One of the worst things that can happen to an artist (or anyone really) is to be overrun by fear. I should know since the voice of fear whispers destructive messages in my brain on a near-daily basis. Where does this come from? And what happens if we listen to that voice?
There are times in life when fear is necessary, healthy even. From telling us not to touch a hot pan with our bare hands to reminding us there should be a next step planned before quitting a job, fear can very often be the voice of reason.
But other times it's a tyrant — a dictatorial, punishing, irrational voice that ensures us that we'll be safer if we stay in place. It's the voice that tells us, "Better the devil you know … "
What good is that? Every leap of growth I’ve made so far in my life was preceded by an overwhelming feeling of fear — mostly of fear of failure. "What if it doesn't work," I might have asked myself. "How can I go back? Maybe I should just stay where I am — it's not so bad, after all. I'm comfortable."
Comfort. That could be the single-most destructive desire in my life, and fear is its number one ally. I crave comfort, so I don't put myself out there. I crave comfort, so I stay the same, even when “the same” is actually rather uncomfortable.
Even though every aspect of my life that makes me happy came when I took an uncomfortable step forward, I still grant fear a room in my mind and let it question every choice I make. It's a real effort for me to discern the difference between healthy fear and destructive fear. Then, when talking to a friend about her fears recently, I finally realized that acting out of fear can very often end up leading us right down the path we fear the most.
When Fear Leads to … the Thing We Fear
When you start to poke fear a little bit, the logic it uses begins to unravel. In my case, it has looked something like this in the past:
Desire: Work as a freelance writer so I can have more flexibility to develop my own writing on the side
Fear: Not having a predictable salary
Action: Take a full-time job in order to achieve a predictable salary
Reality: End up unhappy because of the time lost to the job, long hours, long commutes, and being way too tired to spend any time on my own writing on the side — there was no on the side-time in the first place
Eventuality: Leaving that job to pursue the thing I wanted in the first place, which was the flexibility of freelance work and the chance to have time to develop my own writing
As you can see, acting out of fear meant taking steps I didn't want to take — steps that took me further away from my goals — so I could have the comfort of knowing exactly what I'd get paid each month. But I didn't have to make that choice. My husband was working a salaried position with health insurance and, since we don't yet have kids, we could take more risks than we might be able to in the future.
In short, I took a long, frustrating, and emotionally expensive journey away from my goals and eventually back to them. Now, imagine how much more I could have been developing my craft had I not taken that roundabout path.
I believe that anyone lucky enough to feel passionate about something will find their way to that passion. So why take a "safe" path that will inevitably serve as a distraction? Why not, instead, plot a practical path to slowly, steadily, sustainably reach your goals?
The opposite of living in fear doesn't have to mean living in brazen, unabashed boldness. It can instead be the decision to create the life you want without letting fear keep you from figuring out how to make it work.
You Don't Have to Lose Everything to "Follow Your Passion"
As I write this, I can't help but worry that this sounds like a manifesto telling you to quit your job and follow your passion. That's certainly not my intention.
Truth be told, I hate articles that say things like that. I know what it means to work for every single bit of stability you have. I grew up worrying about money, and I certainly wouldn't choose a life that put me back in that place. In my opinion, it's irresponsible to tell people to give up every bit of stability they have to follow their dreams. But it's also heartbreaking to live a life thinking dreams aren't for you to follow.
There has to be a balance between creating stability and doing meaningful work. There has to be a balance between putting food on the table and wanting to be happy in your life. There has to be ... balance.
I've stayed in jobs I shouldn’t have before because I was so scared of what might happen if I try another job and fail and end up in financial trouble. I've sat in bathroom stalls crying, wondering if this was what the rest of my life would look like.
And I did it because I was scared. I didn't believe in myself enough to create a backup plan. In my desire to be practical and stay with my steady job, I was impractical by not figuring out what other options I might have. We don't all have the ability to change a situation overnight — but that doesn't mean we should avoid working towards something better. And every moment we spend working towards something better, we're placing our investment back where it belongs: ourselves.
You have the ability to gain the skills you need to earn money the way you want. You have the power to decide where you want to go next, even if "next" takes a decade to achieve. The decision to create the life you want is yours and yours alone.
We stay stuck because we let fear tell us we'll never do any better. And so, we don't. In the end, however, fear does nothing but lead us to the path we were hoping to avoid in the first place: Discontent, discomfort, insecurity.
Which Wolf Will You Feed?
There's a Native American parable that I think perfectly sums this up:
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life:
“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight, and it is between two wolves. One is evil — he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”
He continued, “The other is good — he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.
The same fight is going on inside you — and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
Replace the words used to describe the evil wolf with "fear" and the words used to describe the good wolf with the words "mindful" and "intentional." Which wolf do you want to feed?