How many great things have never happened because of fear? How many times did you give up on a dream because of fear? This weeks episode, we’re going to talk about fear, what it is, what it does, and how to move past it.
This last week, I had the good fortune to be in the studio at the filming of Creative Live’s podcast week. It was one of the most inspiring and amazing growth experiences I’ve been at in years. The energy that present and the generosity of time and knowledge from so many creatives has truly rekindled my own creative juices.
But even as I think about all the creative projects that I’d like to complete in the next few months, I kept feeling this fear rise up in my chest. It was a literal feeling that I could feel. A kind of crushing anxiety.
“There are more things likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”
— Seneca (Letters from a Stoic – Letter XIII: On Groundless Fears)
My life has been full of a lot of fear. For the most part, I grew up in Salt Lake where your whole life is judged about how well you hold the Mormon church’s standards. I grew up with an abusive father who himself was plagued by his own fears about his own sexuality. I grew up steeped in fear.
I wanted to be a musician and an actor, but I didn’t follow through because was so afraid I would fail. I would ask myself, “What if I never make it into a single movie or write a single song?”, “What if I am a poor actor or musician my whole life?” It was just too much for me to consider so I got a degree in business and became a programmer. In my spare time, I would skirt around the edges of my art, talking about the things I wanted to do. I would buy music gear that would get used for a short time, then sit unused on the shelf for months or years. When I did pick things up and work on them, I could never even finish a song because I was so afraid that nothing I wrote would be very good. I have dozens of half-written songs that I was too afraid to finish.
“The three biggest fears in life are: The fear of success, the fear of failure, and the fear of judgment.”
— Lewis Howes
One of the days at Creative Live included an interview with between Chase Jarvis and Lewis Howes. If you’re not familiar with either of them, Chase is a photographer at the top of his game and the founder of Creative Live, and Lewis Howes has a very successful podcast called The School of Greatness. So much of the interview was truly inspiring, but there was a moment where Lewis said, “the three biggest fears in life are: The fear of success, the fear of failure, and the fear of judgment.” When they talked about this, I felt that same nervous anxious feeling because I could recognize exactly what each of those felt like.
I remember those fears that plagued me every time I thought about being an artist. If I succeeded, could I handle it or would I implode? If I failed, could I handle it? Could I be a poor artist? What if I wasn’t very good? What would people think of me? What would I think of myself?
“Remember, however, before all else, to strip things of all that disturbs and confuses, and to see what each is at bottom; you will then comprehend that they contain nothing fearful except the actual fear.”
— Seneca (Letters from a Stoic – Letter XXIV: On Despising Death)
When I get to the bottom on what scared me, I really found that there was nothing there. If I was successful, I had a good head on my shoulders and trusted that I could make good decisions. If I never became a successful actor, I would survive, even if it meant that I lived a more frugal life. But I think it was the judgments of others that was scared me the most. What would they think if I failed? What if they didn’t like my music or my acting? And it’s taken me decades to realize that what others think about my art doesn’t matter.
“Many of the anxieties that harass you are superfluous: being but creatures of your own fancy, you can rid yourself of them and expand into an ampler region, letting your thought sweep over the entire universe, contemplating the illimitable tracts of eternity, marking the swiftness of change in each created thing, and contrasting the brief span between birth and dissolution with the endless aeons that precede the one and the infinity that follows the other.”
— Marcus Aurelius (Meditations – Book IX)
What Marcus is telling us here is the anxieties and fears that try to crush us are not only not necessary, but they are simply creations of our own minds. And when we get rid of those, we can free up the resources of our minds to think about the most amazing things, and create the most awesome vision of the universe and our own lives!
I think this fear failure is what’s at the root of so much of our suffering, so I think that it’s a really big part of why we’re often unhappy. So how do we deal with this fear of failure?
First, you need to let go of the outcome and focus on the process. When we are so worried about something not turning out how we want it to, we start to question why we’re doing what we’re doing. We start second-guessing the choices we make. We may even decide to give up on the whole venture because we can’t control how it will turn out. If we can let go of trying to create a specific outcome, and be okay with whatever the outcome is (there’s that whole stoic thing about controlling what you can and letting go of the rest), then we can start to let go of the worrying, and put that energy towards creating.
Second, when you start to feel that fear, you acknowledge it. You recognize that it’s just your brain trying to protect you and the more that you run from it, the scarier it seems. For me, I found if I say it out loud, usually to someone I trust, it’s like shining a flashlight on a shadow. It loses its power.
Third, you can play the worst case scenario game. What happens if I write a song no one likes? What’s the worst that can happen? No one listens to my song. Does it physically hurt me or am I going to die from it? No.
The next time you hit that anxiety and the fear starts to creep up in your chest, don’t run from it, make peace with it. I’ve heard from creative people all the time, that feeling of fear usually means you’re heading in the right direction.