There's everyday fear failure -- worry that your business idea won't pan out, your financial situation will take a hit, people will laugh at you -- and then there's Elon Musk-level fear of failure.

When you're trying to accomplish humongous things -- things like the electrification of automobiles and the colonization of space, -- big, ugly, and very public failure isn't just a possibility, it's a statistical likelihood. If quitting your job or opening a small business is terrifying to most of us, imagine how scary it must be to publicly announce you're investing your own money to send humans to Mars.

Yet Musk just keeps on doing incredibly audacious, risky, and valuable things. How does he handle his fear of failure? Or is he just some superhuman genetically gifted with mercifully malfunctioning anxiety circuitry?

Nope, he tells fellow entrepreneur Jared Friedman in a lengthy and utterly fascinating Y Combinator interview. "I feel fear quite strongly," he confesses. How does he keep going despite this terror?

Passion...

Musk, it seems, has a two-part recipe for fearlessness. The first essential ingredient is heaps and heaps of passion.

Starting out, many people thought SpaceX was an insane bet, Friedman notes. Musk only agrees with him. "Very crazy. For sure. They were not shy of saying that. But I agreed with them," he says. Why did Musk push ahead despite this chorus of skeptics?

"I'd soon come to a conclusion that if something didn't happen to improve rocket technology, we'd be stuck on earth forever," he says and he was not prepared to sit idly by and watch that outcome unfold.

"People sometimes think technology just automatically gets better every year but actually it doesn't. It only gets better if smart people work like crazy to make it better," Musk continues. "By itself, technology, if people don't work at it, actually will decline... Look at, say, ancient Egypt, where they were able to build these incredible pyramids and then they basically forgot how to build pyramids.... There are many such examples in history... entropy is not on your side."

In short, Musk's concern for technological progress and the welfare of the human race was simply stronger than his personal terror at the prospect a public flame out. It's not that he was somehow too hard or tough for fear to penetrate; it's that he was too full of belief and concern to let that stop him.

... and fatalism

But just focusing on why you're taking a scary risk isn't always enough to overcome hesitation. It wasn't for Musk. He employed an additional strategy as well. You could call it strategic pessimism. He calls it "fatalism."

"Something that can be helpful is fatalism, to some degree," Musk tells Friedman. "If you just accept the probabilities, then that diminishes fear. When starting SpaceX, I thought the odds of success were less than 10 percent and I just accepted that actually probably I would just lose everything. But that maybe we would make some progress."

It might sound strange that a cold-hearted look at your low odds of success could embolden a person, but others recommend this strategy too. Author Tim Ferriss, for example, advises those wrestling with doubt to force themselves to really visualize their worst-case scenario. It's a form of exposure therapy: by facing the thing you fear, you break its power over you and realize that you will survive even if the worst comes to pass.

If you're a Musk fan, the complete interview is a must watch (or read, a transcript is also available). It delves into the promise and peril of AI, the most impactful areas to start a business right now, the nuts and bolts of how Musk spends his days, and his biggest epiphany of the year.

Published on: Sep 29, 2016