This is the first post in a twelve-part sequence called Replacing Fear. The core idea of the sequence is a shift in motivations that in my experience is incredibly valuable: from fear-based motivation to excitement-based motivation. The sequence is dived into three parts (containing four posts each). The first part introduces fear-based motivation and its negative effects; the second discusses how to overcome fear by building self-trust; and the third explores how to cultivate excitement-based motivation. This post kicks things off by giving a high-level comparison of fear-based and excitement-based motivation.

Fear-based motivation is pervasive throughout society. It arises both in the obvious cases—like stage fright before a big performance or presentation—but also in a variety of other guises, both direct and indirect. For example, I think of shame as driven by fear of social rejection; of romantic jealousy as driven by fear of abandonment; and of regret as driven by fear that you’ve screwed things up permanently. Less direct forms of fear-based motivation (like guilt and envy) often invoke the fear that you’re not the type of person who deserves good things—for example, fear of being a “bad person”; fear of being unloveable; or fear of being inadequate/imperfect. In the context of relationships, I think that what people typically mean by “neediness” is best understood as “behavior driven by fear not excitement”.

By contrast, I think that actually feeling excited is rarer than people think, because getting excited about something leaves you open to the risk of losing it, which is itself a scary prospect. Most children get excited easily—but as we get older, and see more examples of excitement leading to disappointment, it becomes more difficult to disentangle excitement about getting something from fear of not getting it (or of not being the type of person who “should” get it). But why is excitement-based motivation so much better, when it’s possible? Three reasons:

  1. Fear makes it hard to get started. Fear-based motivation is short-sighted enough to block you off from doing many things that are robustly valuable. Perhaps the best example of this is how many people are miserable because they’re single, yet never actually ask anyone out directly, because being rejected is so terrifying; or how many people don’t start a big assignment until soon before it’s due, because even thinking about doing badly on the assignment is such a scary prospect.
  2. Excitement helps you steer; fear doesn’t. Fear-based ambition is “anything but failure or mediocrity”. Fear-based relationships are “anything but loneliness”. Fear-based socializing is “anything but rejection”. By contrast, excitement-based motivation looks like “I want to solve this problem”; “I love being with this person”; “I want to smash this performance”. When you’re thinking in detail about what you really want, you’re much better at aiming towards it.
  3. Fear leads to internal conflict. Fear-based motivation is just much less pleasant than excitement-based motivation. This isn’t a coincidence; it’s because fear leads to internal conflict and undermines self-trust (more on that in post #4). This is particularly important because our motivational strategies tend to be very persistent—although you tell yourself that things will be different once you reach the next milestone, they probably won’t. If you’re driven by fear now, you’ll likely still be driven by it even when you’re twice as successful, unless you address the root cause of it.

Here’s another way of thinking about my claims above. Suppose there's one point you’re trying to navigate away from, and another point you’re trying to navigate towards. If you’re trying to navigate on a one-dimensional axis, then those two motivations are similar: moving away from the fear leads towards what you’re excited about. That’s analogous to cases where there’s a clear path towards success (you have to learn math in order to graduate high school, and graduating high school is for most people obviously the right move). Though even then, if the fear stands between you and the goal, then you’ll find it hard to get started—see point 1 above.

But in most cases, the actual landscape of possible strategies is incredibly high-dimensional. And so fear-based motivation is going to do very badly at steering you in a direction that you actually want to go: it'll lead you to spend years getting a degree you don't really want, or climbing the ladder of a career you don't actually enjoy, because your attempts to consider alternatives are quashed by fear. Maybe moving away from the fear is correlated with things that a less fearful version of you would be excited about—but if so, not very robustly. And meanwhile fear-based motivation is robustly anticorrelated with being happy and healthy.

Having said that, fear-based motivation is an important part of the growth process for many people. It serves a valuable role in terms of kicking things off—e.g. if you live in a small town and you’re deciding whether to move away; or if you need motivation to work through the prerequisites before getting to the stuff you enjoy; or if the easiest way to overcome the fear of asking people out is to invoke your fear of dying alone. The important part is to transition away from fear-based motivation over time, once you've gotten the ball rolling. So while I couldn't resist including the classic "I must not fear" quote from Dune at the bottom of this post, it's a little too heavy-handed for me to fully endorse. Courage plays a role, and determination too, but so does acceptance, and so does fear itself, in the journey towards replacing fear.

In the second and third parts of this sequence, I’m going to talk about the two biggest steps in that journey: cultivating trust, and cultivating excitement. But before doing so, it’s important to better understand what fear-based motivation actually looks like. To do that I’ll focus in the next post on a closely-related concept: judgment.

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.


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Thanks for writing this sequence, lots of great points and matches my experience. 

I think there is evidence in mainstream psychology for your recommendation of replacing fear with more excitement-based motivation. They use the terms "avoidance motivation" and "approach motivation" but my sense is that they match the terminology of fear and excitement very well. It appears that (excessive) avoidance motivation leads to reduced well-being and performance, at least in the long-term (e.g., Roskes et al. 2014).

ETA: The above reference is not good. Scholer et al. (2019) provide a more nuanced and comprehensive overview of the literature and also discuss when (and in which contexts) avoidance motivation can be useful or even superior.