Be Foolish Brave Citizen: How To Overcome the Fear of Foolishness and Take The Risks You Always Dreamed Of

Feb 06, 2018

By Shannon Thompson 

No one wants to feel foolish. The emotion is an unpleasant one, usually comprised of some embarrassment, and the perception of having been negatively exposed. Encounters with foolishness are usually brief and uncomfortable at worst. However, our fear of foolishness is often exponentially greater than the actual consequences of having been foolish. I believe that the fear of foolishness is a dangerous mental trap that can undermine the quality of our lives outside of our awareness. Last week I wrote specifically about the damage that a fear of foolishness can cause. This affliction can impair innovation, impede learning, poison performance, kill individuality, undermine hope, and prevent connection. For those of you with raised eyebrows, I’m looking straight back at you with grave seriousness. But there’s good news: you can overcome the fear of foolishness. Read on to learn how.

Unlike many other mental obstacles, I believe the fear of foolishness can be overcome quickly. The key is being able to recognize when you’re experiencing it, and then have strategies ready to apply. The fear of foolishness shows up in a variety of forms like: confusion where to begin (a piece of art, a project proposal, a conversation), rationalization that causes delay (“It’s just not the time,” “I’m not ready,”), self-doubt (“I don’t know enough to do this”), and most of all concern about what others will think and say (“People might think this is weird,” “If I fail I’ll be so embarrassed.”). What piece of art, or idea, or conversation have you wished you could begin (or continue, or complete) for a long time? What have you been telling yourself that has kept you from beginning, or continuing, or completing it? When you can identify this you have found where the fear of foolishness has crept into your life.

My Way to Overcome the Fear of Foolishness

The fear of foolishness can be felt in the body. I’ve studied it within myself, and I’ve inquired about it in others. Overwhelmingly, I’m told (and I’ve experienced) that people feel fear under the skin. They feel a tingling in their peripheries (arms, legs, fingers, head). Some speak of a racing heart. With respect to performance anxiety many feel “butterflies” in their stomach. Conversely, when I talk with people about the deepest subjects (what they know to be true, those closest to them, their most persistent hopes and dreams), and I ask them where they feel these in their bodies, they always place their hand on their heart. Always

Try it. Ask yourself, who do I love most in the world? Now, notice, where do you feel that love? Take a moment, a long moment. When I ask, where do you feel this in your body? people often say, what do you mean? Just be still and breathe quietly. Where do you feel that love? Next, ask yourself, what work are you most proud of in the last five years? Pause again, where do you feel the memory of that work in your body? Often your answer will be, in my heart. These are somewhat strange questions, I know. I’m experiencing a little surface level tingling as I write this because I’m concerned you will find this approach too odd. But, I can also tell you that the need to share this strategy with you comes straight from my heart. I feel it there, like a little burn. So, because I can feel both surface level fear, and a deep desire from my heart, I know this is what I must write to you.

A few years ago someone asked me, “how do I know I’m on the right track?”

“I don’t know for sure, “ I said (we can’t ever know for sure), but I believe that following a path where fear and desire collide rarely leads us astray. Go where you feel a tingling in your peripheries and a knowing in your heart. And this, my friends, is one way to overcome the fear of foolishness.

More Ways to Overcome the Fear of Foolishness:


Collaboration with other creators can help reduce the fear of foolishness in the area of innovation. Additionally, other creators can help predict the likelihood of your project’s success. In his book, Originals, Adam Grant found that fellow creators were the most reliable source of advice when it came to determining if a new project would be a success or a flop. “When artists assessed one another’s performances, they were about twice as accurate as managers and test audiences… [other creators] lack the risk-aversion of managers and test audiences; they’re open to seeing the potential in unusual possibilities, which guards against false negatives. At the same time, they have no particular investment in our ideas, which gives them enough distance to offer an honest appraisal and protects against false positives.”

Also, by collaborating with other innovators, a person will feel less alone. In all likelihood, fellow innovators will recall similar feelings of uncertainty and fears of foolishness as you as a creator are experiencing. By having these fears normalized, especially by successful creators, you’re less likely to be deterred by them, and more likely to persist with your project.

When working on something innovative it’s important and helpful to note that thinking differently than others is necessary. By definition, innovation means the design of something new. You will have to think differently than others in order to create something new, and that always risks feeling foolish. In his book, Wired to Create, Psychologist, Scott Barry Kaufman explains the necessity of thinking differently if one is to be innovative:

“The one absolutely essential ingredient of any type of creative achievement is thinking differently. In rejecting traditional ways of thinking, successful creative work defies standards and authority, causes trouble, and ultimately paves the way for real change… The history of creative thought and social progress is littered with … stories of banned books, culture wars, persecuted artists, and paradigm shifting innovations that changed the way we look at the world. Almost every innovation that truly made a difference was initially met with varying degrees of resistance, if not full-fledged condemnation.”

