Changes, and the Fear/Danger Quadrant

Its been almost a year and a half since I’ve left undergrad, and I’m truly starting to conceptualize what it means to commit yourself to learning as a lifelong endeavour. Learning allows me to operate on new information – and either do things differently, or do different things.

This means change. And a lot of it.

I would naturally resist change because I don’t know whats on the other side. And while my current situation may not be optimal, its certainly better than the unknown. I’ve recently changed this assumption.

I’ve made some pretty big steps recently, from moving in with my girlfriend Rebecca whom I love dearly, to expanding my side business into a realm of “Well I certainly can’t just stop now.” Others with more life experience and a broader perspective have given me great insight on big decisions like these – but I simply didn’t have the internal reference points to emotionally understand that you will never truly be ready.

This got me thinking – how do we discern what decisions to make and which ones not to make? Being the software guy that I am, I’ve attempted to make a mental model to help separate good decisions from the bad. But more importantly, good reasons from the bad.

Getting to the point: what stops us from making good decisions are negative outcomes (or the expectation thereof), and what helps us make bad decisions is the lack of those expectations. Mainly, what is the difference between fear and danger?

Fear to me, is someting we’ve created or projected in our minds. Fear of spiders, fear of dying. These things aren’t necessarily right in front of us (although one day they could be). Danger, on the other hand, is something that is imminent, probable, or likely. Distinguishing, or properly identifying which is which, leads to faster learning and better decision making.

I like pictures. So heres a little table of what I’ve come up with. On the Y axis is what you’ve interpreted the situation as (fear, danger). On the X axis, is what the situation is in reality. The contents of the cell, is what the likely outcome is.

its actually Fear its actually Danger
you think its Fear Imaginary risk identified, Growth opportunity Headstrong act / uninformed decision, bad decision with negative outcome (lesson learned?)
you think its Danger Failure to act, missed opportunity (lesson learned?)
Dangerous situation avoided, following intuition, active defense.

Identifying Fear as Fear: When I moved to Austin from DC, it was a new place. I had a smaller social network and shit was scary. I went from the comfortable situation I created after 4 years of school and put myself in a new situation. It was scary, but correctly identified as fear allowed me to grow. These are the type of opportunities that make life so sweet.

Misinterpreting Danger as Fear: After my skating accident in Janurary 2009, I was afraid I had a serious back condition. I was afraid that I might need surgery. What did I do? I avoided the truth – it took me 6 months of debilitating back pain before I went and got my MRI. I tried numerous natural healing methods, chiropractors, meditation, you-freaking-name-it. What I thought was fear was actually danger. My spinal canal was 80% pinched due to a L4/L5 herniation. My spinal surgeon said that even one more slight bump or shift could have left me paralyzed. While I learned my lesson, this could have easily turned out better had I correctly identified the issue at hand.

Misinterpreting Fear as Danger: While not the more dangerous of misinterpretations, I recognize these when I want to kick myself for missing an opportunity (regret). These happen all the time, but I try to use that data (how it felt) to help me refine my litmus test to teach me when to jump.

Identifying Danger as Danger: In a previous business, a partner with nothing on the line wanted me and my third partner to quit our day jobs to develop iPhone applications full time. We had the possiblity of getting a little seed money to feed us during first-round development. I knew if it didn’t take off, I would have walked away from my stable, healthy job for nothing and I would have been out in the cold during uncertain times. He tried to tell me I was holding myself back by living in fear (misinterpreting fear as danger – a missed opportunity). What did I do? I quit — the start up. I still work at my full time job (along with another growing side business) and as of this writing that iPhone company has made zero dollars.

What’s interesting is in each scenario, there are hidden opportunities. Be them concrete and real, a lesson learned, or a defensive move that keeps your butt out of the fire.

Fine tuning my senses to correctly identify these 100% of the time is an exercise in futility, but I’ve made a lifelong commitment to do my best to figure it out.



4 Responses to “Changes, and the Fear/Danger Quadrant”

  1. Gravatar of Dad Dad
    1. November 2009 at 11:24


    You think too much.

    Love You Always

  2. Gravatar of skottie skottie
    1. November 2009 at 11:45

    Certainly a unique perspective Dad, or is it that I think more than you in comparison?

    We both know the answer to that one 😛

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