| January 12, 2016

A Man's Life, Personal Development

How Superheroes, Movies, and Video Games Taught Me to Conquer Fear

man climbing out of pit well looking up

Editor’s note: This is a guest article from Steve Kamb

“The hero and the coward both feel the same thing: fear; it’s what they do with that fear that separates them.” –Legendary trainer Cus D’Amato

Your palms are sweating. Pupils are dilated. Heart is beating out of your chest. And that thing you told yourself you need to do? You can’t get yourself to do it. Rather than signing up for that class, asking out that person, raising your hand to speak, or putting your name down for open mic, you slink back into the shadows. “Maybe when I’m more prepared,” you tell yourself. “Next time.” And then you go home quietly wondering, “What if…”

Fear might be the most powerful obstacle any of us will ever face in our lives. Sure, bear attacks are scary as hell, but Brett has already taught you how to handle those!

So what about the internal struggle that we face every day? The battle we rage against our own brains and hearts; how do we overcome and finally take action? I’m talking about the fear of public ridicule or shame. The fear of disappointing others. The fear of failure. Fear is constant and unavoidable. In other words, completely normal.

But that also means that you need a battle-tested, step-by-step plan to deal with it! I’ve found that a lot of the tactics for such a plan, surprisingly enough, can be picked up from movies and video games. So let’s look at some advice from our most beloved pop culture heroes on how we can systematically deal with fear and accomplish the things we set out to do.

Learn from Batman: Defang Your Fears

batman dark knight christian bale surrounded by bats

There’s no better example of facing one’s fears and using them to improve your life than the story of Bruce Wayne and Batman.

Remember the scene (in Nolan’s Batman) in which a young Bruce fell down a well? He encountered a swarm of bats that would haunt him for a good portion of his young life. Eventually, Bruce decides to take something that once haunted him and turn this force against his enemies. In doing so he turned his greatest fear — bats — to work for him, eventually becoming a symbol for the protection of Gotham.

If you’re going to become the best version of yourself, you’ll need to confront your fears, too.

Bruce had to learn that there was nothing inherently scary about bats — that he had the power to turn them from something to be afraid of into a symbol of justice. To do the same thing in your own life, we’re going to examine one of your fears: I want you to pick something you are afraid of, big or small. Whatever it is, take five minutes and define that fear, clarifying what’s the worst possible outcome if things go poorly. Next write down what you can do to fix things if that worst-case scenario actually materialized. Afraid of trying a new activity? Starting your own company? Let’s say you’re afraid of being rejected when asking someone out — what’s the worst that can happen? Maybe you get a polite decline. Or even laughed at. Whatever — write it all down!

Take a look at your list and consider the upside if things go well, versus the downsides if things don’t. I bet the upside is a positive, permanent improvement, while the negatives are temporary and not life-ending. If you’re going to make a change, and fear of the unknown is keeping you prisoner, then you need to remove the power that fear has over you.

Entrepreneur Jia Jiang was afraid of rejection, so he set out on a quest of 100 days of rejection to get over it (often referred to as “rejection therapy”). Each day he asked more and more ridiculous requests of strangers to get used to being rejected. The result? More often than not, the strangers said yes! And if they said no, he quickly learned that his life wasn’t over and he could move on to the next challenge. From asking a cop to ride in his cruiser to knocking on a stranger’s door and asking if he can play soccer in the backyard, Jia found himself in some hilariously uncomfortable situations.

No matter the leap you take, nearly anything can be fixed, most issues are only temporary, and any problem can be solved. Short of death or a catastrophic injury, NOTHING is permanent, and more often than not, the worst case is often something temporary, while the best case can be life-changing.

You can get a new job, you can live with friends, you can borrow from others, you can hustle people at chess in the park. You always have a choice, and there is always a way out. Always.

Take Baby Steps like Bob

Remember the movie What About Bob? In it, Bill Murray’s character is so paralyzed by anxiety that he has to remind himself to take baby steps to ever get anything done:

You need to do the same thing!

If you have stage fright, then getting up in front of a few thousand strangers might cause you to need a change of pants. So, why not start by practicing in front of a mirror? After that, you can try talking to a few family members. Then practice in front of your coworkers, then on a street corner, then in a room of 50, and so on. Baby steps! Gain a degree of comfort at each stage before moving on.

Let’s say you have “approach anxiety,” which makes you struggle with being able to talk to somebody you’re interested in (this particular fear paralyzed me for years). I’m sure many guys can relate. Rather than just going all in, which I could never quite convince myself to do, I got practice first by talking to a stranger I knew I had no interest in — an elderly person waiting in line for coffee, folks waiting to catch the bus, the waiter, whomever.

