This is the phrase that Charlie McDonnell used as the title of a video back in 2012:
With more than a million subscribers on YouTube, he was one of the the lucky few who found success online by creating videos about his interests.
Yet, at the top, Charlie was honest. “I’m scared,” he explained in the video. He lost his confidence, he couldn’t create, and when he did, he didn’t like it. He was afraid not just that people wouldn’t like his videos, but that people wouldn’t like him. Even with a million+ subscribers, this fear left him frozen.
There were loads of video responses from other creators on YouTube, in which the common theme was clear:
“We are all scared.”
Many of these other creators were similar to Charlie — they were viewed as successful; had large audiences; did work that mattered deeply to them. Yet, fear about themselves and their work was a regular occurrence.
I think we don’t talk about this enough. How, at mid-career, fear can creep in, grab hold, and trap us.
So we suffer silently. Because at mid-career, you feel like you have something to lose. That is a distinct difference between mid-career and the beginner. When you are just starting out with your creative work, it’s easy to say, “I’m putting it all on the line, what do I have to lose?!”
We talk a lot about the fear of starting. And I’m glad. It’s a critical topic to encourage more people to pursue their creative vision. To become doers, not just dabblers, in their craft.
But at mid-career, you DO feel you have something to lose. This was perhaps the most surprising thing I found when I began researching successful creative professionals for a book I am writing, and it’s something I have experienced myself: the feeling you have the moment after success. It goes something like this:
“WHOA. It worked! My idea actually worked!”
Followed immediately by one or more of the following:
- “How am I going to do this again with the next book, the next project, or in the next year?”
- “It was a fluke. Wait until everyone finds out that I’m a fraud.”
- “People are saying nice things about me. I’m going to mess it up. I’m not that perfect. They’re quickly going to find that out.”
- “Now that people are recognizing me and my work, they are going to now see when I stumble and fall the next time. It’s going to be a very public failure.”
In other words, fear, anxiety, depression, and shame creep in. At a time and place when you didn’t expect it — when you find any modicum of success.
Amanda Palmer called this waiting for the “fraud police” to show up and call you out. Brené Brown has mountains of research and many books and talks that explore this topic more thoroughly than I ever could.
The Other Side of Failure
When you do have a failure mid-career, it can feel like the end. Like the start of an overwhelming downward trend. For instance, let’s say you publish three books that received mild success — enough to garner you another book deal, and some lovely reviews. Then your fourth book tanks.
You receive zero buzz, some middling reviews, and some downright bad reviews. And sales suck.
You begin thinking, “I put two years of my life into this. My entire reputation too. It would have been better if I spent that time doing anything else than to be told that the world doesn’t care, that I’m simply not good enough. Now, everything seems more difficult, just as I was hoping it would elevate me to a whole new level. I’m not even back to where I started, I’m further behind. Because now people see me as a hack.”
I have been watching a wonderful interview series with filmmakers, and found an unbelievable example of this.
Now, if you are at all familiar with Quentin Tarantino, you know his films are bold, and that he is outspoken in real life. There are loads of people who respect his films, but don’t like him as a person because he is so bold. He gives the impression of being unafraid.
His sixth film, Death Proof, was a failure. It earned far less money than his previous films, and was less favorably reviewed. I have to say, it’s the only one of his films I haven’t seen.
No big deal, right? Everyone has a bad day, and even his “failure” wasn’t all that bad. Sure it lost money, but lots of films do. Sure, it had only a 67% Rotten Tomatoes score, but that’s still not horrible.
Yet, in a recent interview with Robert Rodriquez, Quentin admits that with the failure of Death Proof, he felt his film career was over.
“It did shake me to think I may never have a hit again. When you have a big flop, you can’t ever imagine having a hit again. [The audience] will never show up again. I felt like my girlfriend had just broken up with me, except my girlfriend was the planet earth.”
After awhile, a friend of his said something to him that prompted him to reconsider. He thought to himself, “Let me try, one… more… time.”
