Day 27: Dangerous Myths About Fear and Success
Photo Credit: Paul Worthington via Compfight
In this 30-days to Mastering Your Fears Series, The Skool of Life and The Fear Project are collaborating to blow the doors off our most primal emotion. Today’s substitute teacher is Jen Gresham.
When you’re trying to do something hard, like write a book or find a new job or run your first marathon, it helps to have a cheerleader or two behind you.
You want someone to help shore up your confidence and learn from your inevitable setbacks. Success, after all, is hardly ever achieved alone.
If you don’t happen to have someone in your inner circle willing to play this role, the good news is that you can most assuredly find them online. There’s no shortage of people sharing inspirational quotes on sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest, urging you to overcome your fears and not to give up on those dreams.
The bad news? It turns out those well intentioned, virtual cheerleaders might actually be sabatoging your efforts.
Well, someone had to say it. Let’s take a closer look at the surprising reasons we might be better off seeking (and following) our own advice.
Thinking versus acting on fear
When we’re trying to move past a fear, we spend a lot of time thinking, planning, and fantasizing before we ever get to the doing.
That’s not necessarily time wasted either. I actually think a lot more of us should spend time getting clarity on what our fears mean and how we can effectively mitigate the risks.
We get into trouble when we mistake these thought exercises for action. Let’s look at an example.
Suppose you stumble upon a brilliant quote by T.S. Eliot and decide to share it with your social networks.
Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.
Take a moment to think about why you might share this particular quote.
When you read a quote that particularly resonates with you, your brain will do a brief little fantasy of you living up to its ideals. Sharing it is a way of endorsing the idea and declaring your intention to achieve it. You may even imagine that by announcing this idea to your social circle, they will hold you accountable for its ideals.
Unfortunately, scientific studies show it doesn’t work that way. It’s often just the opposite.
Basically, by sharing your intention with your social circle and getting positive reinforcement for it, your brain gets tricked into feeling like it’s taken action and gotten the reward it wanted. This reduces your overall motivation and compromises the very intentions you’re aspiring to.
A steady diet of inspirational quotes can actually stimulate procrastination, not action.
The problem with platitudes
The other big problem with those quotes? They’re often wrong, or at the least, misguided.
But because they’re presented in the abstract, out of context from their original works and sometimes with historically important names attached to them, we take the quotes for granted.
A great example is this quote by Marianne Williamson
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
I’ve worked with hundreds of career changers who honestly have a lot of things to fear, but fear of success has never been one of them.
You might be afraid you can’t sustain success, that if you get what you want, you’ll be in over your head. You might fear how success will change your most important relationships. Or you might be afraid of being found an impostor to your success.
But none of these are the same as fearing we are powerful beyond measure. In fact, they all stem from that pesky fear of inadequacy.
This isn’t just an exercise in critique, though. By deconstructing the quote, we’ve learned some valuable information about our fears. We have a much clearer picture of what specifically bother us and what we might do about it.
If we think about how we might be “powerful beyond measure,” we might even recall some of our personal strengths that can compensate for our perceived weaknesses.
Getting to know your fears
Reading inspirational quotes does serve a purpose, of course. It’s fun and it helps to reinforce that you’re not the only one who’s struggled their way to greatness.
But the real pay off comes from getting personal, not general.
Let me explain with an example of my own.
I’ve been talking about my intention of writing a book for a long time. Instead of writing, I’ve spent a ton of time brainstorming ideas for the book and learning about marketing.
Useful stuff, but I know that fear is holding me back.
Say I turn to this quote from Allen Ginsberg for guidance
To gain your own voice, you have to forget about having it heard.
If I wanted to simplify this into actionable advice, I might phrase it as: start writing and get over yourself.
Even better would be to use this quote as a catalyst to understand where my fear of being heard is coming from. Thinking about it over a week or so, I was able to break it down into a number of component fears:
- I’m afraid I’ll only have one shot to publish a best seller
- I’m afraid my ideas aren’t fully formed, causing people to lose faith in me as a writer
- I know marketing is a huge part of a book’s success, and I’m afraid my “big picture” mentality will mean I won’t spend enough time thinking through the details
Honestly, I could go on. Writing a book is a big goal for me and I’m grappling with a lot of different fears.
But notice how powerful this is! Now I have enough specifics to put together a plan of action that’s specific to my own fear.
Inspiration has its place, but only in the context of the concrete. Imagine the result of a military general giving a stirring speech to his troops without the benefit of a plan. You might feel more courageous in the short term, but you wouldn’t feel good for long.
So the next time you’re surfing the inspiration highway, take a moment to stop and dissect the roses.
I promise it will smell even sweeter.
Jennifer Gresham is a scientist by training and an optimist at heart. You can download her 8-week courage challenge series for free at her blog Everyday Bright