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Fear is a powerful motivator. To understand why and how, we need to explore motivation a little deeper.

Which motivates you more, the carrot or the stick?

Many of our institutions are premised on the idea that carrots and sticks are THE way to motivate behavior. Grades in school are a carrot. Detention is a stick. At work, bonuses might be the carrot, while getting fired is the ultimate smack from the stick. However, we’re not horses (or at least you’re probably not if you’re reading this). Research indicates that the carrot and the stick aren’t the whole picture for human motivation.

The important feature that carrots and sticks have in common is that they exist outside of us. The events they represent are external. Working hard because you want a promotion is acting for something outside of you: the promotion. Trying to be careful and especially kind to your spouse because they have threatened to leave you is a reaction to an external condition: your spouse leaving. Contrast these external sorts of prods and pulls with choosing to do something because it is inherently rewarding– like learning a new skill because you enjoy it rather than for the prestige it could eventually bring. Or working on your relationship because you love the person and the relationship enhances your life, rather than because you’re afraid of them being mad at you or of being alone.

Self-Determination Theory (or “SDT) is a theory of human motivation that argues humans are more effectively motivated by doing things that matter to them rather than by rewards or punishments. Things that matter to us are thus “intrinsic motivators” – they are the things that are inherently meaningful in our lives like purpose, autonomy, mastery, and love. The opposite – “extrinsic motivators” – are the carrots and sticks of the motivation world.

In this 10 minute RSA Animate video from 2010, author Dan Pink explains the research behind SDT. He details experiments that reveal that simple straightforward tasks are great for external motivators but the completion of more complex tasks benefits most from intrinsic motivators like autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Fear is an extrinsic motivator. To be moved to action by fear is to be motivated to both avoid something we don’t want and to seek something we believe is absent. Imagine someone who is afraid of being alone so they hop from relationship to relationship: they avoid the possibility of loneliness and pursue (depending on the person) self-worth and companionship. Or consider you’re running away from someone who is threatening to hit you; avoiding pain and pursuing safety.

Before we go further it is important to note that fear is not necessarily bad. Fear is theorized to have evolved as a survival mechanism– signaling threats and motivating humans to change behavior. It originates in the amygdala (the oldest part of the brain) and prompts us to respond to threats with behavior that tends to fit into one of three categories: fight, flight, or freeze (Mobbs et. al, 2015) (Bourke 2015). Having a strategy for survival is a wonderful thing! (“Thank you, fear, for protecting me!”) The trouble comes when our strategies prevent us from experiencing other life-enriching things we desire. We’ll talk about this more under the heading “Fear Fallacies and Limiting Beliefs.”

The carrot IS the stick.

Fear manifests in both the carrot and the stick, as they are often a reflection of one another:

Stick (Push) Carrot (Pull)
Poverty Wealth
Sickness Health
Danger Safety
Challenge Ease
Rejection Acceptance
Loneliness Community

When looking at extrinsic motivators, the carrot essentially IS the stick: we go after it to avoid its opposite. Oftentimes the carrot we’re seeking is even a mask for something deeper that we want: maybe the promotion represents acceptance, the house represents safety, being chosen by a partner represents worthiness.

That’s not to say that all things that look like carrots are extrinsic motivators; rather it’s a matter of why and how we pursue them.

Carrots can be intrinsic motivators. But they’re a different flavor of carrot. Rather than being driven to them through fear (which is, in essence, scarcity) we are driven to them through love and meaning (in other words, “enoughness”).

Sometimes the actions taken in either category can look exactly the same. Whether or not the motivation is extrinsic or intrinsic comes down to why each action is taken. An extrinsic motive is going to be moving toward or away from something, while an intrinsic motivator is going to come through or from something.

Fear/Extrinsic Motivators*
Action inspired by scarcity
Love/Intrinsic Motivators*
Action inspired by “enoughness” and meaning
Pursuing more money because it will make you look successful (carrot)
Pursuing a relationship so you won’t be alone forever (carrot/stick)
Getting better at an activity to show that you’re capable/intelligent/talented (carrot)
Staying at your job because it’ll be too difficult to find another (stick)
Helping a friend because you’re worried you’ll seem inconsiderate or unthoughtful if you don’t (stick)
Pursuing more money because you’ll be better able to provide for your family
Dating so you can give and experience more love even though you don’t feel like you “need” it
Getting better at an activity for the joy of learning
Showing up at work because you care about what happens and believe the results are meaningful
Helping a friend because you care about their wellbeing

*Rarely are such considerations so binary. Our motivations are far more mixed than this simple table can reflect.

Are YOU running towards something because you’re running away from something?

We can often find ourselves pursuing or avoiding the stick/carrot extremes when we haven’t sat down to determine what is enough. What is enough security? What is enough ease? What is enough acceptance? What is enough wealth?

When it comes down to it, the reason you are doing something is probably influenced by both extrinsic and intrinsic motivators. You’re probably moved to action by both fear AND love. And that is OK!

The challenge comes when we mistake our fear-based motives for our love-based motives. It’s the trap of thinking things like success, fame, and wealth (“checking all the boxes”) will make us happy, versus understanding what is ‘enough’ and then pursuing what is truly fulfilling for us– i.e., making choices based in meaning and purpose.

