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Is fear holding you hostage?

Last week, I talked about how pursuing your creative work can sometimes feel full of risk, and other times full of hope. I received a lot of lovely replies to that post, but one note really stood out. It is from a woman who was replying to a prompt from me: what is your biggest challenge? Her answer:

Fear of failure. My fear holds me hostage, and whispers in my ear every excuse I ever needed to continue sitting on my hands. It says:

What if I can’t finish my story? What if I can’t do it justice? What if I complete it to the best of my ability and can’t get it published? What if I fail?

I want to act. I know I’m ready. But how do I silence my fears?

This resonated deeply with me. Because, like anyone who has done creative work, I have felt these things. And because thousands of creative professionals I have spoken to or worked with have shared them as well.

The advice I shared with the woman who emailed me is this: don’t silence the fears. Accept them. They will always be there, always whispering in your ear. Instead, focus on proceeding ahead, one step at a time, even with the whispers there.

I encouraged her to try to loosen the strangle hold they have by reading about the stories of others who have done creative work that she respects. For me, these would be books such as The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer, Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmul, and Still Writing by Dani Shapiro. In other words: seek out the behind the scenes reality that is often masked by public success.

All great artists deal with fear day in and day out.

When they become successful, the whispers don’t go away; in fact, the more successful you are, the louder and more pervasive those whispers may become.

I’ll end this post in a super-nerdy way to illustrate the point. Did you see the first Avengers movie? They hold this tension throughout the entire movie that if Bruce Banner gets angry, he will turn into the Hulk. So everyone tries to keep Bruce calm. Because the Hulk is simply uncontrollable. The Hulk is a destroyer, and can’t help but hurt everything around him, even those he cares about.

Near the big climax at the end (spoiler alert), Bruce is a split second away before having to fight off this monstrous alien, and Captain America looks at him and says, “Dr. Banner, now might be a really good time for you to get angry.”

Bruce turns around slowly, the alien now a few feet away, and he says, “That’s my secret, I’m always angry.”

In other words: instead of running away from the thing that Bruce fears the most, that is most uncontrollable: his own anger which turns him into the Hulk, he instead accepts it. He lives in anger because that is the only way to live WITH anger. In doing so, he has removed its stigma; he isn’t afraid of the anger, and doesn’t walk around on pins and needles trying to fend it off.

Like many of us, Bruce can’t control the hand he has been dealt. Most people manage their own personal issues with mental health, physical health, relationships, and yes, fear. For Bruce, he can’t control that he is forced to live with the duality of being Bruce Banner AND the Hulk. So he accepts it, and works with it. He accepts who he is. (here is the YouTube clip if you want to see this with dramatic music.)

I encourage you to do the same with any fear that holds you back.


  • Louise Foerster

    Many years ago, when I was a marketing director presenting annual plans, I realized that I made my best, most compelling presentations when I was scared, when my palms were sweaty, and it was hard to keep my voice steady. Calm and poised meant a flat meeting; everyone, including myself, was bored. Your best work depends on bringing your whole self to the project, fear and anxiety, intuition, energy, love for Avenger movies, everything you’ve got.

    • Love that. Thank you Louise!

  • Until recently – that is, within the past 20 years – I’d spent the bulk of my life worried about failure and, more importantly, worried what others thought of me. I finally started to let that go around the turn of the century. Now, I really don’t give a damn. Other people’s rules don’t apply to me. I have to concede that I’ve always been 100% confident in my writing. I’ve never really had any doubts in my ability to compose a story or an operating procedures manual. My only concern now is the marketing aspect of self-publishing. I’m not a people person (as you might have guessed), so putting myself out there as a writer will be challenging. But then again, it’s my one true passion in life and the only thing I’ve ever truly wanted to do with myself.

    On a side note, Dan, congratulations on Eli’s birth! I so envy you! I always wanted to be a dad, but some things just never work out. Best wishes to you and your family on your new addition.

    • Thank you so much!!!! I appreciate your honesty with your own journey as well.