Just in Time for Hallowe’en: On Fear in Doing Creative Work . . .

“The only solution is to start today, to start now, and to ship” (Seth Godin)

“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” (Sheryl Sandberg)

In this blog posting, and in my writing business, I’m exploring the necessity of acting or working despite one’s own fears. I’m not talking about a high-pitched fear that lasts for ages—that would be a red flag that something is seriously wrong. But I am thinking about the anxiety or discomfort that one feels when taking on “yet another” contract in an already busy schedule. (You could want to take the work, because this new client recognizes your value, and so pays better or  takes particular interest in your work.) Or the fear associated with interviewing for an ongoing freelance (or retainer) contract, when you can find excuses to “make do” with the list of clients you’ve already got. And on and on it goes . . . .

The ability to act in the face of this kind of (daily) fear is absolutely necessary, if a writer is to grow. It’s perfectly normal and understandable to feel fear when reaching to fulfill a more demanding assignment than you’ve done before. And it’s natural to be nervous when you  agree to a due date that falls sooner than feels comfortable, as the condition of a new contract. In a much earlier blog, I reviewed Jonathan Fields’ book on the subject, Uncertainty (Portfolio Penguin, 2011). Fields discusses how to turn fear and doubt into fuel for the kind of risk-taking that yields “brilliance” or success.

I’ve found even more purposeful Seth Godin’s brilliant insights, in Linchpin: Are you Indispensable (Portfolio Penguin, 2010). Godin writes extensively on the “lizard brain.” That archaic part of the brain always seeks out comfort, safety and avoids any kind of risk.

When I have misgivings about a cold call that I’m about to make, or about negotiating a better fee, I feel discomfort, and sometimes for a tantalizing moment, my ol’ “lizard brain” fantasizes about escape. But I’ve trained myself to change the mental frequency that plays in my mind. I do so by consciously thinking of self-affirming realities. (Here, using the insights of cognitive and behavioural therapy can be useful—in recordings or simple exercises. Expert Web Copywriter Nick Usborne has self-published a short book of these, called “Affirmations for Freelancers”at http://bit.ly/nMS8fv  )

Challenges are always opportunities for growth, because one learns greatly about such things as how to negotiate terms in business, about what kind of a client you are working with (are they going to be a long-term, high quality source of contracts?); about one’s own capacities to work under pressure; and about ways to deal better with similar situations, in the future.

Avoiding such opportunities out of fear guarantees loss of work, lost self-respect and assertiveness, leads to a reduced client base and, ironically, greater fear of the next time another challenging opportunity for work arises. To give in to fear is to short-change oneself of any opportunity for growth. (I often think of that predicament as someone flailing their way through a tall-hedged maze, blindly, desperately seeking an “easy way out.”)

Not only freelancers, but clients, too, may feel more fear than they acknowledge or confess. The success of the project that they are offering to you may determine how well the next quarter will be, financially. Or receiving work that is less than excellent could reflect badly on their judgment in selecting a service provider. They might like to offer better fees to a freelancer, but are afraid of breaking out of the “low-ball” practices of years past . . . .  And that’s just scratching the surface of what a client may be facing.

It also bears saying that work that challenges (in healthy ways) one’s limits is more fulfilling to do than work that is merely expedient (e.g. doing a repeat contract; choosing a “day job” that doesn’t use your abilities, but offers more security than freelancing, etc.)

Trying to “fight” fear only makes it worse.  What one needs is to evade its grasp by thinking of something else and by working in the face of it. Fear and anxiety alike grow when one wrestles mentally with them. Instead, one has to look the other way, if one is to find enough calm and confidence to create.

The bottom line is that perfectionism underlies all such fear, anxiety and uncertainty. Even a straightforward task can loom threateningly over one, if one’s expectations are unrealistically high. To paraphrase Godin, the thing that you most fear in your work is the thing that you must do. “Shipping,” he says, is about providing valuable, creative content, and getting it out there, on time.  “Shipping” is not obsessing over how to perfect it. One needs to contribute and then let go, he says, not obsessively check emails or text messages about it, at 3:00 a.m.

“The only solution is to start today, to start now, and to ship” (Seth Godin)

“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” (Sheryl Sandberg)

 What lizard-based fears have you been feeling, lately? Are you managing not to let them overwhelm you? What coping strategies have you found useful in managing fear, so that it does not manage you?

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