Let’s say that again in another way:

Fear is a hindrance to purpose because it can mask, distract, and direct you away from what is truly important to you.

A significant portion of what is stopping us from cultivating purpose in our lives is probably some type of fear.  Creating more meaning and purpose in our lives will almost inevitably involve confronting our fears. It therefore necessitates taking risks– which is hard to do when we’re biologically wired to maintain comfort and safety!

“The problem in most situations is not a lack of calling; but a fear of responding to the call. Besides the issue of leaving everything behind, there is also the fear of being inadequate and the terror of being overwhelmed. Under the banner of practicality, most of life becomes arranged to obscure and distract us from what called us to come to life in the first place. Most people remain unwilling to be extravagant enough to wander where their soul would lead them, adapting instead to an endless series of short-term goals. People easily misplace their deepest longings and tune themselves to someone else’s idea of life.” – Michael Meade, Fate and Destiny

Understanding what is important to us and why is a BIG project! And while fear can be a hindrance to uncovering, discovering, and cultivating these important things, fear is ALSO a wonderful ally for teaching us what is important to us in life because it can point us towards what we care about most! We simply need to learn how to “excavate” our fears to find the gold in them.

Fear and desire are often deeply intertwined and the work begins with untangling these two components (aka carrots and sticks!). Fundamental to untangling them, however, is identifying what you desire– and doing that can be a challenge for many of us. Before you excavate your fears, it is important that you identify your desires and dreams. If you aren’t entirely sure what you want in life or you simply want to refine your desires (highly recommended!) check out the Clarify page for extensive exercises on doing just that!

There are many layers to both our desires and our fears so beyond the master exercise for excavating your desires on the Clarify page, the page “Purpose in Context” goes into detail on many of the institutional and cultural influences on our conception of purpose in particular. It’s a great spot to learn about what has influenced your desires and how.

But for now– if you have a general idea of what you want and you’re interested in staying on the highway (instead of doing a massive detour scheduled for later in the trip*😉 ), below is a palate teaser activity to help you identify the role fear may be playing in some of your life desires right now.

Once you’ve tried that out, read on to learn far more about identifying and working with your fears below.

Try This: Your Carrots & Sticks

Grab a pen and paper and find a quiet spot. Answer the following questions.

    1. Think of some of your biggest fears (your sticks) in life right now related to purpose or work (5 or more). It can be things like, “I’m afraid I’ll never be successful” or “I’ll never find something I love” or “I’ll never have the opportunities I need” or “I’ll die without making a significant impact” etc. Try to be as specific as possible with your fears. What exactly are you afraid of? It may help to try to go a level or two deeper than what you initially write down.
    2. Rank them in order scariest to least scary.
    3. Beside each fear write its opposite. These are your carrots: the things you want in your life. For example, if you wrote you were afraid of not making an impact in your life, the opposite would be doing something that matters. Try to be very specific and go beyond the surface level fear. This will become a list of things you desire.
    4. Notice the ranking. Your biggest stick is likely also your biggest carrot. Does the ranking of desires seem accurate? Why or why not?
    5. For each carrot, identify three actions you are/have been taking to pursue it, then answer the following:
      1. Are these actions primarily to avoid the stick side of this carrot? (Do you feel stress when you think about this carrot?)
      2. Do you do these actions primarily because this carrot is meaningful to you? (Do you feel enoughness when you think about this carrot?)
      3. Some mix of the above? How?
    6. Of the carrots you listed, which has the most extrinsic-motivated actions (from a place of scarcity)? What would your life be like if you were not afraid of this thing? What would you do?

Want to know what to do next with these sticks and carrots? Keep reading to find out!

Fear is Normal; and it can be your Ally

As was mentioned before, fear is a natural human emotion that serves to protect us. It isn’t something to be ashamed of- it can actually be useful to you and your journey! Fear can energize us and teach us about what we value.

Georges St-Pierre is an MMA champion who often discusses the role of fear in his fighting practice:

“I’m always scared when I fight. But that fear is what keeps me more alert and more focused. It’s good to have fear.”

“Fear can be a home-made ally, a natural power-source. Staying in the present, fear can only help you.”

“Once fear enters your life, it will take on one of two directions: empowerment or panic.”

How would it feel to be empowered by fear rather than limited by it? You’ll learn more about how to see and utilize fear as an ally on your purpose cultivation journey as you read through the topic.

What to do about it: Identify your fears and work with them

On the next few pages, learn about some basic categories of fear and review a master list of fears to see if some of your own are there. Try some of the exercises to help you go deeper and find other fears you may not be immediately aware of.

After you identify some fears (aka “allies”!) you can use the “Working With Fear” topic to find ways to perceive fear in an empowering way, address the limitations you experience from being afraid, and move forward WITH your fears.

Hindrances to Purpose Questions Adults Ask Shoulds The Pursuit Success and Money School Structure Fit and Fixed Mindset Fear Happiness and Complacency Passion Honorable Mentions

Purpose The Gist of Purpose Parts of Purpose Purpose Fundamentals Purpose in Context Purpose as your Work Should You Quit Your Job Purpose Myths Hindrances to Purpose Benefits of Purpose Passion The Purpose Journey Clarify your Purpose Align with your Purpose Support your Purpose Purpose Practice and Exercises Purpose Resources