A disordered collection of notes on fear.

You miss 100% of the shots you don't take. (Wayne Gretzky, NHL Hall of Famer)

We throw out 99% of the stuff that we talk about seriously. (Astro Teller, Head of Moonshots at X)

What's stopping you from sending that email, from pitching that idea, from making that switch? The answer is probably fear.

Fear isn't a bad thing! Like all emotions, it's functional. My favourite enduring model of emotions is Antonio Domasio's somatic marker theory: emotions aren't so much "in conflict" with the rational self as they are supportive of it. Emotions act as "prepackaged decisions", like common routines in RAM. They are activated by pattern-matching against memory: they take a salient stimulus (e.g. a lion) and prepackage the response (e.g. run away). Handy when you need to react before you have time to think - less handy when blocking an action you have the time to consider. Emotions provide a frame of reference for rational decision-making leading to action (or, with fear specifically, inaction).

Allowing these emotions to drive you, in theory, enhances your chances of survival. But the limbic system, which fuels our emotional experience, is a slow-developing system. Unlike the more rational systems in our brain, the limbic system doesn't learn quickly. It's not as plastic as the rest of our thinking apparatus. So, it gets things wrong a lot. It places the lion-run away frame onto a situation that doesn't warrant that level of rational constraint.

To act as a rational agent - one aligned with reality - you frequently need to choose to think, and then behave, in a way your fear tells you not to. Almost all big, important changes happen this way: there has never been gain without overcoming fear. And the biggest changes will often generate the greatest fear.

This isn't to say that you should block out or disregard fear. It's a useful signal, a valid signal, and deserves to be understood. But, much like managing any other system, it is only one signal amid many, and it may not be true. And, much like managing a team of people, it deserves a meaningful answer as to why you choose to disregard it. Fear deserves to feel heard: but it doesn't always deserve to be followed. And it only rarely deserves to constrain us.

Of course, most of the time, fear is correct: if you're being appropriately ambitious, you'll fail at >99% of the specific things you try to do. What a frightening idea! Surely you've got to have more than 1% success to keep you going.


Like emotions and reason, you've got to see the bigger picture to get comfortable with this.

It's easy to celebrate successes, but super-hard to celebrate failures. Why?

For me, this is a big picture/small picture problem. In the small picture, where nearly everybody spends nearly all their time, failure sucks. It means zero small-picture progress. It means the previous activity was a waste of time. It means small-picture money got spent to take us small-picture nowhere.

In the big picture, where we're sitting when we say things like "fail fast", failure is a step towards success. It means we can focus better on moving forward with the things that actually matter. It means we don't have to waste time on the small-picture we were in before. We can move on to a new small picture.

It's vogue to fail. Execs use the shorthand "fail fast" to really mean "succeed fast", but they often mess up the implementation because they, too, are being judged on the small picture.

We should aim to spend more time celebrating moving the small picture forward, however it happens!

In an everyday sense, where fear lives, risk and reward feel like they sit in the small picture; the good interaction where trust got built, the bad experiment where users ended up confused. But in reality, risk and reward sit in the big picture for one simple reason: most things die or thrive gradually. Catastrophe takes a long time to happen, even where it feels like it happens in an instant.

Success takes just as long, with just as winding a path, and you can only ever connect the dots looking backwards. It's super-hard to keep an eye on the big picture.

Big picture

How do you track the big picture? I use a few different methods. Journaling and recording is one of them. There are three components to useful big-picture tracking: a clear goal, high-quality tracking, and a regular reflection cadence.

A clear goal defines an end state in some detail. It should feel tangible. It should incorporate all the ways achieving the goal will be experienced. It's helped by a numeric element: but as one key result of many. "500 event signups" isn't as real as "500 people in our event space laughing at a joke we just told". "Launching 21 satellites" isn't as real as "cracking open a cold beer in the evening with my colleagues to celebrate launching 21 satellites". "Launch a company" isn't as real as "buy a team dinner using my first £3k paycheck from my own business". Make the big picture visceral; it'll help mollify your small-picture fear.

High-quality tracking is a rich data stream that tells you what's going on. If you get it right, it'll tell you this in a bunch of ways you didn't realise were important. Aim for two tracking streams: one that aligns directly with the small-picture goal (e.g. "248/500 signups"). One that gives you a watercolour picture of the big-picture system. Use the small-picture stream to make decisions. Use the big-picture stream to identify the decisions you ought to take.

A regular reflection cadence means holding yourself to account. It's a way to shift from the small picture to the big picture, and a structure to keep you honest to the big picture decisions. Aim for at least two nested reflection cycles: one frequent, say every week, and one infrequent, say twice a year. Take decisions about the small-picture once a week. Take decisions about the big-picture twice a year. Try not to mix them up.