We hate to admit it but most of our fears are irrational. Everyday life just isn't that dangerous anymore. Technology, engineering and modern medicine have eliminated most of the sharp edges.
Yet we can't escape our past. Our fears evolved as a basic survival mechanism. They arise in response to perceived threats, triggering a "fight or flight" response.
For most of us, it's flight (or avoidance). And studies show our fears are fairly universal: spiders, snakes, heights (...yo), public speaking and death.
As Jerry Seinfeld once said, "According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Does that sound right? This means at a funeral most people would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy."
Our greatest inhibitor, of course, is fear of failure.
Consciously or not, it can paralyze us, keeping us from applying for the promotion, taking the risk, meeting the girl, asking for the order, experiencing the unknown.
It's always easier to stick with the safe, the comfortable, the familiar.
Yet every time we choose safety we reinforce fear. We nurture it. Only when we overcome this debilitating emotion do we really begin to live.
"He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life," said Ralph Waldo Emerson.
How is fear conquered? By doing what we think you can't do, again and again.
When I was young, for example, public speaking made me nervous. Today I relish the opportunity.
After a particularly turbulent flight thirty years ago, I was a white-knuckle flier. Now I can't keep track of all the frequent flier miles.
Fear is the great barrier to success. It gives small things big shadows. It is the inverse of faith, trapping us between regret for the past and anxiety about the future.
Yet few things warrant the fear we grant them. We run not from genuine threats but imaginary bogeymen.
Perhaps that's why philosopher Bertrand Russell said, "to conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom."
And the rewards are many. Waiting for you on the other side of fear is freedom: Freedom from anxiety. Freedom from regret. Freedom from a life unlived.
Fortune, it turns out, really does favor the brave.
As Marianne Williamson writes, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? ...We are all meant to shine, as children do. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."