Essays on Technology and Culture

On Fear and Bad Motivators

I’ve spoken before about fear. Fear is a terrible motivator, at least in the long term. Fear takes a lot out of a person. Fear amps your body’s systems to the maximum. While fear is in control you can accomplish incredible feats at great physical cost, true. However, you can only run so far, and you can only fight so hard before your reserves are depleted. When that happens, you’re done. With any luck, whatever your body stored up in preparation for your fear event was enough to get you through it. If not, you’ll end up worse than when you started, drained and pained, and in deep trouble.

Living a life in perpetual fear is a guaranteed recipe for utter and complete misery.


Fundamentally, it’s biology. The human limbic system evolved in a way to ensure our survival against very real, very present, very specific threats to our person. I’m talking about “being attacked by a hungry lioness,” or “facing down an angry rhinoceros” sort of threats. Now-a-days, however, our chances of facing down a dangerous animal that could kill us is exceedingly rare. The limbic system is well-suited for when a car veers out of control at you while you’re crossing the street. It is not suited for when you have, say, an overdue tax bill that you can’t afford. One is an immediate threat; you either escape, or don’t. There’s going to be a very quick resolution when a car is coming at you. The other threat is going to linger…

When you become afraid or experience a threat, the body experiences a number of symptoms that work to prepare it for either fight or flight. The heart accelerates, lung action increases, blood vessels in the muscles dilate to increase blood flow, and the body becomes ready for action. Sure, in the face of a less tangible threat, you can leap into action and start doing stuff, but you’re probably not going to neutralize anything in the time it takes for your hormones to metabolize and your body to crash. At this point, the body needs rest and nutrients to replenish itself, which—one hopes—are in supply, and rest is hard to get when you’re still afraid.

It’s not a huge leap from here to the effects of the fear cycle we can get ourselves caught up in, but fear isn’t the only thing that taxes our systems. Anger triggers a lot of the same systems as fear. An angry life is just as bad as a fearful life. When we talk about stress, this is, in many cases, a function of long term fear and/or anger. Think about it: you’re not going to be stressed if the thing you’re afraid of or angry about is not a threat anymore. That is, if the mind can let go of it.

The mind sucks at this.

We see it manifested as Posttraumatic stress disorder, and it doesn’t just happen to people who survive war, natural disasters, or acts of criminality. Any stressful experience can cause it, and it may be one of the biggest public health problems facing America—especially children.

Severe and chronic trauma… causes toxic stress in kids. Toxic stress damages kid’s brains. When trauma launches kids into flight, fight or fright mode, they cannot learn. It is physiologically impossible.

When you’re afraid, when you’re stressed, when you’re angry, it drives you toward one thing above all: to escape. This is biology. Nothing more. Our bodies evolved to address threats that manifest as tangible, physical things. If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume you’re not living the sort of lifestyle that would put you in the presence of free wild carnivores and other dangerous beasts. Instead, your threats, as stated, become more existential and far less tangible. We can be paralyzed by this, unable to fix anything, and unable to escape. You may know someone like this. You may be someone like this.

There are no easy answers to escaping the fear cycle. Medication, meditation, and therapy, are all options, but as I am not a licensed psychiatrist or therapist, I can’t give you a prescription.

The worst part, though, is that when you’re afraid—at least early on—you can accomplish wonders. Think of all the all-nighters you’ve pulled in college, or the last minute preparation for your work presentation. Think of every time you’ve flown by the seat of your pants, and lived. If that number is greater than the times you’ve done it and crashed, you’re going to think that it’s okay. I’ve gotten plenty of A grades on papers I churned out the day before, night before, or two or three hours before they became due.

That doesn’t mean I couldn’t have done better.

That doesn’t mean you can’t do better, either.

Fear is a motivator, but it’s a terrible motivator, because it doesn’t keep things going for very long. If you expect to keep moving, keep surviving and fighting, and doing the work, what motivates you needs to be something more sustaining than sheer, blind animal fear. What that is will vary from person to person. Whatever it is, long- term success will only come from using a motivator that can sustain you in the future.

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

—Frank Herbert, Dune