Our bravest organizers . . . plunged into darkness not because it was stylish or because they were proud possessors of a theory that assured them that they were destined to win, but because they decided to overcome fear, period.
—Todd Gitlin, Letters to a Young Activist
You had to not be afraid.
—Aleksandr Podrabinek, Soviet dissident
Fear, in itself, is not a bad thing—it can help keep us out of trouble. Just as it was in our remote ancestors’ interest to be scared of terrain likely to harbor predators, it is in our interest to be scared of certain risky situations.
The problem is when our fears are excessive, irrational or otherwise an impediment to our growth and success. Fear is one of the strongest, most primitive emotions; scientists believe that there is even a kind of early warning system in the amygdala (the part of the brain that governs emotion) that allows us to experience fear before we’ve consciously become aware of the thing we are afraid of. If a leopard is threatening to eat you, it’s a good idea to feel fear and react to that fear, as quickly as possible.
This early warning system may be one reason fear is such a difficult problem to overcome, and why it can be so disabling. It’s hard to do anything when you’re feeling afraid, other than try to escape the thing that is frightening you.
If you have tried repeatedly and without success to break your procrastination habit, or to adopt the Three Productivity Behaviors, then there is a good chance that fear lies at the heart of your failure. Furthermore, you are unlikely to make much progress unless you first deal with your fear. The good news is that, once you do that, progress can happen very quickly!
Below, I examine the three most common fears at the heart of procrastination: fear of change, fear of failure and fear of success.
Fear of Change
A key difference between successful and unsuccessful people is that successful people initiate and control more of the changes in their lives. They decide where they want to be today, this week, this month, next year, ten years from now, and thirty years from now, and take actions designed to achieve that result. Unsuccessful people tend to be more passive: they take what life or other people throw at them, and as a result often lead constricted, embittered lives that don’t reflect their authentic values and needs.
Of course, someone who is afraid of change is going to have a harder time initiating and controlling it. That person may be a super-cautious or even pessimistic “devil you know is better than the devil you don’t,” “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke,” “leave well enough alone,” “let sleeping dogs lie” kind of person. Moreover, he may have perfectly good reasons for that mindset. (People from troubled or deprived backgrounds often learn these lessons.) But it is not a mindset likely to lead to success in any ambitious endeavor.
As activists, we must work on our fear of change even more than most people, because our vocation is all about creating change. That often necessitates, to quote Gandhi, that we “become the change we want to see.” Confucius agrees: “To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life; and to cultivate our personal life, we must first set our hearts right.”
To be an activist, you must overcome your fear of change.
Fear of Failure
If an action we take brings us the result we desired, or an even better one, we call it a “success.” If not, we call it a “failure.” The trouble comes when we over-identify with our projects, conflating their success or failure with our own as human beings. Unfortunately, many people, and especially many procrastinators, do this all the time.
So, when our projects succeed, we don’t just tell ourselves, “Wow, I did that so well!” No—we say, “I succeeded. I’m fabulous, brilliant, queen of the world!” And we do frequently feel like queen of the world, at least for a little while.
Now, I don’t have much problem with that. Most people spend way too much time criticizing themselves, not to mention being criticized by others, and could use some extra self-praise. The more, the merrier, as far as I’m concerned—just keep it to yourself so you don’t alienate others.
No, the problem isn’t when our projects succeed—it’s when they fail. Then the reverse happens, and we don’t just tell ourselves, “Bummer. I guess I’ll have to do better next time,” but, “I failed. I’m stupid, uncommitted, a loser.” Such negative thoughts, as you now know, are undermining.
As Steven Pressfield puts it in The War of Art, “Resistance [Pressfield’s word for a phenomenon similar to procrastination] knows that the amateur composer will never write his symphony because he is overly invested in its success and over-terrified of its failure. The amateur takes it so seriously it paralyzes him.”