Because there’s no chance for rejection in these interactions, there’s nothing at stake and nothing to fear. You’re just talking. Once you get comfortable doing this, then you can push yourself further outside of that comfort zone until you realize that approaching somebody you’re interested in could result in the same thing: a great conversation, a poor conversation (and then you know what to work on), or refusal (maybe they’re in a bad mood or not that fun to talk to).

There’s only one way to find out!

Develop Mental Fortitude

No matter what we want to do with our lives — whether it’s trying something new, continuing our search for somebody to spend our life with, attempting to make it as a musician, or literally trying to become Batman — the journey is going to be filled with ups and downs. We’re going to struggle, we’re going to screw up, and we’re going to suck and get frustrated when things don’t go according to plan.

Fortunately, there are specific ways we can mentally and physically bounce back from these setbacks. I’ve already hopefully convinced you to fail more. I’m now going to give you permission to suck more.

Throughout our day, there’s a pull from within that tells us to stick with the things we’re kind of good at, or things that we can’t embarrass ourselves with. I want you to do the exact opposite of that. Earlier, I talked about the fear of the unknown or the fear of failure. Now, I want to crush another fear we might have: the fear of looking foolish or being bad at something!

Take a second and think of somebody who is great at what they do: a professional athlete, world-class musician, a prolific artist. At some point in their lives, they absolutely sucked at that activity! It might have been five decades ago, but regardless of their innate abilities, they all started at Level 0. Michael Jordan wasn’t born with the ability to dunk from the foul line. Louis C.K. wasn’t born hilarious. These guys all sucked for a long time until they got better. It was that willingness to push through the “suck” and putting themselves out there that got them to where they are.

No matter what we’re attempting to learn on our mission, we all start at “suck.” The first few steps we take on a dance floor might make us feel like a drunken giraffe. The first note we play on a violin might sound like a dying cat. Our first punch in a martial arts class might look like we’re asking a question. And that scares us! We’re so afraid of being bad at something, so ashamed of being seen sucking at something, that we often decide to pick an easier path, avoiding the challenging activity entirely!

We listen to our favorite songs and marvel at them, not taking into account all the rewrites and revisions that went into their creation. We see the Iron Man suit in its amazing glory, but not the 50 crappy iterations Tony Stark went through before perfecting it. We see a player execute a perfect no-look pass but fail to acknowledge the thousands of hours spent in the gym honing his game.

Our favorite heroes all started at 0 with their particular task, and then they worked hard at getting slightly less bad at it, then not terrible, and then just okay, before eventually becoming pretty darn good. The good news about being absolutely terrible at something is that we can only get better at it, and every little victory or improvement (or failure) shows us that like anything else, we WILL improve.

I want you to pick something you are absolutely abysmal at and record a video of yourself trying that activity. After that, try to spend 5 to 10 minutes each day working on that thing you suck at:

  • Cooking? Make a bad meal TODAY.
  • Drawing? Draw a crappy stick figure TONIGHT.
  • Dancing? Dance around your apartment like an idiot IMMEDIATELY.
  • Strength training? Do your first awkward push-ups RIGHT NOW.
  • Playing an instrument? Warn your neighbors first, and then BE TERRIBLE.

Be it fear of failure or fear of looking foolish while learning, fear can be absolutely paralyzing. As Harvey Dent of Gotham points out in The Dark Knight, however, “The night is darkest just before the dawn.” And though that might not be true scientifically, you get the point Harvey was trying to make: When you are challenging yourself with life-changing missions, it’s going to suck and be tough before you get to the part worth fighting for. I’ve spent the past 18 months learning to play the violin, and I’m ashamed to admit that I’m still not very good. I’m just way better than I used to be!

Activate Beast Mode

Have you seen the movie, We Bought a Zoo?

In it, Matt Damon’s character meets his wife by mustering up a mere 20 seconds of courage to go talk to her, despite being a nervous wreck in the moments before and after. Had he never taken those 20 seconds to step outside his comfort zone, he never would have met the love of his life. “You know,” Damon’s character said, “sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”

The concept also bears similarity to what was written about the Berserkers in ancient Norse history. Berserkers were Norse warriors who are believed to have worked themselves into rages and then fought in a nearly uncontrollable, trance-like fury, a characteristic which later gave rise to the English word berserk.

mike tyson 90s punch out video game boxing

If you’ve ever played a video game, you’re probably well aware that the concept of a “temporary power up” is an important part of gaming history. In Super Mario Bros. and Punch-Out!!, it’s Star Power. Remember “HE’S ON FIRE!” from NBA Jam? Boom-shaka-laka!

