| | |

From Fear Toward Creative Mastery

Image from SMB Training
Image from SMB Training

The piece on The Apprenticeship Gap prompted lots of thoughtful discussion about amateurs, apprentices, artists, masters, and mentors. I also recently corresponded with my friend Tara Mohr, whose work I admire, about the topic. She’s helping me think in new ways about apprenticeship and expertise. Chalk one up for conversation.

Check out her piece “Understanding How to Frame Your Creative Expertise” to get a flavor of her take.

Let’s further unpack this discussion about apprentices and the path of mastery.
In this piece, I want to consider the scary place of launching a new endeavor – especially in our middle years – and how fear can be channeled toward a path of mastery.


Launching a new business can keep us up all night in fear. So can writing a book. Or shifting creative media as a professional. Fear of the unknown can override all joyful anticipation.

I’ve been working lately with several clients who fear aspects of their creative ventures. I also recently led a stellar group of people through an intensive facilitator training that demanded they learn new facilitator skills to craft and present a mini-workshop to their peers. Tears and fears inevitably arose.

So, this work has me wondering, What does the pursuit of mastery have to do with fear? And what does mastery have to do with all of this talk about following our passions these days in this broken economy? 

Whose Reality?
When you’re faced with the unknown, your mammalian brain constricts and homes in on threats. Your vision narrows. Your heartbeat amps up. Your reptile mind obsesses on all of the “But what if’s.”But what if no one responds? But what if I lose money? But what if I look foolish?

At first glance, all the “but what if’s” seem legitimate. You might say, “I’m just being realistic!”

But whose “reality,” I wonder? Fear’s reality? Well, fear is calling the shots here. But maybe fear is trying to serve you well. Maybe it’s trying to mix in with and not completely thwart your passion.

Where’s Your Passion Power?
A lot of digital ink covers the power of pursuing our passions these days.Follow your passions and seize the day, be it sunny or rainy.

Passion is a good place to start. A client called recently to get clear about the services she wanted to offer for a new business. I could hear that nagging inner heckler niggling her with the question, “Who are you to offer these services?”

On a chart I made, we listed each service and rated her passion, 1-5 (5 being the highest), for offering each. “How excited, how impassioned, how exhilarated do you feel when you imagine offering this service?” I asked. For all three services, she rated her passion as a 4 or 5. Great start.

Rating your passion for a new endeavor gives you a base in positive emotions (or not). Positive emotions help many of us not only survive but also – according to studies of post-9-11 college students by social psychologist Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill – thrive amidst big challenges. If you have no high passion for your new endeavor, then you’re at a huge disadvantage emotionally for enduring the challenges of executing a creative venture.

What’s Your Experience & Creds?
Here’s where clients squirm. Here’s where fear kicks in and tries to trump the passion with pathos.

“For each service,” I suggest, “let’s rate your experience in offering each. And then let’s rate your credibility – your training, your knowledge base – for offering them.” One client had no experience in offering the types of classes and retreats she yearned to offer. But she had sufficient training for both and ample knowledge and informal experience.

She was fortunate because she rated high at least in credibility. Many people want to start a new business or, for instance, to become a coach or consultant in some area but have zero credibility and zero experience other than they think they’re impassioned and are “good with people.”

The Need for Caution to Avoid Delusion
Here’s where fear frankly needs to kick in. Or at least caution. Otherwise, we unintentionally try to trump fear with delusion instead of intelligence.

“Follow your passion, and the money will follow,” a common adage goes. Well, maybe. But maybe not. It’s easy to get carried away in the Passion Storm blowing across the blogosphere. Just finagle a bit of technology, pop up a website, or use some micropublishing freeware, and – bam! – you’ve got a business or book that people are just begging to use or buy. Just brand yourself, and you’re a success.

We need encouragement, but that instant success rarely happens. And if it does, the experience might feel just a wee bit hollow. As if you’re not wearing any clothes. The guy who says “Writing a book these days doesn’t mean you have to know how to write” (I’ve seen a video of someone saying just this very thing.) or the jazzed-up speaker who says “Having your own business doesn’t mean you have to know how to run a business” are feeding what some of us want to hear.

Namely, that we don’t have to work hard for what we want.

Or, more precisely, that we don’t have to learn how to do something new well.

You can be impassioned as a consultant but ultimately offer irresponsible ideas and information. If you’re writing a book, you could waste a lot of precious months or years because you really don’t know what you’re doing other than stringing sentences together.

From Fear or Delusion Toward Mastery

As for my client, she didn’t go the route of delusion. Her fear served her well in this way. Her lack of experience intimidated her for sound reasons:“But how do I prepare for these classes? But how do I figure out my costs? But what about promotion?”

Now we’re getting somewhere. Tthe fears are specific, not amorphous. Once we identify specific fears, we come to the crucial stage. This stage is the lighthouse in the Passion Storm. It’s what can keep you from crashing or making a fool of yourself. More importantly, this stage is also what can bring ultimate gratification in any new endeavor.

Reframe your concrete fears and convert the “buts.” 

So the fears of “But how do I prepare for these classes? But how do I figure out my costs?” become “I will pursue mastering preparation for these classes.”

The fear of “But how do I promote?” becomes “I will pursue mastering class promotion.”

I call these goals “pursuit of mastery goals” instead of “mastery goals” because in many cases these skills need constant refinement. This step isn’t a simple semantics trick. Stating such goals implies you’re wanting and willing to learn new skills. You want right know-how – which if approached with openness feeds the wonder of our ever-learning minds.

Creative Action Steps & Right Resources

From here, you take creative action steps and find the right resources – research, experts, consultants, training, friends – where you can find solid, specific know-how.

Much of that solid know-how, of course, comes from trial by fire. You learn how to write a novel in part by writing a novel – AND by a concerted study of your respective genre. You learn how to run a specific type of business by running a specific type of business – AND by a concerted study of running such a business.You find the right allies to help you gain and refine your know-how.

Experience + concerted study can lead not only to outer reward but, more importantly, deeper gratification.

What about you? Do you have any fears these days about a new venture or an existing one? How could you take stock of those fears and convert them into a pursuit of mastery? I’d love to hear your stories and examples.

Grateful to run with you,

Jeffrey Davis is a writer and creativity consultant. He’s author of the pioneering book The Journey from the Center to the Page: Yoga Principles and Practices as Muse for Authentic Writing (Penguin 2004; Monkfish 2008). His essays, articles, stories, and poems appear widely in publications throughout the U.S. and in London. He works with writers, scholars, educators, and other creatives eager to master their medium, master their work flow, and create captivating work that adds value.

Creativity Twitter FeedJeffreyDavis108
Tracking Wonder Facebook Page

Published originally in another version on August 16, 2011 by Jeffrey Davis, M.A. in Tracking Wonder, Psychology Today

Share This Article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

One Comment