Fear itself: Thinking through change and turmoil

Small animal looking out from a hole in a treeFair warning: this is going to be a controversial post, and it might be considered a bit “off topic.”

Maybe it’s just the time of year for fear. Or maybe it’s several conversations I’ve been involved in recently. Or maybe it’s the result of following over 150 blogs on a daily basis covering everything from religion to politics to technology to philosophy. Whatever it is, there’s one thing I’ve noticed recently.

We’re really afraid.

I don’t mean “concerned about what the future might hold,” but rather — it seems, at least sometimes — sinking into a state of fear bordering on the irrational. Sometimes it feels like the entire world is one long troubleshooting session in the worst designed network I’ve ever encountered. Let me turn to a few completely different areas to illustrate my point. Some of these are going to make people mad, so hold on to your hats — and hear me out before you jump all over me or shut down.

We’re afraid of what the future might hold for us as engineers and as people. Maybe this entire software defined thing is going to destroy my entire career. Maybe I’ll end up like a buggy whip maker a few years after the first car was built. Maybe the entire world is going to sink under the oceans as they rise due to man made global warming. Maybe we’re all going to be replaced by robots, leaving none of us anything to do for a living at all. Maybe we’re all going to eat GMO foods and die. Maybe I don’t have the right certifications, or maybe I have too many certifications. Maybe cell phones are going to give us all cancer.

Or maybe, just maybe, we’ve come too close to perfecting fear as the ideal motivator for selling just about everything from things to training to politics. Maybe the noise level has gotten so high that we won’t listen until it’s a existential crisis right now. Maybe we’re rushing from crisis to crisis like a boat out in a huge storm trying to stay above water and forgetting to ask where it is we’re going — which port we actually should call home.

Maybe it’s time to reassess, to find some strategy that will help us cope with all this information and all this fear. Some thoughts to that end.

First, ask what claim is actually being made. This might be painful, but learn logical syllogisms, and make it a habit to turn enthymemes into a proper syllogistic form so you can actually evaluate the claim. We’re too fast to accept straw men, too quick to dismiss with a casual wave of the hand, an appropriate bit of snark, and a quick dose of name calling. We’re too slow to listen and spend time really trying to understand. We’ve sown a world of 140 character snippets, and we’re reaping a whirlwind of thoughtlessness.

Second, ask what supports the claim. I don’t mean who supports the claim or why they support it. Stop asking about feelings and motives. Start asking about facts.

Third, ask why you might have any reason to doubt the claim. Intentionally fight against your confirmation bias and seek out the most credible sources you can find that disagree with the claim. Read them carefully, intentionally, and as honestly as you can.

Okay, you’ve done all of this, and you believe the claim is correct. Now is the time to jump to action, right? Wrong. In fact, the hard work has just begun.

First, ask what it is you can actually do about it. Second, find the tradeoffs, including who pays and how.

The climate of fear we live in particularly shuts down our ability to think about tradeoffs. When we’re afraid, we move to “there is no tradeoff,” “we need to do something about this,” and “anyone who disagrees is a moral monster” far too quickly. Engineers should know from long experience with real world systems there are always tradeoffs. If you’ve not found them, then you’re not looking — and if you’re not looking, then you’re not really engaged in thinking.

Let me try to take a personal example here. “What happens if my job ends tomorrow, because the technology I know goes away?” Well, you could run around like a turkey the day before Thanksgiving. I don’t how useful that’s going to be, but it’s certainly entertaining, and, in some ways actually satisfying.

Or you could process the question, ask if it’s true (it probably is on some level all the time), think about what you can do about it, and then focus on finding the tradeoffs so you can make a rational set of decisions about what actions to take in response. Maybe you should make it a practice to learn new skills on a regular basis? “But what if I bet wrong, and learn the wrong skills?” How is that better than not betting at all? Learning is, itself, a skill that takes regular practice.

We need to use the same process across the board. Before we casually cast aside anyone’s rights (or responsibilities) in the name of creating a “safer world,” before we radically alter our entire way of life to solve the fifteenth world crisis that has a celebrity “do something now” video attached, before we all collapse in despair at the collapse of our world and our careers, we need to make certain we ask the questions — what does this really mean, what are the facts supporting it, why should I doubt it, what can I really do about it, and what are the tradeoffs?

I don’t want to get into a long, drawn out, political discussion. That’s not what this blog is about. I’m not trying to make a political point, but rather a thinking point. Fear makes us treat one another like objects when we really need to listen to one another as people. We really need to learn to get past the fear our world seems to be drowning in. There are things we should rationally be afraid of. But there is also a sense in which fear removes our capacity to react rationally, and hence makes our nightmares into reality.


  1. Michael Kashin on 20 December 2015 at 10:29 pm

    Interesting point. Some extreme paranoid cases of fears aside, is fear really that bad? Isn’t that what drove humans to evolve, to learn how to build stuff so we can feel protected and comfortable?
    Also, on the side note, social psychology studies of fear appeal as a persuasion mechanism have found it to be more effective than positive messages. It’s especially effective when presented with a potential solution (e.g. learn python if you want to stay in your career)

    • Russ on 23 December 2015 at 8:48 pm

      I think fear can be a good thing — in fact, a necessary thing for actual survival. The problem is that we’re living in a world where people are using all our emotions as manipulators, which reduces their value and the “value of us…” One way to try and combat this is to apply a process, or a checklist, even, to fearful situations, particularly when they’re clearly not “existential right this very second.”