Book Review - Michael Carroll: Fearless at Work

Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.
— Pema Chödrön

Fearless at Work actually isn't a book about work. It's a book about cowardice. The kind of cowardice most of us comfortably have forgotten about, and to aid that process we conveniantly began to call it everyday life. It's the cowardice that masks itself as numb acceptance or bitter withdrawal, as grudging tolerance or thick-skinned suffering. Fearless at Work is a book about the siege-mentality that most of us have come to live in these days: the mental state that perceives life as a constant attack of unpredictable forces, an onslaught against our well-crafted plans, against what we believe to deserve and against the life-script we have imagined for ourselves. It's the kind of cowardice that cannot accept life in its raw and essential form - with all its pain and all its beauty - and therefore constantly feels betrayed and under attack.

I don't know Michael Carroll and I don't know exactly what the traditions are that he pulls upon in equipping us with the remedies against such self-inflicted path of destruction. At the end of his book he calls out four 'fearless traditions' as his main sources: the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, the Shamballa Warrior path, the Sun Tzu Military practices and the Kasung-Command Protection Methods. I have only vague ideas of what those terms stand for and actually no intend to dig deeper into their origins or how they might be presented by other authors. Why, you might ask, if I am so powerfully blown away by this book?

Truth be told, I hold a deep scepticism against Buddhist teachers/ authors who come forth to heal the Western world through ancient Eastern meditation techniques. In his excellent book Michael Carroll skillfully avoids the two main reasons of such scepticism:

  1. Most traditional Buddhist techniques require the practitioner to have at least a solid expertise in meditation (i.e. mental stillness and centerdness) to actually work. If the people who needed the advise had enough self-discipline and mental stability to sit down several times a week to build their meditation practice they probably wouldn't need any advise in the first place. So talking to them about the great things we can achieve once we have settled into a smooth rhythm of daily or weekly practice often just results in rubbing salt into their wounds or in a narcissitic way of showing off one's superior life skills.
  2. Most traditional Buddhist techniques approach life from a perspective that it unfolds its true beauty only once we either withdraw from from life in a state of unattached observation or immerse ourselves into it in a state of complete single-pointed awareness (which in essence is the same). Both of these perspectives present a worldview that our ordinary state of life somehow is broken, and now requires such mental crutches in order to be fixed and brought back to an acceptable level. Such a worldview is deeply at odds with how I look at life as a gnostic-shaman. 

Here is the heart of the problem as I see it and the challenge Carroll approaches with such unique skill: The mind of most people is a cage built from misguided premises and ideas about what it takes to happily exist in this world. Asking them to step out of this cage and to look at it from a distance (as is possible through the aid of the right mental or spiritual techniques), will sound crazy to them and only increase their suffering. What they need is not more proof-stories of some adepts or master-practitioners who have left the cage successfully before them. Before their journey even can begin, what they need first and foremost are new, more healthy ideas about life. Ideas that can replace their existing self-destructing ones. 

See, every metal bar in that cage we sit in all by ourselves is nothing but a cognitive concept. These ideas do not exist, except for in our minds. Yet, they are powerful dogmas, so deeply held we cannot change them anymore at will. What upholds these believes is the way we have come to look at the world. The most powerful tool we can be given, therefore, is an unfamiliar idea. Something that knocks us off centre - and once we have pulled our minds together again still leaves our orientation slightly altered. The more often this process is repeated - the more often we allow such new ideas to knock us off centre - the more flexible the sockets of the metal poles become. Until one day they'll be loose enough to be re-arranged - and for us to build a door through which we can walk right out of our old lives. Should we choose to.

I recommend to be careful with Michael Carroll's book. Only read it if you are willing for the poles of your cage to turn a little loose. For that you will not even need to sit down and medidate. Because his book is just so good and a true pandora's box - filled to the brim with unfamiliar ideas. The best thing for me personally about them was: most of them come stripped free of any Buddhist-terminology or Chinese warrior speak. Most of these ideas actually wear street-clothes or just seem to return from the grocery store. And this is the trick Carroll achieves like no other author I have read in the last six to eight years: he sneaks these new ideas through the metal poles inside our cage, he presents them so straight forward ordinaryly as if they had already always been with us. And right when we see them for what they are, they'll knock us off centre. One punch at a time.

