| Jan 19, 2023

Using Fear as a Compass: The Tim Ferriss Formula

Society often depicts fear as a burden or a monster to conquer. But “Fear-Setting” uses it to help ensure worst-case scenarios don't become reality.

Everyone has their ups and downs, but as Tim Ferriss knows well, the cost of inaction could be one’s own life. As a young college student, the creative all-star had long struggled with his mental health and was on the brink of despair when he ordered a book on suicide from the Princeton library. He had planned to end his life. What he didn’t recall then was that the address on file at the library was his parent’s home. The subsequent worried phone call from his mom snapped Ferriss out of his delusion. He called it a “one-in-a-million accident.”

While many people have had a few depressive episodes, Ferriss, who has bipolar disorder, has had more than his fair share. Years later, in his TED Talk, “Why you should define your fears instead of your goals,” the podcaster, author, and blogger talked about how his experiences with fear inspired him to share a recipe for avoiding self-destruction. This formula, which he follows at least once a quarter, is called “Fear-Setting.” Rather than setting goals around what we want, Fear-Setting encourages people to use fear to understand what could go wrong, prepare for the worst-case scenario, possibly prevent it, and repair any potential damage. 

Imagining the Worst

Ferriss unpacks another unhealthy phase in his life in which he was overworked and self-medicating to describe the origins of Fear-Setting. He had planned a one-month vacation to London and didn’t know if he could step away from his work. At the same time, he had just lost a beloved friend to cancer, and a woman he thought he would marry had left him. 

So what did Ferriss do? He turned to the letters of Seneca the Younger. In these letters, he discovered Premeditatio Malorum, an exercise that embraces imagining all that could go wrong and which inspired the first part of Fear-Setting. Taking Seneca’s exercise to heart, Ferriss imagined getting depressed due to the gloomy weather in London, missing a letter from the IRS, and getting shut down. Through Fear-Setting, he realized that he could bring with him a blue light or go to Spain for some sunshine if he became depressed, and he could forward his mail to his accountant so he wouldn’t miss a letter. 

Ultimately, these small steps not only allowed Ferriss to feel confident taking his vacation, but encouraged him to extend his travels to a trip around the world, made way for him to write a book, and opened up the opportunity for his TED Talk. 

Fear As a Map

In Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous inaugural address, he says, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” W. Clement Stone is often quoted saying that action, not thinking, provides the solution for overcoming fear. Countless books, seminars, and life coach gurus discuss fear as something to conquer. Rosa Park said that when someone makes up their mind, they diminish fear. Unfortunately, in American culture, fear is often treated as a pest; something to be destroyed or removed. When Ferriss created Fear-Setting, he understood that fear was not the problem but a compass for navigating his life toward what he truly wanted — an enjoyable vacation and peace of mind.

Research supports his realization that fear can bring stress or can be a strong motivator. It is an ingrained primitive emotion and an essential tool for our survival that alerts us to psychological or physical danger. As a stressor, fear brings despair and paralysis, but as a motivator, it helps us gauge how much we live outside of our comfort zone. Not having fear could mean we aren’t challenging ourselves enough. 

Fear-Setting encourages the use of fear as a motivator. As a creative person who needs to write his ideas down, Ferriss describes the steps of Fear-Setting exercise. On multiple sheets of paper, he asks us to follow a define-prevent-repair formula before reviewing the benefits of an attempt at getting what we want and assessing the cost of inaction.


The first step is to define the fear, the worst possible outcomes surrounding that fear, or anything we are putting off. Ferriss suggests writing out 10 to 20 bullet points. Each should be as detailed as possible to make it easier to examine the fear. In Ferriss’s case, before his London trip, he worried that he would become depressed in London, and his trip would be a waste of time. 


Next, Ferriss considers how to prevent each potential outcome from happening or decrease the chances of it happening. With the weather fear, for example, Ferriss explored using blue light. For the IRS situation, he switched his address to that of his accountant. As a result, any mail received would not sit unopened in a PO box. Ferriss challenges people to think if anyone less capable or less intelligent has solved the same challenge before. 


The repair section asks us to consider what to do if our worst-case scenario happens. If Ferriss became depressed due to the weather, he could take a trip to Spain for some sunshine. If for some reason his accountant missed a letter from the IRS and Ferriss’ business got shut down, he could consult a lawyer. Here, Ferriss reminds us that fear doesn’t have to be paralyzing; instead, we can do the proper brainstorming beforehand to navigate our ups and downs.

Benefits of an Attempt

What good could come out of making an attempt? Ferriss doesn’t want us to shoot for the best-case scenario but think about whether any good could come from taking a chance at preventing an adverse outcome or at least lessening the possibility of something unforgiving happening. Little did Ferriss know that making the changes to his trip would extend positively to other areas of his life. 

Cost of Inaction

Inaction, at times, can have more consequences than taking action. For example, if someone stays at an uninspiring job they might feel as if their life has passed them by and they haven’t found fulfillment. To analyze this part of Fear-Setting, Ferriss looks at his financial life, the physical aspects of his life, and his psychological well-being. What happens in the long or short term if we don’t take action? Sometimes complacency is the worst outcome. 

Unmasking Fear

Society often depicts fear as a burden or a monster to conquer. But as a tool that signals that something might go wrong, or already has, fear is integral to the human experience. Instead of diminishing it, Tim Ferriss’ Fear-Setting helps define fears to prevent or repair adverse outcomes. Fear-Setting also helps us analyze the potential benefits of making an attempt and the cost of inaction. Ferriss still uses Fear-Setting at least once a quarter to guide his professional and personal life. To paraphrase Seneca, as Ferriss does in the conclusion to his TED talk, we suffer more often in imagination than in reality. 

Lauren Gombas
Lauren Gombas

Opinion Contributor,

Lauren Gombas is a writer from Colorado who enjoys exploring new ideas and whose creative experience ranges from podcasting and blog writing to public art. view profile


Related Posts