Let’s talk about The Fear.
Because it’s never far away, when we’re doing our work. At some point in your creative cycle – maybe even at several points – The Fear will come.
There’s no avoiding this. It happens to all of us. The key is knowing how to deal with it.
This is what it looks like, when The Fear is in control.
- We have a day set aside for writing, and we end up painting a wall instead.
- We are about to start a new artwork, so we’re cleaning out the kitchen cupboards. (Or eating their contents.)
- We have an important audition. Yet we leave late.
- It’s time to show our work, or ship it. But we decide it needs a few more tweaks first, a bit more research..
- Or we leave it in a drawer or attic and try not to think about it.
For creatives, fear doesn’t always show up as fear.
Sometimes it comes disguised as procrastination, a persistent voice telling us we just need one more bit of kit, one more piece of information, a few more days of rehearsal before we begin. Or that nagging Inner Critic telling us it’s not quite good enough to show in public. Not yet.
The Fear has a million and one cunning disguises. Here are just a few:
Resistance and procrastination
Those times when a million things stop us actually progressing our current project. We just don’t feel like it today, so we’ll start tomorrow. Or next week. Or next year. It’s so much safer to just do nothing.
When you suddenly think of a much, much better idea. That you need to start NOW. Or you decide you need to do a lot more research, which leads you down a long, dark rabbit hole that turns into procrastination.
We hold our project close, never quite finishing it, because it’s not quite right. It never will be. Get over it. Finish, then get on with the next thing. That’s how you really learn and improve, and get closer to your own high standards.
You decide you need to do an MA first, or need another course or qualification to do your idea justice. You need some special, super-expensive tool, some software or a new technique that will take some time to master.
You turn up late for the audition or interview. You miss key deadlines. You dither over decisions, fail to follow up or act on opportunities.
You can’t make good art when you can’t feel anything. So you scroll social media or play computer games. You turn to excessive drink, drugs, food, sex… anything to stop the uncomfortable feelings around doing your work. And to avoid the work itself.
There’s no getting away from The Fear.
It’s a persistent foe, and it will always be there. Face it down in one guise, and it will come back in another form. All you can do is acknowledge it politely, say hello, and walk on. Follow your path regardless.
The thing The Fear hates most is persistence. If you show up to do your work, good or bad, at the times you’ve committed to do it, The Fear finds it harder to get a grip.
It can help enormously to have company, while you’re facing it down: a coach, a buddy, a mentor, colleagues or peers. It can also help just to recognise it, when it arises, and have strategies ready.
Here are some common times you’ll meet The Fear. And some strategies to beat it.
The Fear of starting
So you want to write. Play an instrument. Make art. Fashion. Or buildings. Whatever you want to do, just accept the fact that you won’t be very good at it. Not at first. But the only way you’ll get better is to begin.
I love this quote from Ira Glass, the award-winning producer of the hugely influential US public radio show/global podcast This American Life.
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.
“A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you’ve got to know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.
“Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. It’s going to take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just got to fight your way through.”
The Fear of starting again
This is huge for me: the fear of the blank canvas, the blank page. The most prolific creatives I’ve met tend to be already excited by their next project, even as they’re finishing the last one. Many of them start it the same day, or at latest the same week as finishing the last thing.
But most of us need some recovery time, some time to chew over ideas before beginning again. And the longer we leave it, the harder it can get.
Solution: Give yourself permission to be awful. Maybe you don’t have the perfect idea yet. Maybe you jump in and start, and what you’re making just doesn’t seem good enough, polished enough. That’s OK.
Just do a shitty first draft. A minimum viable product. A sketch. No one is going to make you show this in public. Indeed, I’d urge you to hold it close, and show no one. In their early stages, most ideas are fragile, delicate things, that need to be protected fiercely, and handled with care. Feedback comes later.
The Fear that this one won’t be as good as the last one
In music, this is the infamous second album syndrome. You often have years to perfect your first collection of songs, honing them in front of live audiences as you build up a following, until they really work.
Then the music comes out, it’s a massive hit, and you tour it worldwide. And suddenly, you have just a few months to make your next one. Without the time to experiment, to test out new material in front of real audiences. And with a whole weight of expectation on you, to do something as successful, and as creatively satisfying, as the previous album. By then, often, people’s job rely on it: your tour crew, your record label, your management. So no pressure there, then.
Solution: Learn how to play again. Not how to play your instrument, but how to have fun with it. Go on artist dates. Use Morning Pages. Deliberately do something different. Change your routine, your environment, your process.
