Life Beyond Fear
I have a recurring dream, I am sure you do too. Mine involves a deep, paralysis-inducing fear. The thing that I am fearing changes, but the output is the same. I am rooted to the spot, unable to move or speak. Most recently it was in response to an intruder in my house (except it wasn’t really my house, it was a mashed-up version of all the houses I have lived in). I wanted to run to my phone, pick-it up and call the police, but I couldn’t do anything. I woke up with a racing heart.
My fear wasn’t real. But it turns out that it doesn’t really matter what the fear is, how it compares to anyone else’s fear or where it comes from, physiologically, our bodies react in the same way. We have a primitive, powerful and deep-rooted survival mechanism that is universal in all humans.
They say that there only two emotions – fear and love. Everything else stems from one of the two.
Big wave surfer and Red Bull athlete, Mark Mathews gave an amazing talk at the Royal Fidelity Cayman Economic Outlook last week, on what fear means to him and how he lives with it and works with it. Success and fulfillment in life always comes with an element of fear. Mark fears drowning and public speaking, and is a big wave surfer and motivational speaker. He spent years of his life trying to figure out a way around the fear – could he have the success without the fear? His conclusion was that the only way to master the fear was through experience – except the experience was what he found terrifying.
He realised that to put himself through the experience, he had to ‘want it more than he feared it’. For him it was about answering three questions:
1) What does success look like?
2) Why do I want to succeed?
3) Who is going to help me get there?
This three-step thought-process is very powerful and applies so beautifully to our money lives. Money is not the goal in itself (or at least it isn’t for most people I talk to). Money is the enabler, the tool, to use to live a successful life. But we must define that success. And we must know why we are pursuing it.
For Mark, tying his success to his loved ones helped him overcome his fears. When staring down a 30-foot wave, he was thinking about the day when he could walk up to his Mum and hand her the keys to her new house (he grew up in a poor and very rough neighbourhood).
Fear drives financial markets. Some people say fear and greed, but greed is just fear by another name. If there is one thing you need to understand about investing it’s that you are going to feel deep, paralysis-inducing fear, roughly once every five years. Your instinctual reaction is going to be to create a comfort zone around you. The right-side of your brain is going to tell your left-side to ‘get out before it gets any worse’.
At this point, all three steps of Mark’s ‘over-coming fear process’ matter. I cannot stress enough how important it is to know what you are doing and why you are doing it when things get scary. You must have something to come back to. In personal finance we call it a plan.
The ‘who’ of the plan could be the most important part, and here is Mark’s story of why.
When it all goes wrong.
Mark had been successfully surfing big waves for around seven years. There had been no major wipe-outs or injuries. It was late 2016 and he was surfing a new wave. He made two big mistakes that day. First, when you surf waves of consequence like Mark, you must do your due diligence before tackling a new wave. You speak to the locals, you watch videos of others. Mark didn’t do either of those things. He confidently paddled out and took the first wave. The wave started to close out on him. This happens when a wave collapses in on itself. At this point he had a choice to make – continue to surf the wave or dive off the back of the wave. He chose to surf the wave – mistake number two.
He lost control and was dumped hard onto the rocks with the full force of the wave on top of him. His water safety team – his who, some of the best in the world, pulled him from the water and saved his life. He spent the next 11 hours in and out of consciousness, the pain being too much to bear.
His lack of due diligence and over-confidence cost him everything. His team saved his life, but his world was shattered. He spent the next year in rehab and is just slowly building his career back up. He talked about the darkness that engulfed him in the months following his accident. He had ploughed all his earnings back into his career, investing everything he had.
This story in one form or another is so common in investing. Ok, we are not talking about having to save an actual life. But fear, overconfidence, a lack of due-diligence – all these things destroy people every day. And it only takes one moment, one moment like Mark had on that wave, to blow up years of planning and preparation.
I challenge you to think hard about your what, why and who. Most of us can’t do it on our own.