Business Advice, Startup Advice

Tim Ferriss: Why “fear-setting” is better than goal setting

Emma Koehn /

American entrepreneur Tim Ferriss has sold millions of books and has secured a cult following for his advice about productivity, but he says his bumpy path to success is more about fear than enthusiasm.

Ferriss recently addressed the TED2017 conference, explaining he didn’t want to come on stage with a “recipe of success”, and instead wanted to talk about the tough times.

He says his bipolar depression has led to more than 50 depressive episodes across his lifetime, but credits his success and ability to set goals in the face of this to an approach that was originally used by Stoic philosophers in ancient Greek times.

In this exercise, which Ferris calls “fear-setting”, he considers big choices in response to three key areas.

In the first part of his risk-evaluation process, he digs into what might go wrong if he makes a decision, including defining a full list of possible disaster scenarios.

He then writes a second list detailing what he has the power to do that might prevent those disasters from happening. In the third part of the process, he brainstorms how he would repair the situation if those terrible possibilities came to pass.

Then, on a separate page, Ferriss records all the potential benefits that could come out of making that same decision.

Finally, he records a number of possible outcomes from his “Cost of Inaction”, if he decided not to go through with the idea.

It’s this point that is particularly useful to other entrepreneurs, Ferriss says, because it’s human nature to anticipate the costs of failure, rather than the impact of inaction.

“What we don’t often consider is the atrocious cost of the status quo, of not changing anything,” he says. 

After completing these three steps, an individual is able to weigh up their ability to face the risks associated with taking a leap, and compare these with the relative benefits and the loss that could come from not acting at all.

Ferriss says this approach led him to take a break from his first business in 2004 and travel to the UK, which resulted in a trip that formed the basis of his first book, he says.

However, “fear setting” can also be invaluable to other individuals and company founders because it provides a framework to logically face your fears, he says.

Some of your worries may be completely legitimate, but the challenge is to sit down and find out for sure.

“You shouldn’t conclude that [your fears are warranted] without first putting them under a microscope,” he says. 

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Emma Koehn

Emma Koehn is SmartCompany's senior journalist.

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  • James Doyle

    Some very interesting and new insights to Tim’s personal experiences. Like many others the fear of failure indeed does work well. However, not everyone in the world is like Tim and so this is also the reason for many different goal setting systems and models. SMART, SMARTER, INSPIRED, 10x, Big Hairy Audacious Goals, WISE, HARD, WOOP etc all have a place as great systems. The secret is to discover which system best works for you.
    Find out more about these and other influencial factors on https://www.jamsovaluesmarter.com/

  • Great advice on goal setting! You may want to check out our goal setting app called http://GoalsOnTrack.com, a very nicely built web app designed for tracking goals and todo lists, and supports time tracking too. It’s clear, focused, easy to navigate. What’s more, it provides 30 top goal templates that are ready to use.

  • Corie Dawson

    Nice one Emma