Tim Ferriss: Why You Should Define Your Fears Instead of Your Goals (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of The 4-Hour Workweek author Tim Ferriss’ Talk: Why You Should Define Your Fears Instead of Your Goals at TED conference.

So, this happy pic of me was taken in 1999. I was a senior in college, and it was right after a dance practice. I was really, really happy.

And I remember exactly where I was about a week and a half later. I was sitting in the back of my used minivan in a campus parking lot, when I decided I was going to commit suicide. I went from deciding to full-blown planning very quickly. And I came this close to the edge of the precipice.

It’s the closest I’ve ever come. And the only reason I took my finger off the trigger was thanks to a few lucky coincidences. And after the fact, that’s what scared me the most: the element of chance. So I became very methodical about testing different ways that I could manage my ups and downs, which has proven to be a good investment. Many normal people might have, say, six to 10 major depressive episodes in their lives.

I have bipolar depression. It runs in my family. I’ve had 50-plus at this point, and I’ve learned a lot. I’ve had a lot of at-bats, many rounds in the ring with darkness, taking good notes. So I thought rather than get up and give any type of recipe for success or highlight reel, I would share my recipe for avoiding self-destruction, and certainly self-paralysis.

And the tool I’ve found which has proven to be the most reliable safety net for emotional free fall is actually the same tool that has helped me to make my best business decisions. But that is secondary. And it is stoicism. That sounds boring. You might think of Spock, or it might conjure and image like this — a cow standing in the rain. It’s not sad. It’s not particularly happy. It’s just an impassive creature taking whatever life sends its way.

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You might not think of the ultimate competitor, say, Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots, who has the all-time NFL record for Super Bowl titles. And stoicism has spread like wildfire in the top of the NFL ranks as a means of mental toughness training in the last few years. You might not think of the Founding Fathers — Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington to name but three students of stoicism. George Washington actually had a play about a Stoic — this was “Cato, a Tragedy” — performed for his troops at Valley Forge to keep them motivated.

So why would people of action focus so much on an ancient philosophy? This seems very academic. I would encourage you to think about stoicism a little bit differently, as an operating system for thriving in high-stress environments, for making better decisions. And it all started here, kind of, on a porch.

So around 300 BC in Athens, someone named Zeno of Citium taught many lectures walking around a painted porch, a “stoa”. That later became “stoicism”. And in the Greco-Roman world, people used stoicism as a comprehensive system for doing many, many things.

But for our purposes, chief among them was training yourself to separate what you can control from what you cannot control, and then doing exercises to focus exclusively on the former. This decreases emotional reactivity, which can be a superpower. Conversely, let’s say you’re a quarterback. You miss a pass. You get furious with yourself. That could cost you a game.

If you’re a CEO, and you fly off the handle at a very valued employee because of a minor infraction, that could cost you the employee. If you’re a college student who, say, is in a downward spiral, and you feel helpless and hopeless, unabated, that could cost you your life. So the stakes are very, very high.

And there are many tools in the toolkit to get you there. I’m going to focus on one that completely changed my life in 2004. It found me then because of two things: a very close friend, young guy, my age, died of pancreatic cancer unexpectedly, and then my girlfriend, who I thought I was going to marry, walked out. She’d had enough, and she didn’t give me a Dear John letter, but she did give me this, a Dear John plaque. I’m not making this up.

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I’ve kept it. “Business hours are over at five o’clock.” She gave this to me to put on my desk for personal health, because at the time, I was working on my first real business. I had no idea what I was doing. I was working 14-plus hour days, seven days a week.

I was using stimulants to get going. I was using depressants to wind down and go to sleep. It was a disaster. I felt completely trapped. I bought a book on simplicity to try to find answers. And I did find a quote that made a big difference in my life, which was, “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality,” by Seneca the Younger, who was a famous Stoic writer. That took me to his letters, which took me to the exercise, “premeditatio malorum,” which means the pre-meditation of evils.

In simple terms, this is visualizing the worst-case scenarios, in detail, that you fear, preventing you from taking action, so that you can take action to overcome that paralysis. My problem was monkey mind — super loud, very incessant. Just thinking my way through problems doesn’t work.

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