Many procrastinators, in fact, have it even worse: they are comfortable taking credit for their failures, but not their successes. So, success is due to luck or some other external factor, while failure is due to the activist’s own limitations or ineptness. Can you imagine a more disabling attitude?3
Interestingly, most young children don’t have this problem. A child whose tower of building blocks falls down will cry, “It fell down!” not, “I failed!” She is not likely to transform the failure into her failure—at least, not until she becomes older and learns some of society’s destructive lessons. If anything, she is likely to blame other people or even the blocks themselves, which is why her disappointment is likely to be only temporary, and she can return happily and confidently to block-building the next day.
At some point, we all have to learn to take responsibility for our failures and look objectively at our personal limitations. Children raised with kindness and insight become resilient adults who can do this without judging themselves harshly. Many of us, however, were not so well raised, and as a result are unable to refrain from harsh self-criticism. This makes us terrified at even the possibility of failure, and thus unable to take appropriate risks. And so we remain frozen:
• We don’t leave a bad job in hopes of finding a better one.
• We don’t leave a bad relationship in hopes of finding a better one.
• We don’t take on ambitious projects.
• We don’t move to a new, more interesting and invigorating place.
• We don’t deviate from our ingrained habits in even small ways.
• We don’t try to beat our procrastination problem.
In short, we remain stuck in our ruts.
And we usually don’t tell ourselves we’re in a rut, by the way. On the contrary, we usually tell ourselves that we really are trying very hard to leave the job, the relationship, etc. We just don’t do a very good job of it or we never get around to trying.
All of this goes double for procrastinators, who, as you will soon learn, have perfectionist, negativist, hypersensitive and panicky tendencies that lead them to (1) define failure extremely broadly, and (2) experience it extremely harshly. Many procrastinators, in fact, stack their emotional deck so that it’s almost impossible for them not to fail, and not to be devastated when they do.
Fear of Success
Fear of failure is an intuitive concept—no one likes to fail. But what about fear of success? How could anyone be afraid of success?
Consider this: failure, at least, usually has the virtue of leaving us in exactly the same place where we started out. Success, by contrast, always takes us to someplace new and unknown. And that is scary.
Moreover, the new place is likely to be busier, trickier, more difficult, more confusing and less comfortable than the place we left behind.
• Succeed at running a campaign and you’ll wind up with a whole new set of obligations, including new people to interact with. Moreover, while some of these people might be wonderful, others might be needy or exploitative.
• Succeed at landing a new job and you’ll have to master a whole new set of relationships, information and skills.
• Succeed at finding a new relationship and you put your heart on the line.
Success also always comes coupled with a new possibility of failure. There’s no guarantee, after all, that you’ll prevail at your new challenges, and you could fall flat on your face. As Saul Alinsky writes in Rules for Radicals, “In the world as it is, the solution of each problem inevitably creates a new one.”
Success also puts you in the line of fire. Run a great campaign, attract a lot of positive press and raise your cause’s profile in the community, and your opposition will surely come gunning for you. Even though the attacks will be a clear sign of your success, the experience probably won’t be pleasant.
Finally, and perhaps hardest to take, is the phenomenon I discussed in Part II, Chapter 17: that your success may spark resentment and even hostility from family and friends who don’t support your goals, or remain stuck in their ruts. Don’t underestimate this—alienation from loved ones is a common, and often very hurtful, consequence of success.
Success, in other words, is stressful, and sometimes greatly so. Children raised with kindness and insight become resilient adults who can manage this stress, but many of us were not, and cannot. And so, we don’t even attempt to succeed.
If success is so risky and stressful, why even bother going for it? In On Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner says: “Nothing is harder than being a true novelist, unless that is all one wants to be, in which case, though becoming a true novelist is hard, everything else is harder.” Same for activists, and for any other type of ambitious dreamer.
On a more prosaic level, success also brings its own rewards. Not just monetary rewards, although these tend to be slight for activists, but also social and spiritual ones. Sure, your new successful life will be busier and more stressful than your old one, but it will also be richer (at least in the non-monetary sense), more interesting and more fulfilling. Your new friends and colleagues will not only support you through the stressful times, but encourage you along to even greater heights of success and self-actualization.
No Such Thing as Pure Failure or Success
A few years ago, during the high-tech boom of the late 1990s, I started a high-tech business into which, over three years, I sank every penny I had saved. This represented an enormous financial hit for my family. But the business never took off and, looking back, I can see that it never took off because of mistakes I made.
