Assuming you have a non-writing professional background, have you ever blamed it for those moments in the writing life when your courage deserts you?
If not, perhaps you should reconsider.*
The topic I want to noodle on today is one sparked by an online article I read some years ago and wish I could cite. (If you know the post I refer to, please leave me a comment so I can give the author credit!) Alas, all that remains with me is the core idea: that certain types of occupational training, especially training connected to professions like law and medicine, invite caution and steadiness, making it harder to enter the entrepreneurial mindset or take creative leaps.
This idea struck me forcefully at the time and felt deeply true. It also led to a number of discouraging thoughts. (I already struggle against introversion and a nature that defaults to reflection, rather than action. Now I’m to fight 21 years of super-reinforced training?)
Fortunately, it didn’t take long until I saw the counterbalancing argument—the side of hope. For if one can be trained into a state of over-caution, one can presumably be trained out of it. (More on how to deprogram yourself in a bit.)
First, is there any evidence to support this idea?
I’m not aware of any academic studies, so I put out a call on Facebook, asking if other careers had a system to formalize caution. Here are some of the replies:
From Priya Gill  : In engineering we use “fail safe” positions so everything is designed such that if it fails it would go to the position of safety. So lights would turn off and systems shut down upon failure rather than staying on and put everything and everyone in danger.”
Terri Lynn Coop  mentioned the voluntary oath  she took upon graduating. In part, it contains this text: “I am an Engineer. In my profession I take deep pride. To it, I owe solemn obligations… As an Engineer, I pledge to practice integrity and fair dealing, tolerance and respect, and to uphold devotion to the standards and the dignity of my profession, conscious always that my skill carries with it the obligation to serve humanity by making the best use of Earth’s precious wealth.”
D.A. Winsor , an academician by day and writer by night, provided an example  of the ethical considerations which go into any kind of academic research. One quote: “The design of the research should be such that all risks are minimized as much as possible, and that any remaining risks are clearly identified to participants so that they may make an informed choice about whether or not to participate…”
And then of course there’s my own contribution. Medicine. A land of high-level contradictions and the Mother of All Risk-Avoidant Professions.
Consider that, to become a doctor, you must adopt:
- a suitable wardrobe, including standardized uniforms and equipment to signify your level of education.
- medical language
- best practices, which can be ritualized to the point they resemble a choreographed dance (eg. How to scrub for OR, how to run a code.)
- illegible handwriting
- most of all, a mindset about risk in a landscape that is oriented to highlighting pathology and danger, rather than strengths.
I know of no better example than First Do No Harm.
Think about that principle for a second. First Do No Harm. When a doctor weighs the potential risks and benefits of a treatment, if he/she can’t be assured of a positive outcome, even in the face of suffering, they are expected to default to inaction.
Further, the courts and governing bodies are not especially kind to medical innovators, or those who would make intuitive leaps and provide off-label treatments.
A Brief Disclaimer
Please note, I’m not trying to say that writing and entrepreneurship require a manic commitment to incaution. But people who write about Resistance, like Seth Godin or Stephen Pressfield, often advocate for a ready-fire-aim worldview, whereas in medicine, the approach might be described as ready-research-aim-consult-aim-aim-fire.
In writing, what might this learned caution look like?
- You hold back on the page—you don’t go there when there is what excites you, and might set your work apart.
- When told your protagonist might alienate readers because of a certain quality, you smooth out their unlikeable edges rather than unearth another trait which would render them compelling and memorable, if controversial.
- You don’t seize an opportunity to connect and collaborate when you yearn to do just that.
- Your work never manages to get completed/ sent/ published/ critiqued for reasons you know in your heart could be swept aside.
- In general, you are reluctant to dance on the razor’s edge.
Potential Remedies Against Institutionalized Risk-avoidance
Over the years, in trying to find my way forward, I’ve tried all of the following. Like most people, my subconscious is a snarled-spaghetti mess of unacknowledged limiting beliefs, and it can be hard to pinpoint which particular effort has been most helpful in untangling a strand, especially since I’m usually working my way through multiple approaches at once. Having said that, here they are in the perceived order of ascending helpfulness.
Awareness: When I’m dithering over an objectively low-risk activity, sometimes it’s enough to notice and remind myself to switch hats. I’m in a new world now, and different rules apply.
Read entrepreneurial wisdom literature (blogs, books) or listen to podcasts: A minor caution on this. For some of us, this is our comfort zone, and a way to stay on the study track forever.
Participate in an action-oriented group: Dr. Doug Lisle, one of the smartest psychologists in the world, said the following on a webinar about maintaining a healthy weight: “The number one thing is to get the environment right. You should stop trying to be a better person and put your efforts into cleaning up the environment.”
Welp, the people around you are a significant part of your environment.
I’ve now participated in several action-oriented writing groups, where getting sales links and ordering cover art and deciding on writing topics with actual deadlines is just par for the course. In fact I owe all my publishing credits to said groups. (Hello, Writer Unboxed team. Hello, Thurston Hotel writing cooperative. Hello upcoming Tropical Tryst box set planned for August.) It’s impossible to be immersed in that kind of setting, long-term, without learning to embrace scary things with increasing casualness.
Mentorship (aka Crawl Inside a Brave Person’s Brain): IF you are lucky enough to know an experienced writer who demonstrates a thoughtful, steady, prolific work pattern of high standard, and IF they are open to sharing their approach and thinking pattern with you, do what you can to crawl around inside their brain. Roll in it. Revel in it. Try their thoughts on like the sexy La Perla negligee you’ve been eyeing for a while. Buy them flowers and coffee and be unstinting in your gratitude to make up for the invasion, because it’s an incredible form of experiential learning.
I recently did this by accident when I took Dan Blank’s Mastermind class. I thought I was signing up for moderated peer pressure around writing commitments, and I was, but I got so much more.
Dan was in the habit of taping a morning message—a video of 4-12 minutes giving his thoughts on the entrepreneurial challenges faced by we students. Failing that, he shared his thinking process about his own work, including the release of his first book Be the Gateway .
At ~90 days of ongoing exposure, that’s ~11 hours of ongoing exposure to an unfailingly cheerful, forward-moving person. Granular exposure to an approach which makes the feeling you’re dancing on the knife’s edge just a normal and natural outgrowth of running a business. (Leading to Jan’s new acronym for the writing life, WWDBD?)
Finally, whenever you can, to whatever degree you can, take action: Studies show that an open posture, like the manspreading  one, increases the poser’s confidence. Holding a pencil in your teeth, thus inadvertently being forced to use your smile muscles, will raise your mood without any other intervention. In other words, don’t wait for boldness to arise, but act boldly and wait for the feelings to catch up.
Because science says they will, as does this one writer’s fading timidity.
Now over to you, Unboxeders. Do you believe courage arrives like a thunderclap, or can you work your way into it, like a deadlift? Are you conscious of your non-writing training holding you back? If so, what’s your best method for counter-programming?
*An illustration about how the medical mindset impacts my writing: I’m presently acting as one parent’s advocate as they work through a series of health crises. My effectiveness in this role relies entirely on my ability to understand what my parent needs, then couch it in terms the healthcare providers understand, and vice versa. To be blunt, I’m pretty good in this role. But after spending as little as an hour on “bridgework,” I can feel an internal reorientation when I sit down to write. I’m hesitant, less quick to seize on fun possibilities. Even my word choice is different. (More clinical, a more detached POV as you might have noticed in this post.) All this change after one hour’s work, yet it’s been more than a decade since I had cause to write a single order…
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!