I’ve been thinking a lot about unpleasant things in my past, and unpleasant things in my present, and how they all relate. Not all of it has been the healthiest kind of thinking, either. But, as is the nature of the human mind, we dwell on the unpleasantries of our past, and the things we cannot change. This is the stuff that keeps so many of us up at night. Through all the thinking, I’ve found a common thread to unite the dark moments in my past, and explain the situations of my present—fear.
A while back, there was a small Twitter meme on determining your “burlesque name.” Your first name is your favorite drink, your last name: your greatest fear. I couldn’t decide whether I would be Bourbon Failure or Bourbon Success. The only thing I was sure of was bourbon.
Fear of failure is easy to explain. In the aftermath of failure, things are often measurably worse. You’re our time, money, possibly a home, or friends, or even your entire way of life. “They can’t eat you,” the saying goes. That’s true. I’ve failed many times, and I’ve managed to survive each time, but I always worry that the next one will be the end. I worry, no matter how many times I remind myself that there are nets to catch me when I fall.. I worry that the nets will fail. That I’ll be falling so fast, carrying so much dead weight, that each and every last net will snap as I hit it. And where does that leave me?
Fear of success? That’s a harder one to explain. The thing about success is that it means the expectations get higher with each success you had. The higher the bar is set, the harder you have to work to reach it, the more ends up at stake. There’s more to lose, and then we’re back to fear of failure. I hate the push to compete. The most immediate experience of this came in my first full-time job out of college, working for an abysmal B2B telemarketing firm. The attitude when I walked in every morning was “What have you done for me today?” Even if you managed to hit your expected lead count for the day, or for the week, or for the month, each day the slate was wiped clean, and everyone knew it.
I’m afraid when I’m not in control, because the unknown force of the universe’s apathy could choose to destroy all I’ve built. I’m afraid when I am in control, because I could just as easily destroy it all through my own action. Or inaction.
So I’m afraid. Because of the fear, I’m overly cautious. I often don’t make a change until the way to go is either obvious, or when there’s no other choice. I cling for dear life to whatever handhold I can find. It’s easier than fighting the fear. I’m even afraid as I write this piece. I’m afraid that it’s too honest in a social media age where one is expected to project unwavering confidence at all times, the better to attract whatever metric you want to grow. I’m afraid that it’ll be seen as disingenuous, that I’m faking it to earn sympathy. I’m afraid, as I often am, that it’s the last thing I’ll ever write, and that when I sit down to write again, there will be nothing to say.
There’s solidarity in fear, I suppose. Before I wrote this, I re-watched Merlin Mann’s “Scared Shitless” talk from Webstock 2011. It’s worth a watch for all of us. Even people who have succeeded by some measure are afraid—often of their success, or the potential to fail again. There’s always something to keep us up at night, worrying, wondering, angry, miserable, or some combination thereof. We’re all scared little animals in the dark, and I’m trying to take some solace in that.