To create something new and work toward having it accepted on a broader scale, an innovator will almost always face resistance. Recognizing this fact can help one persist despite fears of appearing foolish.

Understand the human fear of uncertainty

When your new innovation or idea is met with resistance it can help to understand that the resistance may not arise from any flaw in your idea, but in the innately human fear of uncertainty. Scott Barry Kaufman writes:

“Why are paradigm-shifting ideas throughout history consistently, and predictably, ridiculed and rejected? It’s because as a culture and as individuals, we’re deeply biased against creativity. This creativity bias makes sense if we look at the way our brains are wired. By nature, human beings are highly risk averse. And when there is a motivation to reduce uncertainty, creativity biases are activated on both individual and institutional levels… Research conducted by organizational psychologists at Cornell University found that this implicit creativity bias causes us to take a negative view of creative ideas and projects relative to those that are more practical…”

Develop a Growth Mindset

Learning to adopt a “growth mindset” can help reduce our fears of foolishness. A growth mindset is the belief that our basic abilities can be improved upon—that we can get better. A fixed mindset is the belief that you can’t really change your ability—you either have it or you don’t. Over several decades, Dr. Carol Dweck, has shown that people with a growth mindset tend to try harder, achieve more, and demonstrate more resilience than people with a fixed mindset. People with a fixed mindset succumb more easily to fears of foolishness because they believe that failure in any pursuit is a permanent indictment on their ultimate abilities. So, in order to avoid failure, fixed mindset individuals often prefer easy tasks and avoid risk.

On the other hand, growth mindset individuals understand that human abilities are malleable, meaning that improvement is always possible with work. Therefore, growth mindset individuals are more willing to risk failure (and are less vulnerable to fears of foolishness) because they understand that error and failure are not permanent measures of their ultimate abilities.

Reframe your perception of the risks

Often the fear of foolishness feels a lot like being stressed. Stanford Health Psychologist, Kelly McGonigal is a leading expert on stress, and how to transform it to our advantage. McGonigal explains that if we can reframe how we think of stress, and view it as a challenge as opposed to a threat, we change the physiological composition of the stress response in our bodies. In fact, viewing stressful situations as challenges, and the stress response as an asset to meet the challenges, transforms the internal chemistry of stress into a substance that benefits our bodies and facilitates feelings of courage. So, the next time you’re feeling stressed because you fear appearing foolish, try to reframe the situation as a challenge and an opportunity.

Strengthen Your Connections

Often our deepest fear of foolishness is that taking risks will cost us our relationships. When key social connections are strong, we feel braver about taking chances: “All the successful people I know surround themselves with positive relationships,” NCAA Championship Running Coach Mike Smith told me. The fear of foolishness is deeply rooted in the fear of being alone .And if a person is regularly connecting with loved ones, the fear of being alone has no solid ground to stand on, and quickly loses power.

Practice Mindfulness

Professor Jon Kabat Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, stated, “mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, non-judmentally.”

Practiced regularly, mindfulness meditation can strengthen and increase the size of the brain structures responsible for paying attention. Strong control of attention matters to managing fears of foolishness for several reasons: mindfulness can create greater awareness and distance from the thoughts and emotions you’re feeling.

The first step in overcoming the fear of foolishness is recognizing that you are experiencing it. Those who practice mindfulness regularly become more aware of the numerous emotions present within them in any given moment. Mindfulness meditation can grow a person’s awareness to notice numerous thoughts and emotions present in consciousness. Furthermore, the awareness and attention control gained through regular mindfulness practice can enable a person to choose to engage with some thoughts and emotions over others.

Finally, just listen to me

You are alive once. Personally, I believe that every one of us is on earth with some specific role to play in the unfolding of the future. You, with your particular set of skills and passions are here to use them in the world. Philosopher, Martha Graham says this beautifully:

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.”

One interesting pattern I’ve noticed is that we often experience a great deal of fear (usually fear of foolishness and/ or failure) around the project, or risk, or love that calls us most strongly. Many others have noticed this. Artist, Amanda Palmer says, “Usually, whatever that is — wherever you don’t want to go, whatever that risk is, wherever the unsafe place is — that really is the gift that you have to give.” I want to encourage you, as someone who regularly advises people to follow the path where fear and desire collide, who has seen the joy that comes from following this path, and who has experienced great fulfillment from following it myself, don’t let a fear of foolishness limit your life. Instead, use it as a guide for where to venture forth, and do it today.

“I am speaking from the fortunate platform of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be as urgent as a knife then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking for awhile,
he had a lifetime…”
~ Mary Oliver, “The Three Zodiacs”

About the Author 

Shannon Thompson is a mental performance consultant who specializes in high performance sport. Shannon holds a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

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