What's the biggest enemy of creativity? Probably fear.

If coming up with innovative ideas is all about taking imaginative leaps and making fresh, new connections, that necessarily involves going outside your comfort zone. And that's scary. Will people laugh at you or your work? Will they point fingers and call you a fraud? Will you learn you're less skilled, or creative, or talented than you hoped?

This fear of exposing yourself and your work holds many of us back from being our most creative selves -- and that goes for hugely successful artists as well as you and me.

Fear is a constant...

Writing on the TED blog recently, author Elizabeth Gilbert confessed that, like the rest of us, her creative process still involves plenty of fear. No matter if you've penned an international bestseller, that low-grade terror apparently never goes away. But she assured readers that this ever-present fear can be managed.

"Fear is the oldest, deepest and least subtle part of our emotional life, and so therefore it's boring. It's dull. It doesn't have any nuance. So have a little conversation with your fear when it starts to get riled up when you're trying to do something creative," she suggests. "Just converse with it and then move on."

Which sounds great but kind of lacks specifics. Exactly what should you say to your fear if 'Hey, how you doing? Would you mind leaving me alone?' isn't exactly producing results for you?

...but it can be managed.

Luckily, Gilbert has elaborated on the idea, sharing more details in a Fast Company article that discusses her new book, a sort of self-help guide for those bitten by the creativity bug titled Big Magic. In the piece written by Jane Porter, Gilbert again asserts that fear isn't going away -- "You can't simply 'conquer' your fear or 'show it who's boss,'" she insists -- but this time she goes on to offer two specific questions to ask yourself if you want to gentle your way around your fear rather than try (fruitlessly) to just muscle through it. Here they are:

  1. Is anybody's life in mortal danger?
  2. What's the alternative to doing this?

The point appears to be to tame fear by keeping things in perspective. We tend to overestimate the dire consequences of less-than-successful bids to be creative. So what if your new idea flops? Is that really the end of the world? The first question reminds you that on the spectrum of bad outcomes, not succeeding in a creative project is on the (very) low end of the seriousness scale.

At the same time we are also likely to underestimate the damage done by pushing aside our creative impulses. Not pursuing a creative project when you're itching to do so can cause real psychic damage. "Unused creativity is not benign," Gilbert says, quoting an unnamed friend. The second question forces you to take a true accounting of exactly how unpleasant and unfulfilling not giving it a try will likely be.

So next time you're hesitating to tackle a creative project, try sitting down and really mulling these two questions. And if that isn't enough to get your started, psychology also offers some insights on how to overcome your fear of failure, while individuals have shared moving accounts of their own personal quests to conquer their fear.

Published on: Nov 5, 2015
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