Was the business a failure?
At the time it certainly felt that way. When the money ran out and I had to take a job, I was hugely depressed—and who could blame me? After all, a few months earlier I had been visualizing myself as a titan of the new economy. Now I was scraping by as a business coach at a nonprofit agency.
But guess what? My coaching job turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life, and in fact it changed my life in every way for the better. I turned out to be better at coaching than at most of the other things I had done to earn a living; and through my coaching I also wound up meeting some of the most amazing and inspirational people I’ve ever been privileged to know. Also, as a result of helping people work through their problems and blocks on a daily basis, I found myself undergoing a period of rapid personal growth and learning. And finally—the icing on the cake—in my classes, just as in this section of The Lifelong Activist, I was able to transform my business “failure,” along with prior business “successes,” into something useful for me and for my students.
Eventually, my coaching experience led me to get the contract for this, my first book, thus fulfilling a lifelong dream.
So, was my business a failure? Only in the narrowest sense.
Steven Pressfield tells a wonderful story about “failure” in The War of Art. After seventeen years of trying to break into the movie business, he finally had a screenplay produced for a movie called King Kong Lives. (If you haven’t heard of it, you can probably guess the rest of the story. . . .) “We were certain it was a blockbuster,” he tells us, and he and his colleagues arranged for a fancy party after the premiere.
Well, no one came to the premiere or the party, and the next day, the reviews were scathing. Pressfield writes: “I was crushed. Here I was, forty-two years old, divorced, childless, having given up all normal human pursuits to chase the dream of being a writer . . .I’m a loser, a phony; my life is worthless, and so am I.” (Sound familiar?) However, he was quickly set right by a wise friend, who said, “Be happy. You’re where you wanted to be, aren’t you? So you’re taking a few blows. That’s the price for being in the arena and not on the sidelines. Stop complaining and be grateful.”
The moral of Pressfield’s story, and of my own, is that there is no such thing as pure success or pure failure—and sometimes, we can’t even tell the difference between the two! Every experience, including my business and King Kong Lives, is a mixed bag. (Now you know why I frequently put the words “failure” and “success” in quotes throughout this book.) Of course, success is better than failure, but most successes contain some element of compromise or failure, and most failures contain some element of success, even if that element may not be immediately apparent. So the line between the two is not nearly as clear as many people think.
In my coaching, I constantly run into people who feel a deep shame for some, or many, of their past actions. Sometimes, the “sin” was dropping out of college, while other times it was remaining in an abusive relationship, spending one’s twenties drunk or stoned, or having committed a crime (or crimes). Often, the sin was something most onlookers would consider relatively minor, or not even a sin at all—like my student who had to stop doing volunteer work at her church when her child became ill. (Believe it or not, she was deeply ashamed of this.) Many people are filled with shame for things they did back when they were teenagers or even younger, or for things that other people did to them.
Most of these people shared one thing in common: their shame and regret were keeping them frozen and unable to make progress on their goals.
Shame and regret are toxic—and useless—emotions. The only proper response to your mistakes is to learn from them, work to ensure that you do not repeat them, make whatever amends you can to people you have hurt, and move on. Anything else—any regret, remorse or shame—won’t accomplish anything, and can, in fact, lead to a pernicious form of procrastination. Sure, I could choose to dwell on the many mistakes I made in my business, not to mention all the money I lost and the opportunities I thereby deprived my family of. But what exactly would that accomplish? (A non-rhetorical question; think about it.) Once the relevant lessons are learned, and you’ve made amends as best as you can, it’s time to move on.
Failure and success are red herrings. Enjoy success when it happens, learn from failure when it happens, and always try to locate the element of success in any failure. But in each case, whether you succeed or fail, your job is to keep your eye on your Mission and move quickly on to the next step.
Finding the Success in Failure
Re-examine some of your worst, most shameful “failures,” and see if you can locate the successes hidden within. (Hint: Even the worst “failure” is useful as a learning experience.) Give yourself credit for those successes—you earned them the hard way. And stop dwelling over the failures—you’ve probably done that enough, already, to last a lifetime.