I want to talk to you for a moment about fear.
Facing it is a part of both of my two professions (though I didn’t realize it until now). I’ve been targeted by rockets and mortar rounds. I’ve had over 10 pounds of high-explosive warhead detonate close enough to knock me off my feet. I’ve stood ankle deep in absorbant boom soaked with enough toxic chemicals to make a condor puke. I drove one of the last vehicles off a peninsula as a major hurricane roared ashore.
None of that makes me special. Hundreds of thousands of military, law enforcement and disaster response professionals do that crap every day, all day. While my experience might sound impressive to the uninitiated, it’s actually fairly limited.
But its made me something of a journeyman when it comes to facing fear. I’ve done it rather a lot, and developed some strong coping mechanisms that have allowed me to make risky decisions in my life, pushing for the brass ring I’d have otherwise written off as too dangerous to pursue.
But lately, I’m seeing a new kind of fear. This is one I wasn’t ready for. You can train to handle the dramatic fears I’ve described above (getting shot at, running into danger, etc …). Drill and practice make your reactions second nature. But this new fear? It’s existential. It’s bone-deep. It’s all-encompassing.
You can’t train for it. You can’t get ready for it. Good lord, you can’t fight it. It takes you in its jaws and shakes you. It is King-Kong to your beagle puppy. You don’t have a chance. I am not exaggerating when I say that this is far, FAR worse than anything I ever stared down in Iraq, or on Deepwater Horizon, or during Hurricane Irene.
It’s fear of failure. It’s fear of financial destitution. It’s fear of having poured years of your life into chasing a dream only to come up empty. Many writers (some of my favorites) have been stepping forward one after the other to publicly address the bone-rattling terror that seems to accompany this occupation. Scott Lynch has gone public about his battle with anxiety and depression. Jim Hines blogged about it. Saladin Ahmed has just added his voice along with a cry for help. Brent Weeks recently tweeted “I don’t fear anything except for the future.” Their fears may not exactly marry up to what I’m describing, but I feel they orbit it, are tied in to the uncertainty associated with life as a freelance artist.
I’m not that much of a vent in public guy, maybe because I’m lucky enough to have a strong network of friends and family who handle that for me. But as a guy who gave up a secure, well-paying job to chase his dream, let’s just say that I’m no stranger to fear like this.
I’ve watched Neil Gaiman’s fantastic commencement speech to the University of the Arts about 5 times now. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s more than worth the 20 minutes. It’s witty, funny, charming, and above all, HOPEFUL. It’s one of the most encouraging things I’ve seen in a long time.
But it’s also kind of glib.
That’s not Mr. Gaiman’s fault. He’s making a speech to his majority audience: a packed house of early twenty-somethings about to graduate university and seek out their first jobs. But most of the professional writers I know aren’t bright-eyed youngsters. They’re in their late thirties and forties, with families and mortgages. They’re either risking it all like me, or holding down jobs they’d rather not be doing in order to make ends meet.
“Cat exploded?” Neil Gaiman asks. “Make good art…Leg crushed, then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor? Make good art.”
Funny. Cool. True.
But those aren’t the issues those of us who don’t have decades to make a mistake are facing. For us, it’s: “Can’t pay your rent? Make good art.” “Children forced to go to a subpar school because you can’t afford better? Make good art.” “Sacrificing the majority of your life to a job you HATE but can’t afford to leave? Make good art.” “Living without health insurance? Make good art.”
*That’s* the fear I’m talking about. Not just the fear of failure, the fear of BEING a failure.
I mulled this over with a former Navy SEAL friend of mine the last time I was in DC (remember I said that my frontline experiences are nothing compared to many people? Case in point). After the SEALs, he secured a powerful job in a company that’s now downsizing. Lacking a college degree, he feels he will be on the chopping block soon (so someone more educated and less competent can be retained). He gave me a good analogy that he uses to cope with this stuff. Granted, it’s hard operator talk, but it helped me and I offer it up to all those out there struggling with the same relentless anxiety.
In tactical pistol shooting, there’s a way you have to sight into your weapon to ensure you’re firing accurately. We call it “proper sight alignment.” Proper sight alignment is actually counterintuitive. You’re aiming at the target, so you focus on the target, right? Wrong. Do that, and you’re guaranteed to miss. In proper sight alignment, the pistol’s rear sights are blurry, and so is the target.
The only thing that should be in focus is the front sight post, just five inches down length of the pistol barrel. That’s all you really see.
It’s bizarre, it’s counterintuitive. Reasonable folks think it’ll never work. But it does. You pull that trigger, you focus on the front sight, and when you lift your head and look at the target, you’ll find your round has impacted center mass, every time.
The analogy is plain. Focus on your rear sights and you dwell on past: the mistakes you’ve made. The time you’ve wasted. You could have. You should have. You would have.
Focus on the target, and you push out too far into the future. Who knows how the world will change? Who knows how others will react to you and your work? Who knows what will befall you? Frightened people are master predictors. They think they’re Nostraf$#kingdamus. And they’re almost always wrong. Target focus saps the faith you need to keep going.
How do I deal with an uncertain future? By keeping my eyes on the front sight. I stick to the task at hand. I’ve got my 3rd book to finish. I’ve got my guard unit to take care of. I’ve got my new series to pitch. I might have a game to develop. What comes after? Hell, I don’t know. I’ll deal with that when it comes. I’d far rather not see what’s down range of my gun barrel so long as it means my rounds will be on target.
I got a lot of advice when I left government to become a writer, but nobody was able to prepare me for this special kind of fear. My pro friends could hint at it, try to warn me of it, but in the end, I had to experience it for myself.
Fortunately for me, I am a person comfortable with discomfort, and I offer this analogy for those who don’t have the benefit of my experiences.
Eyes on the front sight. Shoot and move. It might seem crazy, but it’s the only way you’re going to hit what you’re aiming at.
I’m with you. Let’s Go.