Why Your Legendary Feat Needs A Heavy Dose Of Fear

Photo by Jimmy Chin for National Geographic

Photo by Jimmy Chin for National Geographic

In Free Solo, Alex Honnold goes after this big, hairy goal to free solo (climbing without ropes or safety gear) El Capitan in Yosemite. The goal is technically difficult and questionable because no human being has ever completed a free solo of this route before.

Wrapped around these challenges is a heavy fog of fear. The climb is extremely high risk and consequence — something as unpredictable as loose rock or friendly birds can all result with Alex falling to his death.

And yet, Alex still goes for it.

On the other side of his fear is basically history now — Alex is the first person to free solo El Capitan, a 3,000 ft wall. He’s now a climbing legend.

Alex’s story is an extreme, yet perfect example of what’s required of legendary feats or quantum leaps — sitting with your fear. Throughout Free Solo, Alex talks about the possibility of death with a calm, solid acceptance — he’s willing to mess up, even if he’ll die as a result of it.

Although the majority of us will never have to bargain our lives in exchange for our goals, Alex’s story gives us a lot to learn and digest — whether it’s in pursuit of losing 30 lbs, building a million-dollar business, or working towards a big job promotion, big hairy goals ask us to be brutally real about our weaknesses and expose ourselves to the scary thoughts around why we’re falling short in our expectations for ourselves. 

It requires a level of humility that doesn’t allow you to piggyback off your ego — you have to do the difficult, confrontational work of looking at your gaps and rebuilding yourself into the person that can do big things.

Some people are okay with this, others are not. Going after big hairy goals isn’t for everyone, but if you’re longing for a big quantum leap or legendary feat, read on.

Name Your Fears

There are two big hairy goals I’ve been working on this year — 1) building a business that’s 5x more profitable than any startup I’ve created before and 2) improving my sport climbing grade by 5 levels (unlike Alex, I wear a rope and a lot of safety gear).

I’m more than halfway to my goal for both of my big hairy goals, but it has required a lot of soul searching, fear-exploring, and calling myself out on my BS to get here.

Whatever your big hairy goal is, start your pursuit by naming the big scary fears that are associated with it.

Here are some of the questions I asked myself to help me name my fears:

What fears about your abilities and skills are preventing you from hitting your goal?
What fears about other people’s opinions, reactions, etc. are preventing you from hitting your goal?
How much of these fears are backed by 100% certain truths rather than self-made beliefs?
Where did your beliefs around this fear come from?
Where else do these fears affect other areas of your life?

My recommendation with naming your fears is to dig deep — you likely have not gone past a superficial layer if your fears are not associated with an emotion or belief that you already carry in other areas of your life. Fear often clumps itself under common themes that occur in other parts of your life, it just wears a different outfit according to the occasion.

For example, when naming my fears for accomplishing my climbing goal, I realized that my fear of heights wasn’t the true, deep-rooted fear stopping me.

Instead, it was a fear of not feeling safe, which is a common theme that ripples throughout other areas of my life like money, relationships, and my home.

True fears hold you down for years, sometimes a whole lifetime because it has a grasp on other areas of your life — identifying the root of your true, deep-rooted fear is important for this particular reason. Once you can name your actual, true fear, you can start taking steps to break free from it rather than continuously coming back to it.

Reduce Your Fear’s Powers

Once you’ve named your fears, figure out where and how you can fear a little less.

Make a list of your fears and name a possible strategy or approach you can take to help you reduce the power of your fears.

For both my business and climbing goals, I found that a lot of my fears could be remedied by hiring coaches and attending classes that could help me fill my knowledge and self-reflection gaps.

I work with a coach for my business and life every month to help me identify where my fears are cutting me short and preventing me from reaching my big hairy goals. For my climbing goal, I took a 2-month class in the winter to improve my strength training and climbing plan, and religiously follow it every week to this day.

The fun thing about this technique is that once you’ve overcome even 1 or 2 of the fears named on your list, going after 3 or 5 more fears afterward doesn’t feel as challenging.

You become desensitized to the difficulty of your fears, and the success of overcoming a few fears on your list snowballs into more epic fear-conquering.

Play With Your Fears

When I go climbing, I climb even if I’m 80% sure I won’t catch a hold or that I’ll fall 10 feet. I even revisit climbs that make my fingers scream.

In my business, I often work with people who are way smarter than me and intimidate me, pushing me to read more books and consume more knowledge so that my skills can advance. I invest in business growth projects that have no guarantees of producing any ROI for my business, but that I have a good hunch about.

Why?

Because the more that I play with my fears, the more I feel familiar with it. The more I feel familiar with my fears, the more accepting I become of how unscary my fears actually are.

This is something Alex did constantly in Free Solo — he confronted the scary sections of his climb and practiced the moves on the wall over and over again with a rope, journaled about it, and memorized the moves so that he could constantly replay and practice the scary sections in his mind. It was this commitment to playing with his fears and reducing its powers over him that allowed him to complete his free solo climb without a hitch.

If you want to make a quantum leap in any area of your life, name and play with your fears over and over again so that its power over you diminishes. Witness those small wins snowball into bigger fear-conquering and enjoy the ride while you’re accomplishing your big hairy goal.


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Sophia Sunwoo