“There’s nothing wrong with fear; the only mistake is to let it stop you in your tracks.” — Twyla Tharp in "The Creative Habit"
It is challenging and frightening to pursue a full-time creative profession—no doubt about that.
Whether you are a writer, a painter, a musician, a designer, or any other creative, you will suffer creative uncertainty, fear, and doubt sometimes, especially when releasing something new you’ve created to the world. But, as English poet Christina Rossetti posited, “Can anything be sadder than work left unfinished? Yes; work never begun.”
When working on your creative projects, much like climbing or cycling up a mountain, you’ll encounter what Steven Pressfield calls “Resistance” with a capital R. Resistance encompasses three “psychic banes” of the creative life: Uncertainty of what the future holds, Risk of loss or humiliation resulting from your creative efforts, and Doubt if the effort is even worth it at all.
You never feel 100% qualified to start creating for public consumption. But, just because you don't feel 100% qualified to create doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.
The risk of your work being judged; of making a fool of yourself pales in comparison to the terror of indecision and quiet regret you’ll feel when you look back and realize you lost an opportunity to do something meaningful with your life.
A path of regret and lost opportunities is not one you want to travel.
Besides, judgment of our work is a useful feedback metric. Creators need this feedback because it tells us how to make our work better; without it there is no verification of work completed.
So, when these banes of creatives rear their heads and threaten to derail you from your pursuits, don’t let them stop you. Don’t let fear of judgment stop you in your tracks.
Here’s what you can do to overcome the banes of creative life – uncertainty, doubt, and fear – as a creative person:
1. Face your fears head-on instead of running away from them.
Don’t run away from your problems. It’s not advisable to do that. Instead, face your fears straight. Only when you face your fears can you address them conclusively and not have to revisit them again with the same terror.
Besides, fear is a very basic and beneficial survival instinct that we use to keep ourselves alive. It’s not necessarily a bad thing and you can use it to your benefit.
Steven Pressfield, in The War of Art, explains:
“Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do.... The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.
Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates the strength of Resistance. Therefore, the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul.”
If fear, uncertainty, and doubt don’t exist, maybe then you should be worried. It could mean you are creating something that doesn’t mean much to you, or that has become cliché. Something that’s bland.
2. Revisit how you’re doing (and why you’re doing it in the first place).
Step back and analyze what you are creating. How’s what you are doing working for you? Why are you still pushing forward? Remind yourself of your main motivations. See the big picture. That is important because it can bring clarity and dissolve many uncertainties and fears you may have.
If everything were to go wrong and you hit rock bottom, how bad would it really be? Will you survive? Think about that and you may realize you have nothing to fear. It might not be bad afterall even if it were to fail.
Recognize that even if you fail, failures and setbacks are just opportunities to learn and do better. Critics and naysayers are also unwitting resources who keep us on our toes and who point us on the right way often unknowingly. They help us to do better and develop a thick skin.
When you review and challenge your doubts, you'll discover worse-case scenarios aren’t that bad really, and they rarely happen anyway. As William Shakespeare said, “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.”
In other words, we create mental monsters in our heads all the time that are, well, imaginary. They’re not real.
3. Create routines and rituals and stick with them.
Routines and rituals are solid psychological “certainty anchors.” Create them and sick with them. They add something known and reliable to your life, thereby helping you to overcome some uncertainties.
Sheer willpower is a limited resource. It can get depleted when you rely on it too much, causing you to doubt your place or worth as a creative. However, by turning creative activities into ritualized habits, you use less willpower, leaving more room available to deal with fear and doubt.
General life routines and rituals include things like when and how you prepare your food, when you do your laundry and when you retire to bed each night. Creative life routines and rituals include things like where you work, when you work, what you do before and after work, and when you brainstorm.
When you incorporate rituals and routines into your life, you create a psychological “bedrock” that can keep you grounded and prevent you from spinning off in many directions.
4. Surround yourself with supportive friends and mentors.
The right friends and mentors can provide vital feedback and support, as well as inspiration to overcome many potentially crippling doubts and uncertainties that may arise. Sometimes all you need is a helpful friend or supportive mentor to point out the obvious and get you out of a fix.
Mentors are experienced and accomplished individuals who can inspire you both by example and with personal feedback accounts. Your collage Arts professor can be a mentor, so also can a particularly friendly and resourceful editor you’re working with.
Friends are those people whose feedback and judgment you value and trust. They are individuals who are invested in your life, work and who are equally devoted to seeing you succeed. Lo and behold, your significant other can also be a valuable friend and mentor.
These people come together to create a “creative hive” where you can shelter and find constructive, level-headed judgment and feedback. Constructive feedback is vital to your success as a creative person.
5. Involve the people you are creating for in the creative process.
Don't shy away from involving those you are creating for in the creative and creation process. Doing so will help you learn what your target audience actually wants, what works for them, and it provides other useful insights early on in the creating process.
When you know what exactly people want and have incorporated their input in your creation or creative process, that takes down a lot of doubt and fear and puts power back in your hands because you're certain of the product you are shipping.
Think about it, if you are fairly certain of what people want or expect of you, then it means you are in a position to decide whether to meet their expectations or go the opposite way and create something else to elicit a different response. In this case, the power is in your hands.
A way to involve people in the creation process is to create a “minimum viable product,” a bare-bones basic version, and get some feedback on it. Use the feedback you get to create another prototype, release it to people and get more feedback. Repeat as needed.
Doing this will not only help you improve your product, but also reduce uncertainty and buildup your tolerance to risk through repeated exposure to criticism. That's a win-win situation for everyone involved.
6. Relax and have fun.
Don't take the creative process too seriously. It is never that serious.
Let your hair down and have some fun creating. Enjoy yourself. Have a good time working. And be tolerant with yourself and with others. The creative process is not meant to be stressful; it’s meant to be fun. Holding yourself to insanely high standards only causes stress and can even lead to clinical anxiety and depression.
Brené Brown, PhD, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, and author of The Gifts Of Imperfection, stresses that perfectionism is destructive. She writes: “I've interviewed CEOs and award-winning athletes, and not once in twelve years did I ever hear someone say, 'I achieved everything I have because I am a perfectionist.' Never!
What Brené and other researchers hear is high achievers crediting their success to a willingness to mess up, a willingness to learn from their experiences (including failures), and a willingness to keep moving forward despite it all with a positive and jovial attitude.
You are only human and you will mess up sometimes. Give yourself the same empathy you’d show a friend who slips. Recognize it will not always be smooth sailing, but that fact is what makes it exciting. Have fun doing what you do and keep showing up to work. Nothing will be able to stop you from achieving your dreams and the life you want. Not even doubt, uncertainty, or fear!