Change, Fear and Taking Creative Risks

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Wayfinding begins with understanding that it’s time to make a change. Whether that change is about gearing up for a new professional opportunity, or reframing what work means to you after an important milestone in your personal life – ultimately we begin the next leg of our wayfinding journey when we pick our heads up and say, now’s the time.

Yet knowing you want to make a change is not the same thing as actually making the change happen. While some people relish and look forward to change, many of us tend to really dislike change; in fact for some, change is downright paralyzing. What’s the root of our angst related to change? Fear.

I listen to a terrific podcast called The Reboot Podcast and on one recent episode, host Jerry Colonna quoted sage advisor Yoda, saying, “Two emotions are there: love and fear”. Jerry’s stance is that our negative emotions – frustration, jealousy, even anger - are actually rooted in fear. Like peeling back the layers of an onion, when you keep peeling away the feelings, ultimately the core that’s left is fear.

Making a change in our lives - whether it’s a big one (I’m quitting my job!) or a small one (I want to exercise more!) - can often bring up feelings of fear. Now I’m no expert, but my sense is that change and fear are so closely linked because making a change actually means taking a creative risk. A creative risk that, as far as you can tell at the beginning, has no clear conclusion and thus no obvious upside. 

In fact, saying you want something different for your life, something more for your future, in itself is a statement that requires creativity. This is because when you say you want change, you are literally creating a new vision for your life. A new vision that asks you to use your imagination to tap into new potential, to be flexible and adaptive when things go off course, and to be open and vulnerable when you don’t immediately get it right. This is true whether you share your desire for change with the whole world, or even if you just whisper your intention to yourself. No matter what, making a change requires us to be creative – and being creative can feel very, very scary.

One of my favorite voices on the topic of fear and creativity is author Elizabeth Gilbert. In her book, Big Magic, Elizabeth writes a lot about the connection between fear and creativity. She begins by explaining the biological need for fear as the alert system that, for example, tells me instinctively to look before I cross a busy street. Fear, she writes, is necessary for many things. But creativity is not one of them. She continues:

“Just because you don’t need your fear when it comes to creativity, of course, doesn’t mean your fear won’t show up. Trust me, your fear will always show up – especially when you’re trying to be inventive or innovative. Your fear will always be triggered by your creativity, because creativity asks you to enter into the realms of uncertain outcome, and fear hates uncertain outcome.”

So how does she suggest we deal with this internal crisis? These paragraphs from her book are just too good not to share completely:

"Here’s how I learned to deal with my fear: I made a decision a long time ago that if I want creativity in my life – and I do – then I will have to make space for fear, too. Plenty of space. 

I decided that I would need to build an expansive enough interior life that my fear and my creativity could peacefully coexist, since it appeared that they would always be together. In fact, it seems to me that my fear and my creativity are basically conjoined twins – as evidenced by the fact that creativity cannot take a single step forward without fear marching right alongside it. Fear and creativity shared a womb, they were born at the same time, and they still share some vital organs. This is why we have to be careful of how we handle our fear – because I’ve noticed that when people try to kill off their fear, they often end up inadvertently murdering their creativity in the process.

So I don’t try to kill off my fear. I don’t go to war against it. Instead, I make all that space for it. Heaps of space. Every single day. I’m making space for fear right this moment. I allow my fear to live and breathe and stretch out its legs comfortably. It seems to me that the less I fight my fear, the less it fights back. If I can relax, fear relaxes, too. In fact, I cordially invite fear to come along with me everywhere I go."

The title of this section in her book? The Road Trip. In fact, she goes on to explain how she invites her Fear to travel in the car as a passenger – right next to Creativity – but insists that Fear is not allowed to navigate or drive the car.

Elizabeth isn’t the only author I’ve come across recently who’s discussed the idea of bringing your fear along for the ride, and I’ll admit I love this way of thinking. If making a change feels scary, does that mean we shouldn’t try? Of course in very objective terms, we know the answer is No. Yet when the change is personal and we’re the ones taking the creative risk, fear can often get put into the driver’s seat when it has no business being there.

So, what do you do when the fear you’re feeling is stronger than your desire for change? Or, as Harry Pickens, world-renowned musician, put it on the Creative Mornings stage: “What do you do you when you don’t know what to do?”

In Harry’s case, he chose to tap into love. Specifically, he put his creativity to work in service of showing love and compassion for himself and for others: “When I harnessed my creative energy in service of compassion, then everything worked better”.

Two emotions are there: love and fear. Next time you feel fearful, ask yourself: how can I show some compassion and love to myself during this moment of transition? How might I acknowledge my fear, make space for it to hang out next to me, but not let it determine the path that I take? As you take this creative leap to invite change into your life, I hope you remember to be kind to yourself, to give yourself permission to see the fear but know it can’t take the lead. 

To help you begin playing with fear (what a concept!) and transforming your fears into hopeful visions for the future, check out this week’s new tool, Flip It! – a quick yet thoughtful exercise to identify and acknowledge your fears, and then reframe them as hopes for the change you’re creating in your life.

Onward – with love,

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Watch Ashley talk through an exercise to transform your fears into hopes here.