Cave Dwellers

I live like a caveman. Despite my modern home, two cars, multiple technological devices and a nice wardrobe, I am no more than a fancy mammal – granted, one who doesn’t have to kill what my family eats, thanks to Wegmans. But human mammals have always, according to many scientific theories, processed 60,000-80,000 thoughts per day, many of them – even today – based in fear.

From homo erectus creating spoken language to the more recent homo sapiens advancing both spoken and then written language, a persistent theme has emerged: fear, reflecting in and creating innate negative bias. Our language has been largely disempowering, and most of our thought processes haven’t changed in millennia. From the days of the caveman, it seems that fear is often our default emotion

To be clear, this negative bias isn’t “bad”; it’s been an essential survival mechanism allowing us to roam and populate the earth. However, in all its survival greatness, it is limiting the way we think, and therefore limiting our behaviors and potential.

Psychological barriers, often referred to as “limiting beliefs,” are thoughts we hold that keep us safe. Whether you believe in creationism or evolution, these beliefs were either intelligently designed or evolved to keep us safe and alive, ensuring the best potential for our genes to move forward in time (that’s another way of saying that we’d live long enough to reach sexual maturity and reproduce.)

If you’re not excited about living life through this disempowering thought process, you’re not alone. Here’s where it gets interesting and lucrative. The “self-help” market value in the U.S. was reported to be valued at $11.6 billion in 2019. That’s only about 2 billion shy of the U.S. “erotic entertainment” industry. One way or another, we spend a lot of money trying to feel better.

The amount of money we spend is one way to measure the interest in a product, service or market; another way is to pay attention to trends. Year over year, the number of leadership, management, employee engagement, and business effectiveness book titles has increased 11 percent from the years 2013-19. There are just under 20,000 certified coaches in 114 countries, according to the International Coaching Federation, the largest and most reputable coaching certification establishment.

Yet we’re evidently still mired in that negative bias. We’re still polarized by topics like politics, religion and sex. We’re fighting over who is right or wrong, we’re distributing money inequitably and we’re hoarding resources like vaccines and food stocks.

And if that underlying cause of the negative bias is fear, I also believe that such fear, while primal, has shifted to somewhat of a secondary emotional response for most contemporary humans. My theory is that we are constantly grappling for control, and are not very adept at letting go or getting out of the way.

When the stakes are high or we are feeling anxious or deeply concerned about something, our confidence and optimism might not be as readily available as we’d like. This is going to sound like “coach blasphemy,” but far too many coaches provide shallow “arm-chair psychology” that results in false confidence. Many people set goals – goal setting can work – but I find that in times of greater concern, setting a goal is like wearing a raincoat into a Class 5 Hurricane. It’s just not going to hold up to the pressures and demands of the situation, and you’re going to get wet.

I’ve written about the problems with goal setting in the past, but I’m going to now suggest that Tim Ferris may have the better idea: Fear Setting.

Fear Setting allows us to get out of our own way by facing the “worst case scenario,” releasing or surrendering control by planning for that worst case situation. The idea is not to manifest the fear into reality but rather to be ready for it in case it occurs … which, in reality, it rarely does.

The ancient saying of “It’s better to be a warrior in a garden in times of peace than a gardener in a battlefield in times of war” holds true. The execution of performance requires the warrior in all of us, and that means preparing and releasing control and knowing you are truly ready for anything that comes.

As we fear set, as we clarify the greater fear we are having in a situation, we come to learn that there are probably many, many more likely scenarios that will occur than the greater fear. The key to fear setting is that we can then plan for the most likely outcomes and shift our attention and energy to creating something even better.

When I was in my mid-20s, I found myself struggling with control and sought the guidance of a spiritual counselor. He shared a story about the capturing of monkeys for the illegal exotic pet trade, and it stays with me every day almost three decades later. Do you know how they catch monkeys? It’s simple, and I’m prone to the same dynamic … and you may be, too:

The captor sets up a large clear jar with a small piece of bait in it, usually a piece of fruit. The jar’s lid is prepared with a slit cut into it that allows the monkey’s hand to pass through to grab the fruit, but does not allow his fisted hand with the fruit to exit the jar. The monkey becomes so enthralled with his dilemma that his anxiety causes him to try harder and harder. The monkey will literally watch his captor approach him and scoop him up because he won’t let go of the fruit. He can’t get out of his own way.

What is your jar of fruit? In the new year, I encourage you to face it head-on even if it means relinquishing control, because that’s how we can ultimately put our negative biases back where they belong – the cave.


This Viewpoint originally appeared in the Central New York Business Journal on February 21, 2022.

Bill Berthel is a partner with Emergent, L.L.C., a provider of executive coaching and leadership training, based in Syracuse. Contact him at