How to Use Fear to Beat Resistance

This article is part of my Resistance series. More to come …

Fear is an interesting animal. It serves a necessary function: to keep us safe.

Fear is what drove me to yank my five-year-old son off his feet by back of his jacket, just as he was about to step on a snake.

Fear is what keeps me from driving a car like a wild person.

Fear is part of what motivates me to work hard, so I can pay my bills.

But fear does other things too.

It keeps me from publishing the blog posts I want to publish.

It keeps most writers from sitting down to write every morning.

When it comes to fighting Resistance, fear seems to be the biggest hindrance to our creative pursuits. It lurks around every corner, threatening to pounce on us and devour us whole.

Our natural reaction to fear is to run. To avoid facing it. To juke it out so we can dodge it long enough to get some work done.

But the problem I’ve found is that we spend so much energy outrunning fear that we have very little left to get our work done.

Using fear to your advantage


What if, instead, we used fear to our advantage?

What if we used against fear the same tactics that fear uses to beat us down? Turn it back around, and give fear a taste of its own medicine?

What if, when fear chucks a live grenade into your lap, instead of turning and running, you pick it up and toss it back?

A couple of years ago, my wife and I were dealing with our then seven-year-old child lying to us.

And as we’ve all experienced, lies tend to stack up. After you’ve lied about something, you then have to lie again, to cover the initial lie.

As I talked to my son about lying—why it was wrong, and why it was damaging—I told him, “When you hide something, you are keeping it in the dark. Only nasty things grow in the dark. The longer you keep something hidden, the stronger it grows and the harder it is to destroy. The only way to beat these things is to expose them to light.”

We have to deal with fear in the same way.

It is evil. And evil things can only grow in the dark.

Fear’s power is strongest when it is hidden from sight.

When you don’t talk about it. When you act like it’s not there.

When you obfuscate and avoid, and tell yourself and others that you’re not afraid, you’re just waiting for the “right time” to work on your book.

Fear can’t handle the light.

It will die in the light.

And the only way to beat fear is to expose it to the light.

Creative fear is latent fear. It runs in the background. It’s largely unconscious. It sits there, steady and unconscious like our breathing, and runs its programs automatically.

It’s a blinking red “Warning” light above the door to our creativity. An alarm bell that gets louder the closer we get to opening that door.

Our normal reaction is to stay away. To keep our distance. That sign did say “Warning,” right?

Your brain is doing the best it can, even though it’s presenting a lie.

And who can blame your brain, really?

It’s doing the best it can, but it wasn’t built to live in our modern society.

When our brain hit the scene it had three jobs:

  1. Find food
  2. Avoid death
  3. Make babies

Now we’re asking it to do things like get on airplanes, solve complex math equations, and compose a symphony.

It’s as if we’re trying to run the newest version of Microsoft Windows on a Commodore 64 from 1982.

There are going to be a few errors.

One of the biggest is the blinking red “Warning” signs it puts on things that aren’t actually dangerous, and don’t really threaten your livelihood.

Use your imagination

When Albert Einstein was working on a particularly tricky science problem, he didn’t go into the lab. He went into the mind.

His greatest breakthroughs were based on a long series of thought experiments—a journey into possible outcomes, using the imagination.

When he proved his theory that time is relative (later to be called the Special Theory of Relativity), there were no complex mathematics or technical tests.

He pictured trains, lightning, a grassy knoll, and a couple of people.

When he landed on his General Theory of Relativity, once again he was working in the laboratory of imagination.

This time, he envisioned a windowless freefalling room, much like an elevator, and a rocket ship.

In fact, his original scientific ideas first came to him when he was 16 and daydreaming about riding on a light beam.

Thought experiments are powerful.

Robert Frost said that when two paths diverge, we can only take one of them.

To which I say, No way.

With thought experiments, we can travel multiple paths, each holding a different potential outcome, before making a decision.

We can walk down one path all the way to the end, see what happens there, then backtrack and wander down another possible path, with another outcome.

This is the tool we will use to beat out our latent fear, and shut down those flashing “Warning” signs in our mind.

Here’s an example: A few months ago, I had a blog post I wanted to publish.

I had written almost 3,000 words skewering the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists. I questioned their tactics, their methodology, and their legitimacy.

Here’s the problem:

I make the majority of my business income by helping people hit bestseller lists, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal lists.

What if I posted this, and people stopped hiring me to run their launch campaigns?

