Yesterday, I read an article about the “One Key Thing” that separates successful people from unsuccessful people. The clickbaity title gives me an allergic reaction but the content within is still useful. The “one key thing” is an ability to face one’s fears. The prescribed technique to do so is a method championed by Tim Ferriss called “fear-setting”. He has a TED talk on the idea that is worth viewing.  

It reminds me of a beautiful line from another wise person, Seth Godin:

“The universe does not seek revenge on those who choose.”

In this case, the choice is to confront one’s fears. The idea being that the universe seeks revenge on those who do not. That revenge could be regret, stagnation, or even worse: defeat at the hands of those who did make the choice. I’m expressing this in generalities but I don’t think anyone disputes the value of initiative and courage and mastery over your fears.

That said, I’m not so sure that fear is what holds people back. Telling someone to “face their fears” is not very useful advice on its own. You can do that in a lot of very dumb ways. Risk taking is not the same as risk management. One is crude and foolhardy. The other is divine.

And I’ve used the Tim Ferriss fear-setting technique three times on a quarterly basis now and it helps. It really does. Mostly as a structured form of journaling. The trouble is that action, of course, is still required. A choice is still required.

Lack of Courage? Or Lack of Direction?

What prevents those choices? What keeps us at bay? Most times, the inability to face one’s fears has less to do with a lack of courage and more to do with a lack of direction. We’re not facing sabretooth tigers anymore. Imminent doom is not lurking around every corner. But uncertainty is everywhere. Especially in this beautiful modern age where so many of us can do just about anything we set our minds to. It’s that piece, though, of setting our minds to something, that is necessary.  

Make no mistake: fear is still present. Absolutely. But so many of us are gripped by an uncertainty of what is the right thing to do. We’d easily face our fears if we knew which direction to take was best. Instead, we misinterpret the moment, beat ourselves up, lose confidence, and return to old familiar ways. Only to beat ourselves up again for the regression.

This, my friends, is the neutral zone.

This weeks’ book, Transitions, has been deeply instructive. To introduce the idea that such a place exists is supremely helpful. The neutral zone is the limbo between previous states and future desired states. As seen in the wonderful graphic below:


Most of us aren’t aware this stage of a transition exists. To borrow from our authors,

One of the most difficult aspects of the neutral zone is that most people don’t understand it. They expect to be able to move straight from the old to the new. But this isn’t a trip from one side of the street to the other. It’s a journey from one identity to another, and that kind of journey takes time.

I wrote on Monday that this journey from one identity to another is about the ending that must occur before the new beginning. As our authors express, no one typically moves from Old Identity to New Identity without this period in-between. In that process, we have to rightfully ask ourselves if the new identity is really, truly what we want. Is this the right way forward?

Our choices define our identity and thus our choices have very real costs. We understand this when we leave our old identities behind in the first stage of a transition. We say things to ourselves like “I never want to make that mistake again.” This makes us increasingly guarded against our own intuitions.  

So how do we move forward in this limbo? How do we analyze and understand the options we have as part of the new beginnings, the new choices, that we want to make?

This is where the neutral zone is not only necessary but supremely helpful. This is where we dance with uncertainty.

Strategy As The Dance Steps

Fear-setting? Sure. Do it. It’s great.

But recognize that the real value is not in labeling fears but in listing actions to combat them. I call this publication “Striving Strategically” in part because strategy, as a practice, is what puts us in control of all the things we strive against. So let’s do some strategizing. Let’s define the dance steps for our waltz with the unknown.

My own strategy in the neutral zone has four distinct and necessary steps:

  1. Accept where you are and tell others. Tell everyone you know that you are in the neutral zone. Maybe not use those words literally. But tell people that you’re “plotting your next move” and “thinking about some exciting changes”. The worst thing we do to ourselves is put on the air of someone who has it all figured out. You don’t! No one does! Yesterday’s article on the falsehoods of the highlight reel proves it. So be genuine about it. I think you’ll be more interesting and you’ll also gain more ownership of the problem.
  2. Adopt a LEAN approach of Thinking Big and Acting Small. I’ll return to LEAN management in the future. For now, recognize that thinking big gives you a better sense of what you’re looking to transition towards. What is the new beginning? Imagine something big and beautiful and broad and exciting. Then make the careful work of working towards that big vision with small steps, small bets, and baby steps.
  3. Create stability everywhere else. Divide and Conquer. Just because you’re forging a transition in one area doesn’t mean you have to generate change everywhere else. No one should fight a two-front war. Consider Einstein: he did some of his best speculative work while enjoying the stability and regular wage of his job at a patent office. Only seek one transition at a time. If it’s career, keep the personal life as solid as possible. Or vice versa. (sidenote: this is what I hate about the phase “face your fears”; don’t try to face them all; take them one at a time.)
  4. Do Not Allow Yourself To Be Alone. This relates to the first step. As you tell others about your journey through this wilderness, some will respond favorably, with interest, and will offer a curious ear or a helping hand. These people, known as friends, are vital. The neutral zone is a wilderness. It can be a very lonely place. And even if you have to spend money or time to join a club or class or hire a coach, you must have at least one person in your corner. This is practically non-negotiable. And thankfully, in doing so, you’ll find that many people (your friends and family, especially) have their own neutral zone to navigate. You’ll help them just as they help you.

There is much more that can be offered here. My other book reviews, and the entirety of the Medium Universe, offer much in that regard. All the same, if there was something fundamental to offer, it’s these four steps. I think you can do a lot to make your dance with uncertainty a beautiful, edifying experience but you must do these four things as best you can.  

How Long Should We Live In The Neutral Zone?

This is an open question. I have no answer. In some ways, I feel like I’ve always lived in the neutral zone. Once this concept became clear from this week’s book, it made me wonder if some of us aren’t just permanent residents of this place.

Then again, if you analyze the three stages of a transition, many of us have never really left the first stage. We’ve only toyed with the idea of letting something go. Hence the New Year’s Resolution. Perhaps the need here isn’t to “set” our fears or “choose” to face them. Perhaps we just need to let them go.

In other words, a battle isn’t always what we need. To battle our fears is to puff them up into something tangible, like obstacles that stand in our way. But a puffed-up fear is still made mostly of air. Fighting air feels silly.

So I don’t know how long we stay in the neutral zone. But if you feel you’ve been there a long time, as I have, chances are high that you’re not really there at all. You’re still at the beginning of the transition. You’re still at the starting line holding on to something. Something that is far less tangible than you think.

Photo by Byron Stumman on Unsplash