This is the first post in a twelve-part sequence called Replacing Fear. The core idea of the sequence is a shift in motivations that in my experience is incredibly valuable: from fear-based motivation to excitement-based motivation. The sequence is dived into three parts (containing four posts each). The first part introduces fear-based motivation and its negative effects; the second discusses how to overcome fear by building self-trust; and the third explores how to cultivate excitement-based motivation. This post kicks things off by giving a high-level comparison of fear-based and excitement-based motivation.

Fear-based motivation is pervasive throughout society. It arises both in the obvious cases—like stage fright before a big performance or presentation—but also in a variety of other guises, both direct and indirect. For example, I think of shame as driven by fear of social rejection; of romantic jealousy as driven by fear of abandonment; and of regret as driven by fear that you’ve screwed things up permanently. Less direct forms of fear-based motivation (like guilt and envy) often invoke the fear that you’re not the type of person who deserves good things—for example, fear of being a “bad person”; fear of being unloveable; or fear of being inadequate/imperfect. In the context of relationships, I think that what people typically mean by “neediness” is best understood as “behavior driven by fear not excitement”.

By contrast, I think that actually feeling excited is rarer than people think, because getting excited about something leaves you open to the risk of losing it, which is itself a scary prospect. Most children get excited easily—but as we get older, and see more examples of excitement leading to disappointment, it becomes more difficult to disentangle excitement about getting something from fear of not getting it (or of not being the type of person who “should” get it). But why is excitement-based motivation so much better, when it’s possible? Three reasons:

  1. Fear makes it hard to get started. Fear-based motivation is short-sighted enough to block you off from doing many things that are robustly valuable. Perhaps the best example of this is how many people are miserable because they’re single, yet never actually ask anyone out directly, because being rejected is so terrifying; or how many people don’t start a big assignment until soon before it’s due, because even thinking about doing badly on the assignment is such a scary prospect.
  2. Excitement helps you steer; fear doesn’t. Fear-based ambition is “anything but failure or mediocrity”. Fear-based relationships are “anything but loneliness”. Fear-based socializing is “anything but rejection”. By contrast, excitement-based motivation looks like “I want to solve this problem”; “I love being with this person”; “I want to smash this performance”. When you’re thinking in detail about what you really want, you’re much better at aiming towards it.
  3. Fear leads to internal conflict. Fear-based motivation is just much less pleasant than excitement-based motivation. This isn’t a coincidence; it’s because fear leads to internal conflict and undermines self-trust (more on that in post #4). This is particularly important because our motivational strategies tend to be very persistent—although you tell yourself that things will be different once you reach the next milestone, they probably won’t. If you’re driven by fear now, you’ll likely still be driven by it even when you’re twice as successful, unless you address the root cause of it.

Here’s another way of thinking about my claims above. Suppose there's one point you’re trying to navigate away from, and another point you’re trying to navigate towards. If you’re trying to navigate on a one-dimensional axis, then those two motivations are similar: moving away from the fear leads towards what you’re excited about. That’s analogous to cases where there’s a clear path towards success (you have to learn math in order to graduate high school, and graduating high school is for most people obviously the right move). Though even then, if the fear stands between you and the goal, then you’ll find it hard to get started—see point 1 above.

But in most cases, the actual landscape of possible strategies is incredibly high-dimensional. And so fear-based motivation is going to do very badly at steering you in a direction that you actually want to go: it'll lead you to spend years getting a degree you don't really want, or climbing the ladder of a career you don't actually enjoy, because your attempts to consider alternatives are quashed by fear. Maybe moving away from the fear is correlated with things that a less fearful version of you would be excited about—but if so, not very robustly. And meanwhile fear-based motivation is robustly anticorrelated with being happy and healthy.

Having said that, fear-based motivation is an important part of the growth process for many people. It serves a valuable role in terms of kicking things off—e.g. if you live in a small town and you’re deciding whether to move away; or if you need motivation to work through the prerequisites before getting to the stuff you enjoy; or if the easiest way to overcome the fear of asking people out is to invoke your fear of dying alone. The important part is to transition away from fear-based motivation over time, once you've gotten the ball rolling. So while I couldn't resist including the classic "I must not fear" quote from Dune at the bottom of this post, it's a little too heavy-handed for me to fully endorse. Courage plays a role, and determination too, but so does acceptance, and so does fear itself, in the journey towards replacing fear.

In the second and third parts of this sequence, I’m going to talk about the two biggest steps in that journey: cultivating trust, and cultivating excitement. But before doing so, it’s important to better understand what fear-based motivation actually looks like. To do that I’ll focus in the next post on a closely-related concept: judgment.

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.


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8 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:04 PM

For a while now, it'd seemed to me that a lot of AI Alignment researchers had attitudes towards the problem that were, somehow, painfully counter-productive. This post puts it into words perfectly.

Some more ways in which fear is a worse motivation than excitement:

  1. It's less sustainable. Working under fear is unpleasant, which means you'll do it less, and you'll burn out faster. An excitement-based motivation, on the other hand, is self-fueling.
  2. It's less robust. If you run into some novel complication, or the problem becomes more challenging, a fearful motivation will become even more terrified, or despair and give up. An excitement-based one, on the other hand, will consider the new difficulty a stumbling block at worst, and may even be delighted by the higher challenge (and the greater glory to be gained by surmounting it).
  3. It invites unclear thinking and rationalizations. You know (2); you know that if the problem becomes too challenging, you may give up altogether. Which means that if you run into a novel difficulty, you'll be looking for ways to explain it away. In the doing, you may assume your way straight out of reality, and try to solve imaginary easier versions of the problem.
  4. It's damaging in the long-term and at macro-scale. If you conceptualize yourself as constantly operating in fear of something, that cultivates a self-image of being small, weak, helpless — and that will gradually lead to you semi-consciously compromising your own efforts, so that they're in-line with that image. Being motivated by excitement, on the other hand, cultivates a self-image of someone who is up to the challenge — which, while it won't magically improve your capabilities, will at least ensure you're employing them fully.

This post also seems relevant here.


The focus above is only on the negative effects of fear and the positve effects of being excited, on the contrary:

  • Sustainability: Humans reproduce fast compared to other mammals with a similiar size. This describes human condition within the last 50.000 years. Humans died early and often.

  • Robustness: Fear is an awesome motivator. Fear can optimize situations and can help overcome stumbling blocks, produce heightend situational awareness over long periods of time and is a motivation to not fail.

  • Unclear or over thinking: Shock or surprise (elements of fear) can make you just act and stop rationalizing.

  • Long term: Being excited in a care free enviroment that optimized scarsity causes and may cause the use of fear to be politically and culturally manipulated b/c there is very little to be afraid of.

Oh, I agree that some amount of fear can be useful in some circumstances. As Richard noted, the law of equal and opposite advice still applies here.

Indeed, a specific mix of fear and excitement is probably much better for certain problems than either of the two. Fear to ground you and remind you to be sober about the problem, excitement to provide a lasting and powerful motivation.

But empirically, it seems to me that a lot of people are operating on fear/excitement mixes that are skewed too much towards "fear", unproductively so.

I think excitement can be valuable after you used the fear-based motivation to try and figure out what the problem is and acknowledge it without trying to take direct action. Excitement without a solid foundation of caution is what is causing the current AI race.

Excitement without a solid foundation of caution is what is causing the current AI race.

To some extent - though Google's statements about having to join the race and forget about their earlier more cautious policy now that OpenAI/Microsoft decided to rush ahead, sound fear-based.


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