Fear is Why You Fail By Johnny Kilhefner

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Fear is everywhere for the freelance writer. The moment we put words on a blank page, we dread what others might think. Querying an editor stirs this fear: “What if she rejects me? I really need the money this month…” That fear may cause you to play it safe and write what you think others expect you to write. It may even keep you from writing your novel, or from pitching The New Yorker because you’re scared you’re not good enough. If you’re not getting the kind of work you want, and consistently, then fear is why you fail. The goal, however, isn’t to be fearless, as a person without fear is not courageous, but reckless. The goal is to leverage your fear so as to propel your spirit to write in its authentic voice.

The hardest part about freelance writing is moving words out of your thought glands and into your action muscles. And yes, I made those terms up. Stick with me. When you’re scared of the page, every excuse becomes plausible: “I need to read more on the subject first,” “I should probably get some food in my belly beforehand,” or even, “my lips are too dry and irritating to concentrate on writing right now.” Seriously? If you can’t even squeeze thoughts into coherent sentences then what are you doing masquerading around as a writer? Your entire life is a sham! Or at least those are the kind of debilitating remarks fear hurls at you, so you end up believing whatever you write won’t be good enough. In order to get behind this fear, however, and push it into words, you have to first understand it. What do you fear?

What are you feeling when you look at that blinking cursor on the screen? If you’re querying an editor perhaps you’re feeling a bit awkward. Maybe you’re writing the article you pitched, terrified you might not be able to make good on your promises, or that the editor may even ridicule you. Or, maybe you’re brainstorming, and the weight of the fact you might suck as a writer is compressing the air in your lungs into dry spats of empty cartoon air bubbles. Your compulsion to avoid writing the pitch, article, outline, etc. seems valid. Who wants to feel that way?

Now think about why you feel that way. All of it comes down to a fear of how you think other people might value your work. I repeat: “think,” and “might.” Not “know,” or “will.” Time for some rationale. Is it reasonable to avoid an action because of a possible, and not at all definitive, conclusion? We live in a reality where any and all outcomes are possible, but it can only be so if you take action.

Remember when I said “time for some rationale?” OK, go ahead and throw rationale out the window. It’s time to turn off that nagging editor in your brain, and time to use your fear to your advantage and write like it’s the last thing you’re ever going to write. Now imagine no one is ever going to read it. That’s right, this is for you, not for anyone else. If you stop you out of fear of failure, or even success, you keep your fear from playing out, and it just sits there on your chest, accumulating like cholesterol in your arteries. But if you experience your fear for what it is than you’ll feel all the more rewarded when you confront it. Ask yourself, “what’s the worst that can happen?” Rejection, ridicule — those are the worst things that can happen. Now ask yourself, “what’s the best thing that can happen from these results?” You learn what not to do the next time. You’ve grown.

If you let fear paralyze you, you prevent yourself from growth. Don’t let other people’s possible negative thoughts keep you from earning your living. And don’t be scared to let peers review your work before you send it in. Ask a writing buddy to look over your pitch or story, she might be able to add some perspective from a position unaffected from the judgments of others. Do more things that terrify you. Pitch that magazine that you always read but never query. Stop putting off that book, the only ideal time to write it is now. Does that scare you? Good. Get inside of your fear, experience it for what it is, and feel the exhilaration that comes when you confront it. There’s no one-time magic trick for getting over your fear, because you can’t. Or at least you shouldn’t. Fear is a powerful motivator for your career, but it can also be the cancer that kills it. Are you going to let it overcome you, or are you going to do something about it?

Johnny Kilhefner is a freelance writer that sits comfortably in the convergent center of design. Not bound by titles, Johnny believes the person of the 21st century creates himself each day. He sees the self as a brand, able to weave expertise into different industries by way of a connecting theme. That philosophy is shown in his work, and is the driving force behind everything he creates. He currently blogs for Bridged Design, and you can follow his updates on Twitter.