Can you imagine that? Someone who is widely considered to be one of the most influential filmmakers of all time, feeling that he was done, and then he had to psych himself into feeling he will try one final time?
What followed was Inglourious Basterds, followed by Django Unchained. Each earned more than $300 million, and were critically acclaimed.
Fear is a pervasive part not just of the creative process, but the lifestyle of a creative person.
There is a big distinction here:
- The work. To do meaningful work, you have to push yourself beyond the confines of what is expected.
- The person. To do meaningful work, you have to put yourself out there, and that can be filled with anxiety, fear, depression, and feelings of shame.
This is perhaps best seen in the now legendary example of filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola making his movie Apocalypse Now.
Francis had early success as a filmmaker, both within the system and with audiences. His earlier movies were box office successes, and critically acclaimed. I mean, before Apocolypse Now, he worked on:
- The Godfather
- The Conversation
- American Graffiti
- The Godfather Part 2
Yet, he describes the experience of making Apocalypse Now as follows:
“I was sad and depressed and with the financial side, I was scared.”
Why was he scared financially? Because he was personally responsible for the $30 million budget, at an interest rate that crept up to 22%.
Can you imagine having that hang over your head, on top of being sad and depressed otherwise? As the making of the film dragged on, the world mocked him for being over budget and behind schedule.
The film is now commonly listed as one of the greatest ever made.
This type of thing comes right back down to the work that we each do everyday in 2015. I’ve been obsessively listening to Elise Blaha Cripe’s podcast, Elise Gets Crafty, where she talks about the intersection of craft and business. In a podcast about fear (episode 49), she sums it up this way:
“Each time I branch out… that has been scary. But each time, I have grown.”
Pushing creative boundaries without deep personal anxiety
It can be tricky to separate the fear of the work from the fear of one’s identity and self-worth.
I find that listening to other creative professionals in interviews helps put things in perspective. For instance, this wonderful interview with graphic designer Marta Cerdá, who experienced fear and doubt, yet found productive ways to continue moving forward:
Q: Do you ever feel secure as a freelancer? Is it getting easier?
A: No! Never! [Laughs] I have different problems than when I began, but they are still problems. A year and a half ago, I was worried I was losing the energy I had in the beginning of my career. The more worried I was, the worse I felt. Then I just said to myself, “I don’t care. My life is bigger than my work.” As soon as I allowed myself not to care, the work got better. Being a graphic designer is a profession, but it reflects whom you are and how you are feeling at the time. Humans change constantly and that reflects how you see the work. I still have moments where I think, “I’m no good anymore!”
Q: Were there times when making the leap to freelance life that you thought you weren’t going to make it?
A: This winter, actually. I had three entire months without work. But I took that time to learn 3D, and that made me happy.
Here is another example from Amber Naslund… someone who had success in her career, branched out on her own, but then hit a mid-career slump. She frames it this way:
“Failure. Man, does it hurt. In so many ways. It’s actually really hard to put into words how devastating it can be.”
Amber goes on to list out the ways… financially, personally, professionally, and health-wise. She sums up:
“In a nutshell, three years after my bright-eyed dive into this future, I was broken. In all aspects of the word”
The post is framed post-fallout, when she has now “found her groove” again.
The first step to solve for a slump is not a hack, but a conversation
I mentioned Brené Brown earlier, and it is worth noting that her new book, Rising Strong, is entirely about picking oneself up from failure. It’s worth checking out.
In the past, I have shared other reflections on these topics:
- The Risk and Reward of Putting Yourself Out There
- Shame and Your Writing Career
- Are You Scared? Fear and the Creative Process
And it is a topic I have been in the trenches with in a course I run called Fearless Work. I’m not trying to promote it here (hence, no link), but I have found that these topics lay just under the surface for many creative professionals. The best part of working with folks in the course and outside of it, is realizing how these big overwhelming things can be addressed effectively if you begin to talk to others about it. So I’m going to encourage that here…
I would love to know: How have you observed how anxiety and fear can creep in at mid-career? What has been most surprising about it?