Fear and the Critical Moment

I wanted to share a principle I learned while living in South Africa… one that continues to influence my life today.

We are born helpless but as life continues we become very capable. Our abilities grow gradually… even imperceptibly. We are usually not aware of our personal growth as it is happening. We usually only see it in hindsight when we look back upon our difficult challenges.

This begs the question, when exactly does the growth actually happen? Is it a single event or is it an accumulation of many small events?

Growth does occur over time. This is true. Thus, there must be a pivotal moment in which an increment of growth is granted. These increments add up to the full growth we see when looking back. Yes, there is a specific moment in time that determines our growth. What happens at this moment will determine whether we grow or whether we do not. We could call this the critical moment.

But when does this moment occur in our daily lives? It occurs when we have to make a challenging decision. One option is easy… the other is hard. Invariably, the difficult option is the one that provides growth. Deciding between these options–this is the critical moment.

These critical moments are not rare. In fact, they happen every day. Will we show patience? Will we keep going for just 5 more minutes? Will we take the shortcut? Will we become angry? Will we demand satisfaction? Recognition? Validation? Will we shrink from discomfort?

The easy option requires no effort. It requires no sacrifice. It yields no growth. It is the uncomfortable option that stretches you. It makes you better, stronger, more powerful. Why, then, do we always choose the easy way?


Fear is the enemy of progress. Fear is very powerful… so powerful, in fact, that many will spend their lives running from their fears. They let their fears determine the course of their lives. Fear tells them what they must not do. Fear tells them where they must not go. Often we feel trapped… even paralyzed by fear. Consider this diagram. In our lives there is a circle of things we are familiar with. The space inside this circle is our “comfort zone”. We are comfortable doing these things because we have done them before and we know we can do them again successfully. Outside this circle is “the unknown” and it contains things we have never done.

Comfort Zone

When we are born there is nothing in this circle. Growing the circle means doing new things. It means overcoming fears. If you really think back and remember the first time you went swimming, drove a car, or used a power tool, you’ll remember that it was scary. It took guts to do it. The circumstances and cultures we live in forces us to grow our comfort zone a certain amount. Most people become comfortable driving, swimming, shopping, etc. However given the choice between two options, one inside the circle and one outside, we will always lean towards the familiar one. We tend to fear the unknown one. This is why we would rather continue to work at a job we hate than start building a new career path. It’s also why we find ourselves only befriending people of our own culture, race, and religion. We miss great opportunites when we take the easy path.

Rest assured that all of us have these fears. It is normal to have fears. But how is it that some are able to overcome them while others cannot? What about our heroes… our role models. What about Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, or Nelson Mandela? What do they have that we don’t?

The fact is that all achievements, all skills, and all growth boils down to a series of critical moments… tiny decisions that incrementally expand our comfort zone. The good news is that with the right motivation, we can face our fears. If we recognize the critical moments for what they are, tiny opportunities for personal victory, we can succeed… one critical moment at a time. The supreme example of this is probably Derek Sivers. It is the lifestyle he has chosen. I want to be like that.

Critical moments happen when the alarm clock goes off. They happen when someone puts you down, when a driver is tailgating you, and when you see litter on the sidewalk. They happen when someone shoots down your idea or criticizes a friend or tells an inappropriate joke. They happen all the time. We cannot conquer anger, master a skill, defeat pride, or start a business all at once. Instead, commit to making the hard choices in the present, and watch as the benefits compound over time.