Lack of money, resources, or intelligence isn’t what holds entrepreneurs back from success.
Limiting beliefs are.
As a Clinical Psychologist and Executive Coach, I’ve noticed every limiting belief people struggle with falls into one of four categories. Everyone I’ve worked with—from bootstrapped first-time solopreneurs to VC-funded experienced founders—struggles with at least one of them.
I call these limiting beliefs the Four Horsemen of Fear.
In the last book of the Bible, Revelations, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse spell doom for humanity.
In business, and in life, the Four Horsemen of Fear spell doom for you, me, and anyone who wants to build something that matters.
They wreak havoc on our psyches and keep us from realizing our potential by tricking us into unconsciously self-sabotaging.
Who are these heralds of our mental destruction?
Is there any hope to defeat them—to face our fear so we can do work that matters?
Let’s dive in…
- The 1st Horseman: Fear of Failure
- The 2nd Horseman: Fear of Ridicule
- The 3rd Horseman: Fear of Uncertainty
- The 4th Horseman: Fear of Success
- Strategy #1: Fear Inoculation
- Strategy #2: Clarify Your Core Value
- Strategy #3: Memento Mori
Who Are the Four Horsemen of Fear?
The Horsemen are the four most common limiting beliefs that hold us back from putting ourselves out there and doing meaningful work. Some are easy to spot, some are sneaky, but all are conniving and whisper lies in our ears.
The better you understand each, the easier you’ll spot them when they rear their heads.
The 1st Horseman: Fear of Failure
Everyone knows this one because it’s the easiest to identify.
It sows doubts like:
What if I’m not good enough?
What if I can’t make this work?
Fear of Failure keeps us from ever starting.
But its lesser-known brethren are equally debilitating.
The 2nd Horseman: Fear of Ridicule
If you’ve ever let what critics think, or what “they” (your friends, family, society) might say, stop you from putting yourself out there or doing meaningful work—the 2nd Horseman has reared its ugly head.
It whispers worries like:
What if people judge me for doing this?
What if they don’t like it?
Fear of Ridicule tricks us into staying small and never taking a chance.
The 3rd Horseman: Fear of Uncertainty
The 3rd Horseman tells us we don’t have enough information to move forward.
It whispers questions like:
Which decision is right?
Which direction should I choose?
So we constantly seek more. More info. More resources. More answers.
Fear of Uncertainty paralyzes us in a constant state of over-analysis.
The 4th Horseman: Fear of Success
This is the worst one because we deny its existence.
Fear of Success holds more people back than Fear of Failure ever will.
How could we be afraid of achieving the very thing we say we want?
Because most of us believe success is a binary state: before and after. If we’ve never achieved success, we only know the “before” version of ourselves. “Post-success” us feels alien. Since we’re more familiar with our current state, we unconsciously self-sabotage to stay in familiar territory—to live in a world we understand. Achieving success represents crossing a threshold we can’t see beyond. And that’s terrifying.
The 4th Horseman hides in thoughts like:
If I succeed, will I lose my ambition?
What if achieving success means I’ve peaked in life?
What if I can’t balance power with responsibility?
The Fourth Horseman tells us we’ll become a completely different person if we succeed, someone we won’t recognize. As this new person, we might become stagnant, corrupted by power, and ambitionless.
Fear of Success tricks us into abandoning worthwhile projects right when we’re on the precipice of victory, to quit the race as soon as we get close enough to see the finish line.
Every single limiting belief I’ve heard founders, creators, and entrepreneurs struggle with falls into one of the Horsemen’s domains.
So how do you combat them?
The first step is to recognize how the Horsemen disguise themselves in self-sabotaging behaviors:
How the 4 Horsemen Disguise Themselves as Self-Sabotaging Behaviors
Self-sabotaging behaviors, no matter how destructive, serve a specific function—they help us avoid the thing we fear.
Here are the most common self-sabotaging behaviors:
The busier you stay, the more productive you are, right?
Take on all the projects. Say yes to all the opportunities. Be a control freak and don’t outsource anything. Spend your time putting out every small fire that pops up. Spend hours getting to “inbox zero.” Have a hundred priorities, and never take responsibilities off your plate. Have a great new idea? Immediately chase it while leaving your current projects half-finished. Keep getting caught up in low ROI tasks instead of focusing on the Needle Movers.
If you never finish, you never risk Failure or Success.
Perfectionism and Imposter Syndrome:
You don’t have all the answers. Your product isn’t ready yet. You don’t have enough authority for people to trust you. Who are you to build this? You’re a nobody. You’re unqualified. Better to wait until you learn more or create a better offer. Your competition is so far ahead of you, you’ll probably never catch up. So what’s the point of even trying? You should wait until you feel ready, then you won’t have anything to be afraid of.
