, to buck up a broken system, to calm chaos where it has taken root. And so a single Spartan was all their allies needed. So it goes for you. Courage is contagious. Who are you catching it from? Like a virus, courage spreads by contact. It spreads through the air. So get yourself in the vicinity of that person who exudes it. Let their excess strength shed onto you. 

Love Arms Us Against Fear 

It is almost too perfect that the root word of “courage” means “heart.” James Stockdale and his fellow POWs would signal back and forth to one another the letters U and S. What did it mean? United States? No: Unity over Self. They would say that to one another when they were lonely, when they were pulled away to be tortured, and when they sat in the cells beating themselves up for what they might have said under torture. What unified whole are you a part of? What is the love that’s powering you? Who are you brave for? Country? Cause? Comrade? Family? That’s the flip side of what about me. That’s how we rise above our limits.

Ask For Help

Sometimes that’s the strongest and bravest thing to do. “Don’t be ashamed to need help,” Marcus Aurelius wrote. “Like a soldier storming a wall, you have a mission to accomplish. And if you’ve been wounded and you need a comrade to pull you up? So what?” Exactly. So what? It’s okay to need a helping hand. To need reassurance, a favor, forgiveness, whatever. Need therapy? Go! Need to start over? Okay! Need to steady yourself on someone’s shoulder? Of course! We’re in this mission together. We’re comrades. Ask for help. It’s not just brave, it’s the right thing to do.

Whatever it is you are trying to do, whoever it is you dream of becoming—there will be so many reasons why this will feel like the wrong thing to do. There will be incredible pressure to put these thoughts, these dreams, this need, out of our mind. That’s what Florence Nightingale went through. For 30 years, her family, society, pressured her into deferring, ignoring her calling. How many lives did that cost? How wrong did they turn out to be? Depending on where we are and what we seek to do, the resistance we face may be simple incentives . . . or outright violence.

Fear will make itself felt. It always does.

Will you let it prevent you from answering the call? Will you leave the phone ringing?

Or will you inch yourself closer and closer, will you steel yourself, prepare yourself, until you’re ready to do what you were put here to do?

As of yesterday, my newest book, Courage Is Calling: Fortune Favors The Brave is available everywhere books are sold! I am so proud of this book—if fear is killing your potential, I know this book will help you answer the call to do what you are meant to do. That’s what many of the early reviews of the book have said. General Jim Mattis said it’s “a superb handbook for crafting a purposeful life.” The great Shadi Bartsch called it a “clarion call to act on your convictions.”

If you have enjoyed my writing, if you have gotten anything out of my writing, I’m confident in telling you that you will love Courage is Calling. I believe it’s my best book yet. We are still offering bonuses to everyone who orders over in the Daily Stoic store


Written by Ryan Holiday