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Jason Powers
Jason Powers M.D.

Living With/Out Fear: The Power of Being a Rational Optimist

Living a passionate life, devoid of fear.

Much has been written on the subject of fear and how it impedes success. Go to the self-help section of any bookstore and you’ll find thousands of pages dedicated to the idea that if you “throw your fears aside you will shine like a burning star and achieve your goals.” According to popular literature, fear tells us “wait a minute you can’t do that, it’s never been done” or “you’re not good enough” or “you don’t have the resources” or “now is not the time.”

Author Samuel Johnson said, “Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome.” Fear will drown your passion and halt your momentum before any dream has a chance to become reality.

Even love is letting go of fear (there’s a book by that title). You can achieve power, success, a financial windfall and love if you just put fear aside—at least that's what you'll find in the self-help section and in blogs—but here is a little different view on fear and passion and life.

Living a Passionate Life, Devoid of Fear

Truth be told, I started out intending to write a similar blog post. I interviewed CEOs and COOs, executive vice presidents, regional vice presidents, and professional athletes. I talked with two clients I coach on personal development, a practice that focuses largely on escaping the clutches of fear and entering “the zone,” where one can achieve optimal performance. I also interviewed a close friend who to me is an exemplar of living a passionate life, seemingly devoid of fear.

When I was younger, I was fortunate enough to be part of a tightly-knit group of best friends. There were five of us and we would dream about what our futures would be like. All but one of us wanted to change the world in our own way, to make it better than the way we found it, to help people, and not least of all to be wealthy and successful professionally. But my friend Stan didn't participate in that type of future planning. He said he hoped he had a modest house and had “enough,” and we would laugh at him.

So I asked Stan recently what he is passionate about and how he handles fear and stress. Although he appears to be devoid of the types of fear-induced neuroses, let's call them, that afflict so many of us, he says he does feel stress related to the things that are important to him. It’s just that his passion isn’t about attaining great wealth and prestige and the accouterments of success. To him, achievement is measured differently. “I don’t want to be successful the way other people are professionally and I am not jealous of them in any way,” he tells me. “I worry about the people I love being healthy and happy.”

That is his passion—achieving happiness, not striving for the next promotion, because that just brings with it the stress of climbing up the next rung on the ladder, or the fear of falling off, because the higher you climb the more painful the tumble.

I asked, so what exactly do you do with fear—do you just push it aside? “Absolutely not,” he replied. “I put everything in a box and I look at it. I can’t push it aside or it’s going to take on a life of its own. I decide I'm going to do something about it rather than give it more energy than I’m giving myself.”

In short, what he talked about was not an unrealistic and overwhelming delusion about the harsh realities in the world, but rather a realistic, rational optimism.

Mindless Optimism vs. Rational Optimism

On the flip side of rational optimism is irrational or mindless optimism. Irrational optimists see the world through rose-tinted glasses, believing that negative experiences are what happen to other people. For example, research has shown that people are irrationally optimistic about an array of health concerns. Smokers underestimate their risk of developing lung cancer compared to other smokers and even nonsmokers. Most of us believe we are less likely than other people to have a heart attack or be involved in a car accident. Such irrational optimism, or what psychologists call the “optimism bias,” can also be found in the problem gambler who is irrationally optimistic about winning.

Buoyed by mindless optimism, the smoker forgoes medical research and never tries to quit. The career-changer gets his real estate license at the top of the bubble (home prices will never fall!) without doing his homework on market indicators. These people hope for the best and close their eyes to potential threats. And therein lies the danger. Just believing things will get better will not cause them to get better and can prevent us from taking preventive action that might curb the inherent risks.

Martin Seligman, one of the foremost experts on optimism and the father of positive psychology, implores the need for optimism to be checked by reality testing in these words: “What we want is not blind optimism but flexible optimism—optimism with its eyes open. We must be able to use pessimism’s keen sense of reality when we need it, but without having to dwell in its dark shadows. Flexible optimism accounts for risk, rather than a Pollyannaish belief that everything will turn out just fine.”

Becoming a Rational Optimist

Being realistic and at the same time positive helps us move forward. We shouldn’t worry about or fear the future, but rather have a plan to deal with things should they not turn out like we hope. And if Plan A doesn’t work, we’ll have Plan B and Plan C at the ready.

In short, rather than being paralyzed by fear or, on the other end of the spectrum, unwisely pushing forward while ignoring danger signs, channel my friend Stan, the rational optimist. Combine a positive attitude with an honest appraisal of risk. Don’t simply put fear aside. Look at it, consider its validity, then put it in a box. Think of two or three actions you can take to make things better. Plans A, B, and C. In the words of William Arthur Ward: “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”

I think Stan is dealing with fear optimally, the way we all should no matter what we are striving to achieve. I also believe that Stan stresses about the right things. Health and happiness are what he is passionate about and what he’s focusing on.

And, by the way, others might come to the same conclusion that Stan reached at such an early age about what to concern ourselves with if they knew what Aristotle said about happiness—that it is an end in itself, that all virtue and action aim to happiness:

“Honor, pleasure, reason, and all other virtues, though chosen partly for themselves are chosen for the sake of the happiness that they will bring us. Happiness, on the other hand, is never chosen for the sake of these, nor indeed as a means to anything else at all.”

Jason Powers, M.D., is chief medical officer at Promises Austin drug rehab and The Right Step recovery programs in Texas. He is the pioneer of Positive Recovery, an approach to addiction treatment that helps people discover meaning and purpose in recovery.

About the Author
Jason Powers

Jason Powers, M.D., is certified in addiction and family medicine and serves as chief medical officer at Right Step and Promises Austin.

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