How long have you been “writing” your book or article, but still won’t publish it?
How long have you been thinking about, or actually building, that project but still haven’t shipped it?
How long have you thought out every possible scenario and created the “perfect” plan, but still haven’t taken the steps to go from idea to execution?
As long as you don’t put yourself out there, you avoid Ridicule.
Too many entrepreneurs create golden handcuffs (soul-sucking. but lucrative, businesses) and willingly choose to stay shackled than face the uncertainty freedom could bring.
Most people would rather choose the path that leads to predictable misery than the one that offers the chance of a better life.
Humans are creatures of habit. We gravitate toward what we can anticipate. Uncertainty is terrifying.
Staying in your comfort zone keeps you safe from Uncertainty.
Now you know each of the Four Horsemen of Fear, how they disguise themselves, and why we self-sabotage.
But how can you overcome them?
How to Conquer the Four Horsemen of Fear
The main way the Horsemen exert power over us is by tricking us into losing perspective. So the best strategies to overcome fear revolve around shifting our perspective to be more Intentional.
Strategy #1: Fear Inoculation
We inoculate ourselves from viruses using vaccines that have a deconstructed version of the virus inside them. This gives our bodies the ability to “practice” overcoming the virus if we ever encounter the real thing.
We can use this same strategy to inoculate ourselves against the Four Horsemen by deconstructing our fear and “practicing” ways to overcome it in case we ever encounter the real thing, aka if our fear comes true.
Here’s a simple strategy to inoculate yourself against the Four Horsemen of Fear:
Assume your worst fears come true.
Now, with that assumption in place, how will you deal with it?
Here’s how this can look for each of the Horsemen:
Fear of Failure:
You failed. How will you learn from your experience?
What do you need to do differently next time? In hindsight, what mistakes were avoidable and how will you ensure they don’t happen again?
Where did you take risks when you shouldn’t have and avoid risks when you could have taken them?
What resources did you not take advantage of that could’ve helped you succeed?
Were you solving the right problem for the right audience? Where was the misalignment between product-market fit?
Did you hire the wrong people or put good people in the wrong place?
Were you a control freak when you should’ve delegated more and empowered your team instead of micromanaging them?
Dig into what specifically contributed to your failure. Learn from it now, in the safety of this thought experiment, so you can avoid the avoidable by deconstructing and reverse-engineering what can lead to failure in the real world.
Fear of Ridicule:
You’re getting backlash and bad press. What’s your strategy?
Will you build in public and candidly improve based on feedback?
Will you control the narrative by getting in front of it?
Will you do some PR magic and turn “bugs” into “features?”
Are the people criticizing you actually people whose opinions are worth caring about?
You’ll never be able to please everyone. Are you focusing on pleasing the right people? In business, this may mean clarifying your niche and messaging. In your personal life, it may mean focusing on pleasing yourself and valuing your own opinion, wants, and needs over what your old high school friends—who you haven’t talked to in 15 years—might say about you.
Fear of Uncertainty:
Rather than risk making the wrong decision, you made none and stagnated. How will you recover now?
What information did you need but didn’t get?
How realistic were your expectations?
We can never know all the variables, so what was the minimum information you needed to make a viable decision?
How can you get this information?
Pursue viability, not perfection.
Fear of Success:
You succeeded. You sold your business, hit your target ARR, published your book—whatever you said you wanted to achieve.
What’s on the other side of success? Paint a vivid picture of what life post-success looks like. The more concrete, the better you’ll be able to inoculate yourself.
Do you become complacent and lose all motivation to better yourself or build amazing companies that make a positive impact on the world?
Does the world hang on your every word because they view you as a trusted authority in your niche, so you’re afraid of how much weight your word carries?
If all you’ve ever known is “the grind” and climbing your way to the top, does it mean “the top” is just a plateau and life will never get better?
How will you continue to grow and challenge yourself?
How will you ensure you don’t let success go to your head?
Who are great role models of people who achieved success and didn’t let their newfound power corrupt them? How did they uphold their responsibility and use their influence for good?
If your word is gospel, how will you temper yourself and live with your newfound celebrity?
Until you scale your first mountain, you can’t see anything beyond it. But once you reach the peak, your perspective changes. Now, you realize you’re at the beginning of the mountain range. Success isn’t something to be feared because your first success opens your eyes to opportunities you couldn’t imagine before. Your first success is critical, because it teaches you you’re capable of achieving it. If you can scale the first mountain, you can scale the next.
Inoculating yourself against fear by deconstructing will put you ahead of most people. But this approach alone isn’t always enough to overcome it. That’s where the next two strategies come in.
