Think back to a time when you had to make a tough decision–and you really struggled to commit to a particular path. What held you back?
Chances are, it was fear. Decision-making generally involves a level of uncertainty, so we obsess on finding relevant information and examples that can put us more at ease. But far too many of us overlook an important step. Making a conscious decision to decide.
I know it sounds circular–but in my experience, it’s the rock-solid truth. And as you’ll see in this article, taking that step can help you overcome the fear that stops you from making a choice in the first place.
You can’t slide into a good decision
Plenty of people go through their entire lives never really making decisions. Not big ones, anyway. Sure, they may decide what to watch on TV, or which socks to put on that morning. At some point, they choose what to major in at college, and which career path to pursue. But even those larger life choices are, for far too many people, decisions they more or less slide into–because it’s just what seems to come next. Maybe it’s what their parents did, or what an older sibling did, or what the people around them expect them to do.
That method of decision-making is not a great way to master fear, because a good decision should align with your intrinsic motivation. In order to do that, you can’t let external voices dictate your choices–you have to make the conscious effort to decide.
I learned this notion from my dad, and at the time I hated it. My family lived in the mountains of British Columbia until I was 8 years old, when my dad decided it was time to pursue a dream he and my mom had to sail around the world. They bought a boat and sailed us down to Ventura, California, where we lived aboard that boat for the next seven or eight years.
Living on a sailboat in California was something like living in a trailer in Texas. At school, I was “the boat kid.” As far as I was concerned, it was a great life. Then one day, when I was 16, my dad made an announcement. “Everyone around here talks about the trip they’re going to take someday,” he said. “They’re going to sail here, sail there, blah blah blah. I don’t want to be the guy who talks about it his whole life and never does it.”
Then he said, “We’re going.” And he meant it. I was mightily pissed off. I loved my life just the way it was, and I didn’t want to go off on some family trip. But we went anyway. My parents enrolled my sister and me in independent studies, and next thing we knew we were sailing down the coast of Mexico, embarking on a 30-day passage into the heart of the Paciﬁc thousands of miles away.
By the time we reached the Marquesas Islands, my dad and I were arguing over some questions of correct seamanship. Eight hundred miles later, when we reached Tahiti, the friction between us had gotten so bad that it was clear one of us had to go. Since it was his boat, it was obvious who had to leave. The next day I found myself standing on an island in the South Paciﬁc and watching my family boat sail away–without me onboard.
Choosing to decide can help you find clarity
I left behind everything I’d brought with me, which was pretty much everything I owned: all my dive gear, a spear gun, a knife collection, a ton of books. All my worldly possessions. My parents helped me ﬁnd a crew that was headed to Hawaii. (And by “crew” I mean a young couple with their 3-year-old son on a 40-foot catamaran.) When I eventually reached California, I had to face all the challenges of being a teenager on my own, learning how to do all those things I’d always taken for granted, like shopping for myself, making dinner, or keeping my own laundry together. When I got that driver’s license, I didn’t even know how to put gas in the car. As scary as it had been to face the Paciﬁc Ocean in a catamaran, in many ways this was even scarier.
My resentment burned like a blast furnace. I was furious at my dad. But during those moments, I understood the power of his two-word decision. As angry as I was, I realized just how much strength those two words gave me. You’ve probably experienced this–a moment when you faced a tough decision, and then once you made it, everything suddenly felt clearer. It’s like the ﬁrst crack of thunder after a long buildup of low-pressure atmosphere. The air has been growing heavy and overcast all day, until that moment when the storm ﬁnally breaks–all at once the air changes. That’s the clarity you get from making a big decision. And out of that clarity comes great strength.
For me, I made the decision to learn to be self-sufficient–and once I established that as my goal, it was clear what I had to do to get there. Sure, I still had the odd nagging doubt every now and then–but the clarity of what I needed to achieve overpowered those voices, and I felt like I had no choice but to work toward it.
Having clarity and strength lets you to confront fear in the face
Years later I learned about the Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton, who was sometimes criticized by his contemporaries for being restless and eccentric. In 1914, he began preparing for one of the most ambitious trans-Antartic expeditions ever mounted. To recruit suitable applicants for his new crew, as legend has it, he placed this ad in the newspaper:
Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in event of success.
Do you suppose the people who answered that ad were afraid? Of course they were. They weren’t idiots. They knew that when he wrote “Safe return doubtful,” he wasn’t kidding. But their sense of adventure outweighed the fear. I have no doubt,they all read that ad and had the identical thought, the exact same two words my father spoke: We’re going.
After all, mastering fear starts with a decision–and a good decision doesn’t arise out of courage. It’s the other way around. You draw strength from the commitment to persist, and your decision to do so needs to come first.
This article is adapted from Mastering Fear: A Navy’s Seal Guide by Brandon Webb (with John David Mann). It is reprinted with permission from Portfolio, a division of Penguin Random House.