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How to Battle a Fear-Driven Mindset

Last night I told myself I was going to edit a podcast, read for 30 minutes, and workout. I went on a run, and that’s about it.

From the time I laid down in bed last night to the time I sat down to write this post, I’ve felt guilty about it. Why didn’t I do what I set out to? Why couldn’t I focus on this list instead of hopping on Twitter or YouTube and hanging out?

This is a recurring process in my life. I create to-do lists for my side projects and endeavors, don’t follow through, then proceed to guilt myself about it. It’s been happening for a while, and I haven’t been able to put my finger on why until I had a conversation with my boss at work about career paths and growth.

You see, I don’t know what I want to do with my life. Surprising for a 23 year old, right?

But I’ve let this fact wear me down daily. I’ve become consumed by a fear driven mindset. Let me explain what that means.

Guided by fear

I’ve always wanted to build skills and improve. I’ve prioritized it since I got interested in business as a career path.

But my journey has been dominated by fear. In college, I watched my peers get internships at well known companies and constantly compared myself to them. Even if I had no interest in the position and company, it still weighed on me. I feared falling behind the pack, of being unable to get a good job.

When I landed my first internships and job I worried it was a fluke, that it couldn’t last. Even when things went well and I got great feedback I never let myself enjoy it. Fast forward to my current gig at Lessonly. I’m working on the marketing team at a fast growing tech startup, with people I enjoy, doing work that matters in my company and for our customers. If I told myself that one sentence my sophomore year of college I would’ve been over the moon.

Yet I still worry. I worry that I’m still falling behind, that I’m not improving and learning fast enough. I worry if my job were to fall out from under me, if Lessonly went away, would I be able to get another job? (For clarity – Lessonly is doing great)

The idea of taking a step back in my career scares the shit out of me.

Are you seeing the theme?

Always afraid of something

No matter what I do, I always seem to be afraid of something. I’ve thought a lot about why that is, and I don’t have a great answer.

I have some very tangible fears. A few examples:

  • Fear of my ability to get another job if my current one were to go away. I guess stability is the word here.
  • Fear of financial failure. My student loans weigh on me heavily, and I wonder if I’ll be able to retire often.
  • Fear of falling behind. I struggle with comparing myself to others.
  • Fear of wasting my time. I overthink which skills to learn, what to focus on, if I’m on the right path.

Guilt and freezing

All of this adds up to two things, freezing and guilt.

I have a few side projects outside work including The Plunge Podcast, my weekly newsletter, and this blog. I started them originally because I enjoy them. I’ve always enjoyed broadcasting since my high school radio days and I discovered a love for writing in college. It felt natural to start them.

But as time has gone on it’s become less about growth and enjoyment, and more about my fear.

Every time I come home from work and watch TV, or go a week without posting, I feel guilt. I start worrying that I’m falling behind, that I’m not getting better, that I’m wasting my time.

It’s gotten to the point where I’ve started feeling guilty any time I’m not doing something related to professional or personal growth.

Which leads me back to my conversation with my boss. I shared these struggles with him, and he had one main piece of feedback for me.

You must rest and you must have fun.

He didn’t shy away from saying this is so much easier said than done, and that it has taken him years to get better at it.

Fear is the source

I have a mixed reaction to the above advice. I completely agree with the have fun part, I know I need to stop being a scrooge to myself and loosen up. No one wants to look back on the prime of their life and wish they had more fun.

The rest part is tougher for me to swallow. Part of my guilt stems from the fact that I don’t think I work hard enough. My guilt shows itself when I take nights or weeks off, don’t post, or feel like I’m falling behind.

But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized the final answer always leads back to my fear.

Part of the reason I struggle to focus, to be consistent with my projects is because I’ve let myself start resenting them. My work on them isn’t based on enjoyment or growth, it’s based on fear.

Which is where it all needs to change.

Even if I achieve success, if my podcast gets a million downloads, if I get promoted at work, if I make a million dollars – I wouldn’t enjoy it if I did it all on the basis of fear.

This realization holds a lot of power to me.

It’s forced me to work on defining what success really means to me, to do things because I enjoy them, to realize I can work hard and still give myself a break without stress.

Being driven by fear makes me miserable, whether I’m successful or not. Money won’t change that, stability won’t change that, success won’t change that.

Battling fear every day

Realizing this doesn’t make my fear automatically disappear. I still struggle with it every day, and it won’t ever fully go away.

But being driven by fear is an easy way to burn out, an easy way to resent your work and the people around you, an easy way to be miserable.

The best thing you can do is accept that isn’t the way you want to live.

For me, I’ve begun working on it in a few different ways.

  • Ask myself what I love about my work, and why I do it in the first place. Being honest with myself either reminds me of the good underneath it all, or tells me I should stop right now.
  • Find people who energize me. Talking with my brother about our work and projects always gets me pumped, so I’ve been intentionally seeking these conversations out a lot more.
  • Act. This is the hardest part, but the most important. I’ve found the easiest way to start is to give yourself project or time constraints. Say you’ll try out a new skill for 30 days, or ship a particular project, then allow yourself to assess whether you want to go further. These limitations help me battle against my fear of not being on the right path, because in the grand scheme of things a one month experiment is nothing.

Fear is a beast, and it shows itself in many forms and symptoms. It will keep you from your best work. Look at the posting dates on my blog over the past 12 months if you need a tangible example.

Hopefully my perspective gives you some ammunition against your own fear. If you’ve discovered ways to fight it, share below. Maybe my methods won’t work for someone, but yours will.

I leave you with one of my favorite quotes on fear, from the novel Dune.

The Litany Against Fear

“I must not fear.

Fear is the mind-killer.

Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

I will face my fear.

I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

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