If Norse warriors have their Berserker mode, and Matt Damon his “20 seconds of courage,” why can’t we have our own Berserker/Beast Mode? Rather than using your 20 seconds of courage or Beast Mode to go into battle, why not use it as a limited window of time in which you’re invincible and can accomplish anything? You can be terrified before, and you can be terrified after, but during those 20 seconds in the middle you need to do what you need to do.

Your short burst of courage will help you overcome real, everyday barriers. Allow me to explain:

  • Are you afraid to try something new? No problem, be afraid. Then activate Beast Mode. Sign up for a class in those 20 seconds and make your commitment before you have a chance to back out. All of a sudden, you’re signed up and have to follow through!
  • Are you typically a pushover? Do you never stand up for yourself at work? Enter Beast Mode! The next time you meet with your boss, take 20 seconds to really stand up for yourself and present your opinions. Build up the courage to begin the conversation about getting that raise you deserve. Once you’re in the office and the conversation has begun, you might as well keep going. You can pee your pants after the meeting is over.
  • See that cute girl at the coffee shop? Normally you’d say NOTHING to her and then go home and kick yourself for the rest of the afternoon thinking about what you should have said. Instead, give yourself 20 seconds of courage! Be scared before and scared after, but give yourself those 20 seconds to say: “Hey, I need to get back to work, but I saw you from across the room and think you’re really cute. Can I buy you a cup of coffee sometime?”

Great things can happen when you’re in Beast Mode. If you’re willing to put yourself out there — if only for 20 seconds — you’ll grow emotionally, physically, mentally, and socially. You’ll have all the time in the world to be scared when the 20 seconds are up.

Growth Happens At Our Limits

frodo samwell hobbit lord of the rings scarecrow

I want to leave you with one final powerful message, from one of the greatest stories ever told. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, Sam and Frodo set off for the elvish settlement of Rivendell (and eventually Mordor) to start an adventure. Sam pauses for a brief moment at a scarecrow that’s just a few miles from his home:

Sam: “This is it.”

Frodo: “This is what?”

Sam: “If I take one more step, it’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.”

Those who had regularly traveled in and out of the Shire probably walked past that scarecrow a thousand times without thinking twice. But to Sam, the scarecrow represented something monumental. It signified the dividing line between the comfortable, safe world that he had known and the potentially dangerous, unknown adventure that awaited him. It represented a specific marker that he could point to and say, “This is where I went further and did something I never thought I could do.”

It scared him, but it also changed him.

I want you to think of where the scarecrow is in your own life right now. Is it a mountain hike that you’ve told yourself you would finish but haven’t attempted yet? Is it traveling outside the country and testing your preconceived notions of other cultures? Is it trying to learn a new instrument, or making a new friend, or attending an event that scares you?

Safety and the “known” can cause us to drift instead of taking control. They tell us to avoid discomfort, to avoid things that scare us. To stay at the comfy job or in the “comfortable” relationship that has already run its course. They keep us in our hobbit-holes, and within the Shire, rather than encouraging us to step beyond the scarecrow.

Growth is dependent upon what happens outside the lines — what happens beyond the scarecrow. The unknown is where progress happens, and change will never come if we don’t seek it out. You need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable if you’re going to grow. That’s where the best stuff happens.

Try. Push. Reach. Be afraid. Remember that in The Dark Knight Rises, it’s Wayne’s lack of fear that keeps him weak and stuck deep inside the pit prison. As his fellow prisoner advises him: “Make the climb…as the child did. Without rope. Then fear will find you again.” Letting go, taking a risk, and feeling the fear is exactly what Wayne, and we, often need to climb into the light and reach our goals. In other words, “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”

So activate Beast Mode and see what happens. You might succeed, and you might fail. And failure might end up being the best thing that could happen to you.

I’d love to hear from you. What’s one thing you’ve always wanted to do, but have avoided out of fear? It can be big or small. And what’s one concrete step you can take today towards vanquishing that fear?

Let us know on Twitter by tweeting your response to @artofmanliness and @SteveKambWe’ll pick five winners at random and send them a copy of my book, Level Up Your Life (just released today!). It’s a guide for finally doing all the things you’ve said you wanted to do and living a life full of adventure. We’ll pick the winner 24 hours from the publishing of this post. That’s 1:15pm CT, January 13, 2016.

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Steve Kamb is the author of Level Up Your Life: How to Unlock Adventure and Happiness by Becoming the Hero of Your Own Story, available in bookstores and online now. He is also the creator of NerdFitness.com, lives in New York City, and hopes to one day become Captain America.

Last updated: January 21, 2016

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