Fear and the “Five Whys”

Photo by Jasmin Sessler on Unsplash

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time and effort on self-improvement in the last couple of years, in the name of being happier with myself and being a better person to be around.

Much of the behavior I’m trying to modify seems to originate from a primal sense of fear. I’ve started to unpack this pattern using the famous “Five Whys” method of root cause analysis originated by the Toyota Production System. The Five Whys says that it takes, on average, five questions in a row to get to the actual root cause. (You may now roll your eyes at the nerdy reference).

Let me share an example.

I’m driving a major initiative at work that is foundational to our business growth strategy. It’s not going as fast as I want, or as my boss wants or probably as anyone wants. While the reason for the rate of progress is a typical one – limited resources – I still feel anxiety about the situation all the time.

First question: What am I fearing as a result of going too slow?

My company is owned by a private equity investor. At some point there will be a liquidity event; an IPO or sale of the company. I fear that my initiative will impede our ability to achieve this expected outcome.

Next question: why is that outcome important to me personally?

Well, I’m a shareholder and have a goal of saving more for my retirement with the proceeds of my stock options.

Next question: why is saving more for retirement important?

I want the security and the optionality of retiring “comfortably”.

Next question: what is a “comfortable” retirement?

We’re only four questions in and I’ve already exposed the fear and flaws in my thinking.

The reality is that I have already funded my retirement, at least to the point of being assured of having a roof over my head, food to eat and access to healthcare.

Yet I fear it’s not enough. “Not enough” simply means that constraints will exist on how I retire. Maybe I have to curtail the size and quality of the dwelling I live in. Maybe I can’t live in certain communities or even states. Maybe I have to live in another country to satisfy a criterion like being near the ocean.

Wanting something more than basic needs is fine to desire and strive for. But why is that connected to any present-day feeling of fear?

What makes this type of fearful thinking even more absurd is that we all know happiness is a function of the quality of our relationships. Will I have friends when I’m retired? Of course I will. All of us will.

This isn’t an essay about the evils of materialism. Money has a place in making us happy, at least as it relates to meeting our basic needs.

Rather, I’m trying to better understand where my own sense of fear comes from. I’m trying to name fearful thinking for the useless role it plays. I’m trying to reduce or eliminate fear in order to behave differently and better.

My belief is that fear informs many of our behaviors. We each have an opportunity to confront it, manage it and be more like the person we aspire to be.

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