Editor’s Note: This article first appeared here on January 1, 2011. We’re publishing it again as a perennial New Year’s reminder. We also updated the headline photo to show one of the fears we faced since writing these words 12 months ago. Be sure to leave a comment and let us know what fears you overcame last year or about the ones you resolve to tackle in 2013.
In youth, the world is wide open. Life is about trying new things, pushing boundaries, discovering limits, and exploring a planet that is ripe with possibility. As time passes we surround ourselves increasingly with comforts and lose interest in discovery. Our propensity for boldness atrophies. Our longing to see around the next corner gradually succumbs to fear of the unknown. Our world shrinks.
It doesn’t have to.
Our tendency to become more fearful with age is a real, potentially debilitating, force. I’ve seen it at work in others and felt it in myself. Things I once did routinely now elicit feelings of apprehension. The irony is that this is exactly the opposite of how a rational person should feel.
You’ve never had less to lose
If we value our lives by the number of days we have left to spend, we’ve never been poorer than we are right now. We’ve never had less to lose. We can’t possibly know how many days are left in our future, but we know with certainty that there is one fewer today than yesterday. And yet somehow we were bolder, more willing to take risks, yesterday.
They say that with years come wisdom. But instead of wisdom I see familiarity masquerading as safety. We feel safe in our houses, in our community, maybe even in our country. The world outside these self-declared boundaries meanwhile is foreign, and scary. At least that is how we perceive the world.
But there is no reason to believe the things with which we are familiar are actually more safe. Often they’re not. The most dangerous thing most of us will do in our lifetime is strap our bodies into an automobile and hurtle down a freeway at high speeds with opposing traffic a few short meters to the left. We feel completely comfortable doing this. Why?
Driving is far more dangerous
In 2010 there were 32,700 traffic fatalities in the U.S., compared with two deaths from shark attacks and zero airline fatalities. We are three times more likely to die in a car crash than we are from violent crime; yet we’re often more afraid of standing in a strange part of town than we are of driving there. We fear the unknown even when the familiar is more dangerous.
If we can become fearless in the driver’s seat, we can be fearless in almost every other situation we’re likely to face. The key is repetition. We don’t fear driving because we do it all the time. Whatever apprehension we may have felt once is overcome by years of experience and practice. We gain confidence in our abilities. Every successful trip reinforces those feelings.
That is a powerful reason to go out and do things, especially things that feel a little scary. By staying active and stretching our comfort zone we not only broaden our skills and bolster our self confidence, but we push back against fears that, left unchecked, only grow over time. Instead of aging into a shrinking world, we rediscover the wide open one of our youth.
Today is the first day of the New Year, and the first day of the rest of your life. Resolve to do something that scares you.