Then begin. Explore. Turn up every day. And trust the process. You did it once. You can do it again.
As for commercial success: is that really the only measure of good work? Can you think of a classic that was not a commercial success when it first came out? Look, and you’ll find many examples. In every field, every genre. Work that lasts isn’t always loved when it first comes out.
The Fear that his one will be as bad as the last one
It’s even harder picking yourself up and starting again if your last project flopped. To stay true to your own path instead of second-guessing, of going in a direction you think might be popular, or successful.
In 2007 I interviewed Quentin Tarantino, who was very generous in sharing how he felt after his first (and so far only) big failure, the film Grindhouse. You can read it at length here, but I loved this:
“It’s tempting — for a nanosecond, as a jerk reflex — to now think about doing something that’s a little more commercial, that’s more of a thing for an opening weekend. But doom lies down that road.
“I watched that happen to Brian de Palma for the last 15 years of his career, chasing his tail after disappointments. He had a failure, tried to recreate a couple of successes. There was a desperation about it, as opposed to — you’re a terrific artist, man, so just do your thing. And whatever happens, is what happens.”
So Tarantino turned down directing other people’s scripts, for franchise films that had a strong chance of commercial success. Instead, when we met, he’d gone back to an old idea of his own, and was finally writing it. This became his next film: Inglorious Basterds. Which was a hit – without compromise.
The Fear of letting go
Just one more edit. One more tweak. One more layer of paint, or meaning. A bit more research. We keep working until we’ve worked the life out of what we’ve made, extinguished its spark. There has to be a point when you accept you’re done. And that will probably be before you feel ready.
Solution: Deadlines help enormously here. If you don’t have one, create it. Even if it’s just asking a friend to hold you accountable.
The Fear of showing our work
This is often the biggest of all. If we keep it close, it can’t be criticised. We won’t risk failing, being mocked, or misunderstood. But all art is made, in the end, with the intention of changing something in the viewer, the reader, the end audience. The aim might be to inspire, to entertain, to educate.. but none of that is possible if you never put it out there.
Solution: Just do it. Press publish. Ship it. Let your work find its audience. (Or not.) Learn from the feedback. And then make some more work. Because it’s who you are.
The Fear of failure
This is like being afraid of breathing. You need it, to stay alive. If you’re doing interesting work (the only kind that’s worthwhile, surely), you will fail. It’s part of the process.
When I interview visual artists, I always ask what they do with their failures. Anish Kapoor keeps his, in a warehouse on the edge of London. He goes to visit them every now and again, because he doesn’t see them as failures, just questions he hasn’t yet resolved. Sometimes, he’ll move one back to his studios, because he sees a new way he might resolve it.
British sculptor Marc Quinn cheerfully told me about an idea he’d had about popcorn: that moment when the corn kernel explodes, and its similarity to the Big Bang that created our universe. So he made a giant one, cast in bronze. It didn’t offer an insight into creation, after all. It was just a mess.
Gavin Turk told me a similar story about casting chewing gum blobs. In fact, every successful artist I’ve ever interviewed has stories like this. It’s part of the job. Part of the exploration you need to do, to make your best work.
Famously, when asked by a reporter how it felt to fail 1000 times on his way to inventing the light bulb, Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”
The Fear of being cancelled
This is something I’m noticing a lot, especially in younger clients. They’re scared they’ll somehow say or do the wrong thing, and that the wrath of the internet will descend of them full force. Mostly, these clients are young, white, liberal: I never get the sense that there’s a KKK outfit hidden in their closets, or even a strong streak of entitled Karen. It’s just The Fear, in fresh clothes.
Solution: If you’re terrified that you made mistakes in your teens, stop endlessly combing your social history for wrongspeak, and just delete it. You were a child, and stupid. You know better now. Move on.
If you’re terrified you’re going to say the wrong thing now, educate yourself. There are plenty of brilliant books, essays, talks out there. Plenty of fiction that helps you walk in someone else’s shoes for a while, and so understand better.
If you still stumble and make a mistake, don’t double down on it. Apologise, immediately and sincerely. Make amends, if you can. Listen, and learn from it. Then move on. Be better. Keep making your work.
And if you don’t like the unfairness of the world, use your work, your imagination, your creativity to imagine a better one. What one of us has the courage to imagine, we can all create. To me, that’s one of the highest purposes of art: to show the world as it is. But also to show it as it could be.