Fear Is a Tool of the Trade: Here's How to Use It

Fear isn't just natural in the course of ambition, it's vital. Here's why.

Posted Jul 24, 2019

What holds most people back from pursuing their passions and callings isn't so much lack of talent or time or know-how. It's fear. Fear of submitting your work to a world that wears big dirty boots. Fear of risking public exposure that invites rejection, criticism and bad book reviews. Fear of putting blood, sweat and tears into something that isn't a sure thing. Fear of what failure may say about you, or what success may demand of you. Fear of closing doors without knowing whether they can ever be opened again.

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Most people, myself included, won’t pursue their passions until the fear of doing so is finally exceeded by the pain of not doing so, but it’s appalling how high a threshold we have for this quality of pain. The truth is, we all have a part of us that simply fears change and reacts to it with a reflexive flinch, the way snails recoil at the touch. And our callings are messengers of change, bells that toll for thee, and they bring on the fear that frightens away sleep. There’s no guarantee that change will be a change for the better. An acquaintance of mine once summed up the fearsomeness of callings quite neatly when he said, “You shall know the truth and it shall make you nap.”

The minute you take up oars in pursuit of something you don't currently possess, you set off into the unknown, and fear is a natural response. It's the great goblin of risk-taking and has been since human life first winked on. In myth and literature, for instance, whenever dragons appear, no matter what names they go by, they're all fear, and we encounter them at every stage of the quest: every threshold, every turning point, every crossroad. Fear, like a dragon, is determined to hang on to life, but it's also a signal that you’re close to something vital and that your calls are worthy of you.

But because the building of any enterprise involves taking risks, and thereby kindling fear, you have to possess the ability—more importantly the willingness—to have a relationship with your fears, to examine the experience of fear when it arises. In other words, don't ignore it or deny it. Whatever is suppressed not only has power over you, but will help create obstacles to continually remind you of what you're hiding from, where you feel you don't measure up, and where you don't have faith in yourself.

You can’t, for instance, convince yourself one clear-headed and optimistic day that you no longer feel any fear, and that you will sit right down and do Something Important, without expecting that your subconscious, unable to stomach the hypocrisy and in fact feeling genuine fear, will turn on the television and order out for pizza, or discover some unfinished project that suddenly seems in immediate need of resurrection, or insist that you couldn’t possibly get a lick of work done with your office looking the way it does.

The attempt to avoid fear is part of what psychologist Abraham Maslow called the Jonah Complex: “The evasion of one’s own growth, the setting of low levels of aspiration, the fear of doing what one is capable of doing, voluntary self-crippling, pseudo-stupidity, mock humility.”

Success often has as much to do with finding what's standing in your way as it does with talent or persistence. Marcel Proust, for example, couldn't finish his epic Remembrance of Things Past until after his mother died. He was too inhibited by the fear that his material might hurt her feelings.

Just as you can't acquire immunity to a disease without first coming into contact with it, you'll never move through your fears until you move through them, not around them. Fear of the dark won't be ameliorated by turning on night-lights. Light doesn't eliminate the fear of the dark; it only eliminates the dark. Similarly, not sharing your passions with the world doesn't stop your fear of rejection; it only stops the rejection.

Think about how you feel when someone else takes your fear and pain to heart when you feel heard and witnessed. The pain begins to dissolve. Well, you can do the same for yourself by believing your pain, taking it seriously, knowing that it has meaning and utility and that out of it grows the knowledge that is power.

Unfortunately, we've become conditioned to avoid what's fearful. The logic is impeccable at an emotional level: if you don't try, then you don't have to be afraid. Avoidance becomes its own reward.

So what's wrong with avoiding what you're afraid of?

Nothing—unless you fear ants and like picnics, fear elevators and work on the 30th floor, fear failure and like success.

The fight-or-flight mechanism was never meant to be stuck in the “on” position. Fears are supposed to be real, not imaginary. They were designed to warn you of large, dark shadows in long, narrow caves, stepping out of your car at the safari park, breathing underwater. They're actually there at your service, though it may not often feel that way. For one thing, when fears begin to surface, especially after a deep sleep, they don't do so quietly. Pain isn't subtle when the anesthesia wears off. But where there's fear, there's power. So use your fears. Don't let them use you.

One of the great fears, of course, is the one attached, like a barnacle to rock, to the idea of failure. And though you might try to pep yourself up by affirming that it's OK to fail and that those who succeed the most fail the most, most of us have also found that failure is much scarier in person than in theory. Yes, it's OK to fail, but it's quite a different matter to actually live with failure, or with someone who's failing regularly, especially if they're failing with family money.

Still, success is as much a matter of making mistakes as making headway, and the worst mistake in life—certainly in business—is being in constant fear of making one. “If you're not failing regularly,” I was once told by a mentor, “you're living so far below your potential that you're failing anyway.”

Failures are not only natural in the course of ambition, but they're also vital. When I look back at incidents that, at the time, I thought of as disasters and defeats, I see that they often became some of the most colossal opportunities in my career, the biggest turning points in my life. If I hadn't hated the first college I attended, I would never have transferred to a school where I took a course called “How to Run a College Newspaper,” which was my initiation into journalism. If I hadn't had the courage to leave my job in journalism, Writer's Digest Books would never have approached me to write a book about the freelance life, my introduction to the world of being an author.

Some people call these experiences “directive crises” or “falling up.” They're failures that set you up for ultimately life-enhancing changes. As in a Dickens novel, accidental encounters and happenstances turn out to be formative events. But you have no idea at the time; only in retrospect. So when failures occur, ask what they might be showing you, how they might be plot twists you won't understand for another 200 pages.

As meditation students often learn, whatever interruptions occur while “sitting” are not distractions from the meditation; they are the meditation. Similarly, failures (and fears) aren't obstacles in your path; they are your path. Don't fight them. To borrow a bit of folk wisdom, “If it starts to rain, let it.”

Think like a scientist: life is an experiment in which there are no failures, only results. So how you interpret the results of your own experiments will determine how successful you feel. If, for instance, after a potential client rejects your product, you conclude “the wrong client,” that's very different from concluding “lousy product,” though it may well be that your product needs more work. Either way, it will greatly affect your next step.

And you need to keep taking those steps. The more time you spend locked in your study with your slippers by the desk, your books arranged alphabetically on the shelves, and your pencils sharpened just the way you like them, the less time you have to frighten yourself with the uncertainties of the road and the anxieties of adventure. You can comfort yourself with the thought that even if none of your dreams come true then at least neither will your nightmares. But hidden deep in the heart is the beneficent fear of living life, as Henry Miller once put it, without ever leaving the birdcage, and you need to touch that fear.

Outside the cage is life in all its discomfiting grandeur, all the spill and stomp and shout of it, all the come and go of it, all of it waiting for you to act on the one hand, and rushing down the hourglass on the other.

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