“If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.” – Thomas A. Edison
I have a client who’s been struggling to commit to a daily writing habit. A writer I really respect (and agree with) wrote that the hardest part about writing is sitting in the chair. Just sitting down and doing it. The first week, my client agreed to schedule writing time. He didn’t. The next week, he scheduled writing time, but he didn’t write or sit in the chair. He was frustrated.
I asked him to examine his reasons for not sitting down to write. I told him to look for the deeper story behind the excuse (note: these are not his actual excuses).
“I keep getting distracted.” The distractions are within your power. Turn off the internet. Put away your phone. Shut the office door.
“I don’t have time.” Really? Not even 15 minutes a day? I know people who spend more time than that in the bathroom every day! (Hey, you could write in the bathroom!)
“I’m no good at this.” Don’t let perfection stand in the way of getting things done. And you definitely won’t get better without practice.
Those are the excuses. What’s the deeper story? What’s the Why? It’ll be different for everyone, but most stories come back to fear.
Fear is deep and instinctual. Fear resides in the oldest part of our brain. Fear keeps us from getting killed. Fear is nature’s way of keeping us alive to pass on our genetic material. Fear wants us to stay exactly where we are, because it’s known, and you’re not dead, so it must be safe.
But in today’s world, most of the things we fear aren’t going to kill us. But the fear itself? If we let it, it can ruin our lives.
Fear of Failure
Fear of failure shows up in self-statements like:
I’m afraid I won’t produce anything worthwhile. No kidding. In fact, if you don’t sit down, you won’t produce anything, period.
I’m afraid I won’t be taken seriously because I’m not an “Expert”. You become an expert by doing. Your confidence and your attitude will define your authority.
I’m afraid what I have to say isn’t worth saying. One of my favorite mantras is “Ideas don’t need to be new, they need to be heard.” I don’t know if it’s true, but I’m going to keep on telling myself that.
I have a confession to make. I’m terrified.
I only recently re-launched my freelance consulting career. And I’m terrified.
Every one of the fears I just listed above are my fears. I’m afraid no one will take me seriously. I’m afraid I’m just adding more noise to the internet. I’m afraid that if I find my personal voice, I will be embarrassed, or no one will listen.
Do I know enough? Will I be exposed as a fraud? Will anyone else ever hire me? If they do, will I be able to follow through on my promises?
It’s paralyzing. It’s keeping me in one place.
Fear of Success
So, let’s peel back another layer. Unlike the fear of failure, fear of success rarely shows up as self-talk. Most of us don’t even recognize when we’re afraid of success, so our ancient little survival-oriented reptile brains disguise it as fear of failure, or even worse, hide it under a layer of klutzy mistakes you just happen to make when you’re just about to succeed. But if you’re willing to dig, you’ll often find this much more difficult fear underneath.
Success means change. Change is uncomfortable. It’s easier to stay where you are, where it’s familiar. If you succeed, you might have to keep on succeeding. Then where would you be? People might depend on you if you succeed. You might have to do even more scary things if you succeed. You might have to work hard. You might have to be a different person.
The Hard Work of Not Changing
But guess what. You’re working hard (and I’m working hard) right now to stay in the same place.
Fear takes a ton of energy. Fear takes up a lot of time. Fear is exhausting. When we’re busy hanging out with fear, not much else is getting done.
And at the end of the day, those are the only two things we’ve got. Energy and time.
So stop spending energy and time covering your head with a blanket, resisting change, and being afraid of success.
What’s the worst that could happen? Maybe you’ll fail. And if you fail, guess what? The world won’t end. Your family won’t be thrown in prison. You won’t starve to death. In fact, you’ll pretty much be right back where you are right now, except with a whole ton of new experience to learn from.
The reptile brain isn’t going to go away. It’s a hard task to silence the self-talk. People spend years learning how to meditate, in therapy, or running away from that self-talk. Mostly, it doesn’t work.
In the movie A Beautiful Mind, John Nash was asked how he silences the voices of schizophrenia when they threaten to take over his work and life. He answers, “I don’t. They’re talking to me right now. I have simply made a choice to stop engaging with what they’re saying.”
Some advice to my client:
Still don’t want to write? Okay. Don’t write. But sit in the chair. Give yourself space to think about whether you want to be writing, why you want to write, what good things it can create for you, and how you would benefit and grow. Schedule 15 minutes, 3 times a week. Just sit quietly. Eventually, you will come away with inspiration, determination, or boredom. You will make an honest decision about whether you want to write or not. Either way, you’re creating the space to confront the thing you fear.
Some advice to myself:
Stop engaging with the voices.
Take the next little step. I already know what it is. That step will illuminate the way forward just enough to see the next step. I might not need to know the end goal right now. I just need to keep moving in the right direction.
What are you afraid of? What’s keeping you from sitting in the chair?