Language Learning

How to use Tim Ferriss’ fear-setting exercise to finally learn a foreign language

Credits: Anne Helmond –


Tim Ferriss has an unusual approach when it comes to learning a foreign language. But that’s not what I want to talk about here.

In 2017, he was invited to speak on the main TED stage. The name of his talk was Why you should define your fears instead of your goals. Tim has used his fear-setting strategy to make life-changing decisions, business decisions, …

In this post, I’m going to show you how you can apply this approach to language learning.


What if…?

The first part of fear-setting is definition. Instead of setting a goal, set your fears. Think about something you’re avoiding in your life. Something you know would totally change your life for the better. It could be anything. Starting a business, working out, moving to a foreign country, getting out of a relationship, buying pink goats, eating blue avocados, … But you keep putting it off. Because you’re afraid to make the first move. You’re afraid to get started. You’re afraid to fail. You’re afraid of the potential changes.

Fill in the blank: What if ___ ?

Then write three columns.

First: Define. Why are you afraid? What might go wrong? List 3-10 (or more) items.

Second: Prevent. For each item, how can you prevent it? How can you reduce the risk of this item happening? Even just a little bit.

Third: Repair. For each item, if it were to occur, what can you do to fix it afterwards?


Second part

What are the positive outcomes in case of a success? Or even if you’re partially successful.


Third part

Ask yourself what the cost of your inaction is. If you don’t start moving NOW, what will it cost you 6 months from now? 1 year from now? 3 years from now? What would be the emotional costs? The physical costs? The financial costs?


“Okey, it’s all goooood. But what does it have to do with language learning?”

Well, Rick, I’m glad you asked.

Let’s say you’re thinking about learning Spanish.

But, deep down, for some reason, you’re scared. You’re afraid of learning Spanish. Or you feel like you don’t need to spend time on this right now.

Ok so you’re going to start with: “What if I learned Spanish?”


First part – Anticipation

What if I learned Spanish?


  1. I might fail at learning the language.
  2. I might no get understood when I speak.
  3. I might get humiliated in a situation where I misuse a word.


  1. Instead of hoping for the best, I’m going to choose a method that has proven to work, and religiously follow it.
  2. I can use simple words, words that I’m comfortable with, to make myself understood. Even if I speak like Tarzan.
  3. I won’t use words that I’ve never used before.


  1. I can hire a language coach, a successful polyglot, or book a language class.
  2. I can ask native speakers for feedback on my pronunciation, or pay for a personal tutor.
  3. I will make sure to expand my vocabulary. I’m going to learn how to be less self-conscious, and how to laugh about this situation.


Second part – Positive outcomes

Potential positive outcomes: I could get a raise, I could speak to my neighbors in their native language, I could travel without being a gringo.

And even if I only partially succeed: I’ll have a better understanding of how to learn a foreign language. I’ll have tried something new in my life. And, looking backwards, I could learn from that experience to learn another skill.


Third part – The cost of inaction

If I don’t learn Spanish, in 6 months, I’ll have missed this raise that my boss have promised me on the condition that I learn Spanish to negotiate with our biggest clients.

In 1 year, my girlfriend will have broken up with me, because I will have made no effort to communicate with his Hispanic parents.

In 3 years, I will get fired. Failing to learn Spanish, my boss will have hired someone else.


I usually write about strategies and tips that I personally use.

Not this time though. I’ve never used it because I naturally learn foreign languages. I don’t need external (or internal) incentives to get going.

But I feel like it can be a great exercise for anyone putting off learning a foreign language, for whatever reason.

Give it a try. And let me know how it goes.

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