What if authors read it and decided that I wasn’t the person they should be following in order to make their books bestsellers?

I’d stop being able to make money.

Within six months, I’d run through my savings and no longer be able to pay for my house, my kids’ school, my car payments, or even food for my family.

We’d end up getting evicted, and have to move in with my wife’s parents.

We’d have to go on food stamps.

I’d lose the respect of my wife and children.

I’d spiral into a deep depression.

My wife, having had enough, would probably leave me and take the kids.

I’d be out on the street, homeless.

I’m not cut out to live like that! I’d surely die within a week, unknown and forgotten in a gutter somewhere.

All because I posted that one stupid, irresponsible blog post.

Ridiculous, right?

Of course that scenario is ridiculous. The odds of any of those bad things happening because of a single blog post are pretty low. Like, never-ever-going-to-happen low.

Yet, that latent fear is what kept me sitting on that post, unwilling to hit the “Publish” button.

I was only able to summon the courage to publish it once I decided that instead of running from the fear, I would stop and look it dead in the eye, and ask, “What have you got for me?”

When I’m making decisions about my creativity, the potential paths diverge. But I don’t have to guess at the outcome. I can use thought experiments to see what the end result will look like.

“What’s the cost of failure here?”

That is the question that keeps me from buying a motorcycle. Because when I was 15, I wrecked a dirt bike and ended up broken and bloody in the hospital.

I’ve seen the cost of failure first hand. That price is too high for me to risk getting on a motorcycle now.

So when I come up against new challenges, I ask this question:

That thing you’re afraid of—what’s the real cost, if that ends in failure?

Because when it comes to working on our creativity, there are four possible ways the path could diverge into:

  1. The worst possible scenario
  2. The more likely negative scenario
  3. The more likely positive scenario
  4. The best possible scenario

What are these for you right now, for the creative journey you’re currently traveling?

Going back to my blog post example, I already outlined Path #1 — the worst possible scenario.

Let’s look at the other three possibilities:

#2 – In the more likely negative scenario, I annoy a few people, but am largely ignored. Things keep going as before, and all I end up with is having wasted some time on an obscure blog post most people never read.

#3 – In the more likely positive scenario, people really enjoy the article. They love the honesty, and share it with their friends and followers online.

I gain more of the trust of my current fans, and pick up a few hundred new fans who find me solely because of that article.

#4 – In the best possible scenario, people fall in love with the article, and it becomes my best blog post of the year.

I get calls from all of the major networks to come on their news commentary shows and speak live about the disaster that is the bestseller lists. I become the best-known spokesperson for all the struggling authors out there facing a rigged bestseller-list system.

Now, which of those scenarios do you think actually happened?

(Here’s a hint.)

The truth is, those latent-fear alarm bells in our head will never be silenced by our ignoring them.

We have to look right at them, shine a light on them, address them directly, and then tell them that everything will be OK.

The way that we do that is by asking, “What’s the cost of failure here? What is the most likely worst case scenario?”

In most cases, there isn’t one.

If you write a book and it sucks, you never have to show it to anyone, ever.

If your song never comes together, you can trash the notes and nobody has to listen to it.

If you release something and it’s not your best work, you may get some criticism, but even that is manageable.

Our fear loves to assure us that something awful will happen if we follow our creative pursuits.

Instead of swallowing that whole, turn it back around and make your fear prove it.

“OK, Fear. You’re telling me that my life will end if I actually step out and pursue my dream of being a published writer. Well, prove it. What’s going to happen, and how?”

As we shine the light of truth on fear, it shrivels. We find out that there are no sharp teeth there. The claws poised to rip you open were just a weird shadow on the wall.

When you force fear to speak for itself and tell the truth, you’ll see that it’s only been whispering lies.

You can turn off the flashing “Warning” sign, and you can silence the alarms.

You’re allowed to create.

You will not be eaten by your fear.

ACTION = Overcoming Fear

We don’t beat fear with courage. We beat it by diving as deep into fear as we possibly can.

So ask yourself, “What will happen if I do this thing I’m so afraid of?”

Then imagine those four divergent paths:

  1. The worst possible scenario
  2. The more likely negative scenario
  3. The more likely positive scenario
  4. The best possible scenario

And write down the answers.

Use these scenarios to silence the warning bells in your head. Whenever fear crops up, pull out your answers and read them again.

Use them to tell your mind that everything really will be OK. You will create, and you will still be alive at the end of it.


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