Take the minimum viable step.
Fear. It’s such an interesting thing. It’s supposed to keep us away from situations that might put our lives in jeopardy, but mostly it just stops us from doing what we really want to do.
In what kinds of situations do you feel fear? When you have the opportunity to talk to your crush? When you have a great idea at an important meeting? When you’re running away from the spider on the floor? When you want to click “publish”?
The thing to notice about our fears is that many of them don’t serve us. Thankfully, we’re not stuck with them.
Because as much as you feel like you own your fears, you don’t.
And as much as you feel like you couldn’t possibly feel any differently than you do today, you can.
And the first step isn’t as hard as you think it is.
Our obsession with defining ourselves
We’re a little obsessed with defining ourselves, aren’t we?
Are you a Pisces? A Leo?
Are you an ENPF? An INTJ?
Are you a vegan or on the Keto diet?
Are you religious or spiritual or atheistic?
I think our quest to define ourselves is part of our quest to understand our existence. Why are we here? Who are we? What are we supposed to do?
Putting ourselves into these boxes helps us answer these questions. It allows us to simply refer to those boxes as an explanation for why things turned out the way they did. It’s a shortcut.
These kinds of shortcuts might have their uses, but they also have a big downside: they keep us stagnant. When we put ourselves in boxes, we start to see the world through those boxes rather than how it really is.
So, when we’re at that business meeting with all the bigwigs and we have a good idea but are too scared to speak up, we chalk it up to our shyness and our fear of public speaking. We explain why we behaved the way we did by referring to what we already believed about ourselves.
In other words, we’re looking for reasons to justify the boxes we’ve already put ourselves in. It’s a vicious cycle.
This type of thinking — of boxing ourselves in — inevitably leads to stagnation.
The question is, how do we get out of it?
Training to be brave
If we are stuck in a vicious cycle of reinforcing what we already believe, we need a way to exit this cycle. Unfortunately, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, change is hard.
This is especially true when fear is involved. If you are scared of speaking up at a business meeting, you might genuinely feel like your safety is in jeopardy, even though you know intellectually it’s not. That feeling of being in an unsafe or hostile environment can easily overpower any intellectual understanding that speaking up will not literally harm you.
So, what do we do?
We need to train ourselves to be brave.
Does that sound ridiculous? Train to be brave? Isn’t bravery something we either have or not?
I don’t think so.
What is bravery, anyway? You may have heard at least one well-known description of it: bravery is action in spite of fear.
The thing is, fear comes in different intensities, doesn’t it? Sometimes we’re paralyzed by it and sometimes we’re not. If we are going to act in spite of fear, don’t we need to meet fear’s intensity with an equally intense level of bravery? After all, most of us are still able to act in situations where we feel a low or moderate level of fear.
Understanding that our bravery lies on a continuum, and is not either there or not, can give us hope that our boundaries aren’t fixed but moveable. And this opens up the space for growth.
So, how do we push our boundaries?
The Minimum Viable Step
Maybe you’ve heard of the term “minimum viable product”? Basically, it’s a product boiled down to its essential features — that is, the features a prospective buyer would pay money for. This is a product without bells and whistles. It does only the thing it was created to do, nothing else.
This way of thinking can simplify the creative process and help to narrow the focus of the endeavor. How can this way of thinking help us here?
If our goal is to be able to act in spite of our fear under certain conditions, we need to identify a specific action that can help.
Enter the minimum viable step.
For me, the minimum viable step is the smallest possible action you can take against a fear. This way of thinking narrows our focus to what exactly we are afraid of and helps us to create a plan to address that fear.
Do you have a fear of speaking up at business meetings, especially when certain people are there? Set the goal of asking one benign question at the next meeting you have.
Do you have a fear of engaging in small talk at work? Set a goal of going out of your way to smile and say “good morning” to one person tomorrow.
Do you have a fear of stepping out of the warmth of the shower and into the cold of the bathroom? Set a goal of stepping out of the shower as soon as you feel afraid to do so.
Acting purposefully when we feel these kinds of fears accomplishes two things. First, it reduces the fear we feel toward that specific situation by proving to ourselves that our fear is unnecessary. Second, it raises the bar for our future fear to paralyze us — it’s bravery training.
What taking minimum viable steps will help you accomplish is to push the boundaries of your fears and inspire you with the knowledge that change is possible. In psychological terms, this is called exposure therapy.
The first time I took a minimum viable step, for a brief moment, I felt like I had taken true control over my life. I felt empowered, elated, like a whole new world of possibility had suddenly burst into view.
Fear is not something you need to cower from. It’s something you can work with. Your fear is giving you important information about a boundary you have. Sometimes that boundary is healthy, but sometimes it’s just holding you back.
Take a minimum viable step in the direction of a fear. Allow the step to prove to you that how you’ve defined yourself in the past doesn’t need to be how you define yourself today or tomorrow.
The truth is, you have no idea what you’re capable of. None of us do. But we can begin to peel back the layers of that mystery by taking a step.
Thanks for reading!