Let me share just two examples.

1 | Fear as the Enemy of a Noble Life

In one of the early chapters of the book Carroll clarifies that in order to live a fearless life we first must 'recognize fear'. He goes on to examine the origins of fear both as a biological survival mode as well as neurological impulse. Yet, the idea that knocked me off centre completely was to recognize fear as a bargain that trades nobility* for subservience in the attempt to increase one's personal safety.

Consider this: the dancing bear that follows its master pulled on a ring through its nose could kill its master at any moment with a single stroke of its paw. Yet it chooses not to. Instead it chooses to lead a life stripped bare of all of the beauty and nobility that these creatures hold in wildlife - and to bargain it for safety. Safety from that terrible stick the master carries, safety from the pain in its nose that the master rules over and safety to know that at the end of the day it will be fed. The way the master tricked the bear into such a life was through years of training. Training in this case means forcing the bear through a carefully arranged choreography of painful experiences that created its conditioned mindset. It means creating a metal cage of believes the bear begins to hold on to - and that allows the master to rule over it.

Now, unfortunately it's life's nature (or our natural reaction to it?) to try to pull metal rings through our noses. Leading a life ruled by fear actually is the easiest thing. Leading a noble one instead is one of the hardest. Secret masters with sticks and whips and leashes pulled upon us wait on every doorstep and corneer: the masters of time pressure, of constant availability, of a mindset of competition instead of collaboration, of the constant strive for luxury, etc. 

The funny thing is, just like the bear we could kill each of these masters with a single stroke of our paw. And yet most of us choose not to. Instead one moment at a time we choose to trade in our own nobility as human beings - in exchange for a false sense of safety against environmental threats that still will get to use whenever they need to.

Mr.Carroll's take on fear as a force that takes nobility from me and requests subservience instead was the kind of punch that knocked me well off centre. And once I recovered, I found one of the metal bars in my cage had turned a little loose.

Life can be so pathetically convenient when we prefer. (...) Clearly discerning how we betray our humanity in our addiction to modern-day conveniences sets the stage for actually taking a straight dose, where we fearlessly experience life on its own terms, not ours.
— Michael Carroll
In order to be truly heroic and to gain victory over fear and aggression, we must exhaust our need for petty satisfaction and instead cultivate an utterly precise and clear way of being in the world. Whether we practice the martial arts or oncology, zazen or business leadership, ikebana or computer science, mastering our particular discipline is vital, for it provides a form for being in the world - a foundation from which to skilfully act.
— Michael Carroll

2 | Cowardice as a Root Cause
for Giving in to Fear

The second example connects to what we explored earlier and comes with a real contradiction. In my eyes that's actually what makes it so good. So bear with me as I provide a little context.

Over the last thirty years an entire new research branch of psychology and social sciences ermeged which is now called 'positive psychology'. At its heart this young discipline is looking at our human condition of happiness - what enhances it, sustains or cripples it. The pure fact that such a discipline now exists - and receives a significant amount of commercial media attention since the last three years in particular - is a testament to how obsessed our Western society has become with the concept of happiness.

Now, what knocked me off centre was how brilliantly Mr.Carroll interconnects the seemingly unrelated concepts of 'cowardism' and 'happiness'. Essentially he acknowledges that our obsession with always needing to be happy has led to a set of behavioural patterns that are not only highly disfunctional, but in essence born out of cowardice. Worse still, they have become socially accepted.

The term cowardice describes an absence of courage. And it clearly takes a lot of courage to always keep our heads up and to look life straight into its eye. (Yes, sometimes it can feel like Sauron's!) 

Whether you’re waiting in line for a cup of coffee, sitting in a meeting that appears to be going nowhere, or just riding a bus, notice when you feel restless. You may unwittingly begin to fidget: playing with a pencil, humming to yourself, maybe rehearsing a story line over and over in your head. Such fidgeting is essentially a coward’s move. Rather than leaning into our experience, we lean away because we are not sufficiently entertained.
— Michael Carroll

Our pursuit for happiness so easily results in the misperception that life is here to entertain us. And whenever it fails to do so we simply escape into modern technology to force entertainment upon our present experience. Even if that comes for the price of 'leaning away' from what is actually going on around us. And that is a coward's move, as Mr.Carroll puts it so well. 

