What’s More Motivating: Hope or Fear?

I think that there are two main emotions that motivate people to go out and create big change: hope and fear. When we’re talking about things like starting a business, moving to a new city, getting married and so on, we often act either because we’re trying to get away from something or because we’re moving towards something. For example, many people start businesses because they’re broke and they can’t find a job. Other people start businesses because they’re passionate about something, and they’re optimistic about what they can accomplish. And both businesses may succeed.

It’s important to say that fear and hope aren’t mutually exclusive. You may feel both at the same time. It’s normal to feel at least a little bit afraid when you’re doing something new, or making a big change, even if you’re moving towards something you’ve always dreamed about. At the same time, speaking just for myself, I can usually identify what my primary motivator is – fear or hope. I may have both, but my actions and thoughts betray which one is driving me in the moment.

I was curious about which is a more powerful motivator: fear or hope? Is it helpful to have that urgency driving you so that you really feel as if you need to act right now? Or are you more successful when you feel optimistic?

Fear is arguably the most powerful motivator there is. I never move more quickly than when I believe that one of my kids is in danger, for instance. This is actually what fear is designed for – to invoke that fight or flight response that gets us moving and keeps us out of danger. The problem, though, is that fear isn’t just a motivator – it’s also an inhibitor. Fear can also paralyze you, leaving you unable to act. And fear doesn’t always lead to the best decisions, because once that adrenaline starts flowing we’re not really thinking through our actions in the same way.

Baby amaranth
Little seedlings popping up through the soil make me feel hopeful

Fear is the voice of your dragons. It’s the voice that’s working so hard to keep you safe that it would happily lock you up in a box and never let you out. It’s awfully hard to create a better life when you’re stuck in a box.

On the other hand, hope is synonymous with optimism, and optimism plays a big role in living a happier, more purpose-filled life. Overall, optimists enjoy better physical and mental health. There’s also some evidence to suggest they earn more money. And on some level, this just makes sense. When you believe that your work will pay off, it’s easier to put in the effort.

So, what does this mean? It means that when you’re setting goals for yourself, it’s more effective to be positive than it is to be negative. Say, for example, that you want to earn more money. If you think about escaping from stress, worry, the house you’re living in right now, or the coat with the broken zipper that you can’t afford to replace, you’re focusing on what you don’t want. This leads you into the fear place, and doesn’t give you any clues about what to actually do to get out of the situation. Instead, if you think about something you’d like to do when you earn more money, you’re operating out of hope. As you imagine the life you’d actually like to live, you’re visioning a future that you can take concrete steps towards creating.

Of course, we need to be responsible in our optimism. We shouldn’t jump into a new situation without considering how we can make it work. As I said, fear can be a normal and healthy response, when we use it to stay safe. But when we let our fear run the show, we’re not motivating ourselves to create something good, we’re escaping from something without a specific destination in mind. And it’s awfully hard to realize your dreams if you don’t know where you’re going.

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A New Direction

As of January 1, 2013, Crafting my Life is closed. The blog will remain open, and I invite you to take the time to read through the archives and use them as a resource. If you find them helpful, or if you'd like to keep in touch with me, please take the time to visit me on my personal blog at Strocel.com. While I'm no longer creating online tools, I am still chronicling my personal journey as a life-crafter. I'd love it if you'd come along for the ride.


  1. I love this article. I’ve read a lot of online stuff, but I’m going to bookmark this so I can find it when I get depressed or I need a little kick in the butt. It’s so true and you said it in an honest, understandable way. Thanks for writing this.
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