For an industry that prides itself on its analytical ability and abstract mental processing, we often don’t do a great job applying that mental skill to the most important element of the programmer’s tool chest—that is, ourselves.

"Go ahead, take that risk. Seriously, what are you afraid of?"

It’s a line that gets used over and over again, particularly in reference to the pursuit of dreams and/or potential life partners. Despite the fact that fear is a deeply human emotion—and one that often keeps us alive—it’s just a matter of figuring how to just "shut it off" on demand, usually in the pursuit of some grander utopian vision. "If only you can get past your fear," so goes the meme, or "screw your courage to the sticking-place," "be brave," or whatever other euphemism for "put fear in its place," you too can achieve greatness by getting past the only real obstacle standing between you and legendary status.

At least, that’s how it works in the movies.

Why Fear?

Fear is a contextual thing. Some people find it exciting to bungee-jump off bridges or to skydive. I cannot for the life of me imagine why anybody would want to flirt with the possibility—no matter how remote—of ending up a messy smear on the ground. For some, excitement; for me, fear.

Let’s be clear about a few things: fear is a necessary component for human survival. It’s the trigger for a surge of adrenaline from the body when the brain perceives itself to be in a life-or-death situation, and that adrenaline is often the difference between life and death. When you’re in the middle of a fight-or-flight situation, the adrenaline provides the necessary energy boost to the rest of the body so it can carry out the necessary steps to survival, be that "lifting the car off your loved one" or "scampering up that tree before the bear gets hold of you."

Wilderness survival scenarios notwithstanding, fear often manifests in less-comfortable situations: When you’re getting ready to give the demo to the biggest client your company will have this year, you’re going to feel fear. It may not be a life-or-death situation, but it’s going to feel like it, just the same (particularly if your boss is nervous about the demo). Fear is defined as "an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat." Failing to land this client could lead to your company concluding you are not worth continuing to employ. Worse yet, your failure could mean the loss of employment for the rest of your team. Or the company might go under. And so on. The fear is real, and it deserves to be recognized as such, regardless of the actual threat to life and/or limb.

It is tempting to suggest that fear somehow is the problem—that fear is what’s keeping us from our success. If only we weren’t afraid, so the thinking goes, we could take those risks and reap those rewards that come with great risks. (Of course, if the risks weren’t great, the rewards wouldn’t be either. But that’s another story for another day.)

Fear itself isn’t the problem. Which is good, because it’s not like it’s something you can get rid of. It’s a bodily response, and you could no more get rid of fear responses that you could get rid of the flinch when somebody throws a ball at your eyes at close range, or the jump that happens when you touch a hot plate unexpectedly. Fear is going to be a part of us so long as we inhabit these human bodies, so the next question is, how do we get past it in those non-life-threatening situations? How can we live with fear, when fear is getting in the way?

Getting Past Fear

Despite the fact that the emotion has probably kept us alive any number of times, it’s still important to know how to get past it. Unfortunately, despite the suggestions otherwise, it’s not a question of simple willpower—you can’t just "man up" and face it down. Fear is trying to keep your fool human self alive, and to ignore it is to basically try to ignore hunger or pain. It’s not going to be easy, particularly for the more important things in life. That said, it’s important to try, because the best things in life are never had by sitting on the couch wishing they would just happen to you.

If you want to get past fear, there’s a couple of things that can help.