Choosing not to be fully present - especially when what we see, feel, hear, smell is not very pleasant - is an act born out of cowardice. It's as simple as that: No one can expect that life treats them like a noble wo/man when they choose to behave like a coward. The very foundation for making wise choices and for ultimately leading a fearless life is to lean into every single moment - and ideally nakedly so, without cover, protection or excuses.

In the subsequent chapters Fearless at Work provides stunning advise on how to do this in a truly genuine way. Without artificial bravery. Without adept level Buddhist techniques. Without going beyond what we have to give as who we are today. To give you a better idea of the type of advise you can expect - as well as it's great language - here is a mind-map overview of the book's content, excluding its large appendix...

Now you tell me, but to me these chapter headings alone carry so much wisdom already: 'face the fierce facts of life - be alone - gently bow - let it break - stabilise attention - command gracefully...'  

I guess it is fair to call Carroll's book dangerous. But once we accept its fundamental premise - that life isn't here to please us - it also proves to be incredible tender and gentle. Carroll knows how to hold the delicate balance between having empathy with what it means to be human and directly calling out our disfunctional defense scripts for what they truly are. To me any advise offered from such vantage point is golden. Advise from the hands of someone who won't let me get away with my well practiced excuses. And yet someone who once I am exposed will treat me with empathy for why I created these excuses in the first place: Because I believed there was something so fragile underneath I had to hide it. 

It takes a gentle author to navigate the open range that lies beyond the great wall of our defense scripts. Out there some of the realisations we have to confront are just harsh and many are humiliating. It takes courage after all to recognize oneself as a coward. And yes, it is temptingly easy to drown the author's voice in our own cynicism or just stop reading. But then we'd keep us from the greatest surprise! Because what we considered too fragile to be exposed, really just is an old skin ready to come off. Shielding it from any sight or touch as we often do, does nothing but keep us from growing a new one. Carroll offers a ton of wonderful examples and illustrations for this...

In the end, I guess, many of the core messages of Carroll's book are not vastly different from many other books on mindfulness and self-development. Funnily that shouldn't even come as a surprise - as the truth is quite simple. We are all thrown into a life that loves death and destruction just as much as life and birth. And yet most of us prefer to sit in our cages made up of our own believes rather than confronting this quintessentially untamed realty. 

Where Carroll's book truly stands out is not in how it portrays this reality, but in how it helps to turn the metal poles of our cages loose and allows to explore new paths out into that unchartered open which lies beyond. Here is an author who has mastered the art of being as empathetic as relentless and brutally honest. That's quite a rare skill to encounter. 

Before we close, let me illustrate the value of this book in a different way. Consider this: Before Blade Runner we all had seen a hundred Sci-Fi flicks. Each one playing with the same stereotypical plot components, sceneries and characters. Then came Blade Runner. And suddenly we saw what all the other movies before had meant to portray. It was only with Ridley Scott's movie that we made our own firsthand encounter of a dystopian vision that seemed so genuine, so raw and timeless as if it had always existed beyond the silver screen. What it did not seem was man-made. Instead it seemed mythic. And yet the main difference to all other Sci-Fi movies essential lay in the vantage point from which we experienced the story and in the utterly new artistic voice that told it. So here we go. See for yourself. Fearless at Work just might be the Blade Runner of all Mindfulness books. 

Mastery is not a matter of dominating or winning but about living a graceful, beautiful life. (...) In our approach to the world the great weapon we have is gentleness.
— Michael Carroll


Okay, I normally try to avoid working with footnotes. But this one is too good not to call it out. The term 'noble' has become so archaic to many of us that it can be easily misunderstood. Let's clarify it's original meaning: in the Middle Ages it actually meant 'distinguished or worthy of honor or respect'. The Latin root nobilis has a broad range of meanings such as 'famous, excellent, superior or high-born'. The even older etymological root of the word is of particular interest though. *gnobilis meant 'knowable' stemming from its own root of gnoscere which translates as 'to come to know'. So here we have the linguistic link right in front of us - between the idea of leading a fearless or noble life and the purpose of the gnostic tradition. To lead a life illuminated by knowledge from within.