Strategy #2: Clarify Your Core Value
We all know overcoming fear is important. But it’s easy to lose perspective on why it’s important.
Linking your goals to your overall vision gives them context and reminds you why achieving them is so important—why it’s worth facing the Four Horsemen of Fear so you can do work that matters.
And the best way I’ve found to create worthwhile goals is to connect them to your Core Value.
Your Core Value is the one underlying value that unites everything you stand for, it’s the running theme across the times in your life you felt alive, it’s what matters most to you, and it’s the most fundamental piece of what a life well lived must include.
Art is a serial entrepreneur whose Core Value is freedom. He breaks this down into two categories: freedom to do things he enjoys and freedom from doing things he doesn’t.
Specifically, the freedom to explore his creativity, build wealth on his terms, embrace his authenticity, control his schedule, travel, and spend time with friends and family. And the freedom from societal expectations, a traditional 9-5 job, and being trapped on the Hedonic Treadmill.
Knowing his Core Value has helped decline certain lucrative consulting and co-founding opportunities because they would’ve robbed him of his freedom.
He’s currently exploring creating 12 projects in 12 months.
Despite the risk of failure, despite what critics might say about the path he’s chosen and the opportunities he’s declined, despite the uncertainty of blazing his own trail, and despite the uncertainty of how his life may change in the future—his Core Value reminds him which path is fulfilling and why facing his fears is worth it in the end.
The Four Horsemen will continually test your resolve. If you create goals that don’t align with what resonates with you on a fundamental level, you won’t stand a chance. But if you focus on creating goals that align with your Core Value, you’ll have high conviction that they’re worth facing your fears to achieve.
So anytime the Horsemen try to trick you into doubting yourself or turning back, you’ll remember why your goals are important, why they’re worth pursuing despite all the obstacles, and why they’re worth facing your fears.
Because of all the goals you could set, of all the opportunities you could pursue, you have to have a system to focus on the ones that are worth it and filter out the rest.
If you want help clarifying your Core Value, I designed a micro-course inside Notion. It takes all the strategies I use to help my private coaching clients—like Art—gain clarity on what they truly care about, so they can do work that matters and filter out the rest.
Check it out here: The Core Value Clarification Toolkit.
Now you’ve got two solid strategies to overcome fear, but the Horsemen are powerful. Too powerful, sometimes.
But there’s something even more powerful than them, and it can help you overcome all of the Horsemen combined.
Strategy #3: Memento Mori
The Four Horsemen trick us into losing perspective.
They lie and tell us to only focus on the negatives, the “what ifs,” and endlessly put off facing our discomfort.
But we don’t have an endless amount of time.
Every fear that holds us back from reaching our potential or doing meaningful work is trivial compared to the fact we’re all going to die. In Latin, memento mori translates to remember you will die–it’s a powerful meditation to use mortality as a motivator to live fully.
When Fear of Failure tells you that you won’t make it, that it’s not worth even starting:
Reply: memento mori.
When Fear of Ridicule threatens you with criticism and humiliation:
Reply: memento mori.
When Fear of Uncertainty tells you you’re not prepared enough, that you need to keep analyzing every possible scenario before moving forward:
Reply: memento mori.
When Fear of Success tells you you won’t recognize yourself on the other side of victory, that you should stay in your comfort zone:
Reply: memento mori.
The Four Horsemen of Fear trick us into losing perspective.
Memento mori puts life back into perspective with crystal clarity.
You get one go at life to do what’s worth doing.
Are you really going to let fear stand in your way?
Between deconstructing fear, clarifying your Core Value, and using mortality as a motivator to live fully, few things can stand in your way of doing work that matters.
The Four Horsemen of Fear are devastatingly powerful.
But they have a weakness: The unknown is what truly terrifies us. The unknown of how to avoid failure. The unknown of which choices we should make. The unknown of how critics will react. The unknown of what’s on the other side of success.
So by clarifying what we’re truly afraid of, and developing strategies to overcome it, we make the unknown known and rob fear of its power over us.
By deconstructing our fears. By considering why what we’re currently doing is worth facing our fear. By putting our fear into perspective and remembering we get one shot to make a difference in this life.
We can conquer the Four Horsemen of Fear to be more Intentional with how we live, work, and create.
If these concepts resonate with you, I run a cohort-based course for creators who want to do work that matters. Part of the course includes deep dives into obstacles keeping you from doing meaningful work, including the Four Horsemen.
So if you’re interested in joining a cohort of like-minded creators dedicated to overcoming fear, doing work that matters, and building a life and business aligned with their values, check out the course page for more information.