First, name your fear. Fear, like mold, mushrooms, and killer clowns, grows in the dark. Fear thrives in the quiet corners of the brain where you don’t normally visit, and it whispers into the back of your mind when you’re not paying attention. Bringing it out into the light, by naming it out loud and talking about it—even if only to yourself—takes it out of its natural habitat, and allows you to start bringing your mind around them. "I’m afraid that if I go to my boss and suggest that he should promote me to VP, he will fire me" is a fear, but now having named it, you can start to examine it. In the example here, let’s be clear, if your relationship with your boss is such that you’re thinking about asking for a promotion, it’s probably not a situation where you’re going to be fired for asking for it. It’s no guarantee that you’ll get it, mind you, but the reasons you don’t get it may have nothing to do with you or your performance—the HR department may have instituted a hiring freeze, the boss may actually have other plans for you, or the boss just "can’t afford to lose you" (in which case you’re probably never going to get that promotion, so it may be time to start thinking about alternatives). Even should the worst-case scenario come to pass—your boss looks at you, laughs, and fires you on the spot—it’s arguable that the fear may actually be doing you a favor. (Seriously, would you want to keep working for a manager who fires people when they ask for a promotion?)

Second, embrace the idea that fear comes from risk. No risk, no fear. No risk, no reward, either. If you wanted to live your life like the proverbial mushroom, you certainly can, but you’re not going to grow much, either. In the woods, the tallest trees are the ones that get the most sunlight—but you have to fight the other trees to get there. No, you don’t have to physically confront your co-workers about getting that promotion, but you do have to be willing to take the chance that a promotion will change the dynamic between you and your co-workers, and you have to decide whether the reward (a promotion, better salary, better benefits, whatever) is worth the risk that comes with it. This will force you, by the way, to sit down and actively think about what the risks are, rather than just leaving them nebulous and unexamined, which will sometimes lead you to realize that the risks are not all that painful.

Third, actively judge when to take the risk, rather than just "leaving it to chance." By beginning the analysis process around what the risks are, you begin to get a better feel for when the risks will be greatest. If asking your boss for a promotion is based on your skill, then making that request right after you’ve demonstrated your skill to the entire company is a good time to begin that conversation. "Hey, boss, thanks for the compliment on my presentation. I think it’s a good example of the stuff I bring to the company every day, and I’d like to open the conversation with you about moving up in the company to a position where I can bring that stuff to a wider group and have a bigger benefit to the firm." Conversely, if your team has just taken a hit (app outage, for example), that’s probably not a great time to start that discussion, even if the fault for that failure was nowhere near you; you may be seen as trying to dodge responsibility, or at best, trying to escape the team in a low moment, neither of which looks good.

Finally, recognize that failure—a significant source of fear—is not a terrible thing. Carol Dweck is a psychologist who’s written a great deal about the "growth mindset," and a large part of that mindset is the realization that failure is not an indication that you are a terrible person, but an opportunity to learn a way that doesn’t work. She talks about the "fixed mindset," which suggests that intelligence (among other qualities) is a reflection of what you are, as opposed to something that you can improve over time, the "growth mindset." Growth doesn’t happen without failure, though. Watch babies trying to learn to walk, or talk, or eat, or…. A one-year-old toddles a few steps then falls right on his rump, a clear failure. Baby just gets back up, tries again. Eventually he walks, runs, and learns to chase down programmers in the halls who didn’t show up for the status meeting. Again. Getting comfortable with fear means getting comfortable with failure.

And let’s be honest—every time your code compiles, that’s because of a previous failure. What programmer could possibly be any good at their craft if they gave up the first time code didn’t compile?


Let me be very clear: I don’t expect that anybody will be able to read these four points, nod, maybe print a copy of it to read on the train to work every day, and whammo! Fear mastered. This is a life-long commitment, and there will be good days, and bad days, and days when it’s the furthest thing from your mind because dude, life. It’s a journey, not a quick-fix.

But the next time you find yourself hesitating because you’re afraid of whatever-happens-next, ask yourself, what are you really afraid of? Name it. What’s the risk here? List the risks. When are the risks worth taking? Quantify and analyze them. What can you learn from the failure? Spell it out.

Then, I suspect, you’ll find that either you’ve come to realize that this isn’t a good time to take the chance, or, more likely, you’re just not quite so afraid anymore. Nervous, maybe, anxious, probably, but that’s a long way from fear. Go get ‘em.