This is an excerpt from the Filmmaker's Guide to Success. If you want a ton of practical, no-nonsense advice to help you succeed as a filmmaker in the modern world, be sure to check it out.
We're all dealing with some level of fear as we make our way through the world as filmmakers. But that doesn't mean we have to let that fear get the best of us.
In fact, with a few simple mindset shifts, we can take back control and stop fear from messing with the great creative work we want to accomplish.
So let's dive into a few of the best tips and ideas I've found for how to keep your fears at bay.
What the hell are we afraid of?
In Liz Gilbert’s Big Magic (one of my favorite books ever), she does a great job at listing out the things that we’re typically afraid of as creatives. Here’s just a small sampling of that list.
- You’re afraid you have no talent.
- You’re afraid you’ll be rejected or criticized or ridiculed or misunderstood or—worst of all—ignored.
- You’re afraid there’s no market for your creativity, and therefore no point in pursuing it.
- You’re afraid somebody else already did it better.
- You’re afraid everybody else already did it better.
- You’re afraid you won’t be taken seriously.
- You’re afraid your work isn’t politically, emotionally, or artistically important enough to change anyone’s life.
- You’re afraid that someday you might look back on your creative endeavors as having been a giant waste of time, effort, and money.
- You’re afraid you don’t have the right kind of workspace, or financial freedom, or empty hours in which to focus on invention or exploration.
- You’re afraid you don’t have the right kind of training or degree.
- You’re afraid of being exposed as a hack, or a fool, or a dilettante, or a narcissist.
- You’re afraid of being a one-hit wonder.
- You’re afraid of being a no-hit wonder.
Yikes. I don’t know about you, but I’m afraid of all of those things. Hell, I’m feeling most of those things right now as I write this very lesson.
What’s even scarier is that Gilbert’s list continues on for another 3/4 of a page, and I’m just as scared of those things. I’m willing to bet you probably are, too.
Anyhow, let’s just take a moment to acknowledge that all of these things are genuinely scary. And now that we’ve acknowledged that, let’s do something about it and put those fears back in their place.
Our fears will never go away, but that’s ok
I wish there was some secret formula I could give you to completely get rid of your fear. That would be pretty neat, wouldn’t it?
But the truth is no such formula exists because fear is fundamental to our survival as a species. It’s hardwired into our DNA so that we can react appropriately when scary, life-threatening things happen.
And even though most of us won’t ever have to worry about getting eaten by a bear, that part of our brain still finds plenty of things to be afraid of (most of them emotional), and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Fear will continue to show up for the rest of your life, particularly when you’re doing something new, pushing boundaries, or facing uncertainty. That’s just how it is.
Once you understand that, however, you can start devising ways to operate in spite of your fear, or even transform your fear into fuel for your creative work.
Most of our fears are completely irrational and useless
There are a few simple questions that can help you reframe your relationship with fear. Here they are:
- Is this fear rooted in anything rational?
- Is there any legitimate danger if I keep taking action in spite of my fear?
- Is this fear useful?
Most of us don’t take the time to engage with our fears on this level. We just think to ourselves, “Oh, I’m feeling anxious and fearful,” and we leave it at that. Then we take that fearful feeling at face value and let it derail our progress on projects we care about. I’ve done this more times than I care to admit.
However, when we pause for a moment and engage with the fear—asking if it’s rational, asking if it’s legitimate, asking if it’s useful—the answer almost always comes back as a clear and unambiguous no.
This is the main thing that will help you dance with your fear. Once you can re-contextualize it as something fundamentally irrational and useless, it loses much of its power over you.
Sure, it’s still obnoxious when it crops up (and it always will), but it won’t prevent you from doing your work. You’ll be able to see fear for what it is, nothing more than a neurological quirk of the human brain that doesn’t serve much of a purpose anymore.
What does this actually look like?
For instance, let’s say you’re terrified that a passion project you care deeply about will fail, and that no one (not even your friends or family) will like it. You might even be worried that failing on this project will cause people to lose respect for you. That might sound kind of silly, but I've heard it before. We tend to wrap up our entire identities in the films we make, especially once they get more ambitious and personal.
Anyhow, if you were to ask yourself if that particular fear is rational, you’d certainly find that it isn’t. You’d find that nothing bad is going to happen to you if your film doesn’t work out.
Sure, you might feel shitty for a little while, but your friends and family will still love you. You'll still have a bright filmmaking future ahead of you. And you might even gain some respect from people for having finished a film and put it out into the world, even if it didn’t live up to your expectations. Remember, most people don’t finish what they start, so it commands respect and admiration when you actually do finish and launch a piece of original work.
Also, once you asked yourself if that fear is useful, you’d see that it accomplishes nothing. In fact, you'd see that it’s actually trying to prevent you from doing something that fulfills you and makes you happy. In other words, your fear is trying to sabotage you.
And that’s not cool. So it’s your job to give stupid irrational fears like this the middle finger and then continue doing your work in spite of them.
In the words of Liz Gilbert:
“It isn’t always comfortable or easy—carrying your fear around with you—but it’s always worth it, because if you can’t learn to travel comfortably alongside your fear, then you’ll never be able to go anywhere interesting or do anything interesting. And that would be a pity, because your life is short and rare and amazing and miraculous, and you want to do really interesting things and make really interesting things while you’re still here. I know that’s what you want for yourself, because that’s what I want for myself, too. It’s what we all want.”
My single best tip for keeping the fear at bay
Now that you’ve re-contextualized your fear and shined a light on how useless it really is (at least within the context of filmmaking), it’s time to take some action. And my single biggest tip for taking action is this:
Show up every day.
Don’t let yourself stagnate when you’re working on a project, or even when you’re between projects. Because if you do, the fear will creep in and just continue to get louder and louder, which will make getting started again more difficult than it ought to be.
Fear loves to crop up when we’re not working on something. Given too much time to think, our brains will start meandering into all sorts of unhelpful places. I don’t know why, but it seems to happen without fail.
However, if you can just do one small piece of work every single day—even when you don’t feel like it, even when you’re not feeling inspired, and even when you’re feeling like a fraud—then you’ll not only make progress towards your ideal body of work and your definition of success, but you’ll be doing something extraordinarily effective for winning the battle against fear. Fear hates it when you make consistent progress because that progress strips fear of the power it has over us.
The real trick here is to make creation part of your routine. Your daily practice doesn’t have to be anything crazy or elaborate. It doesn’t even have to result in anything good. It just has to be consistent, and it has to move you towards your goals.
So start playing with different ways to incorporate small bits of meaningful creative work into your daily routine. Maybe you write something small every morning or shoot one piece of random footage every evening, even if it’s just for 5 minutes. Whatever it is, if you do it consistently, you'll be laying the foundation for bigger and better things.
If you get that piece of the puzzle in place, your creativity will eventually become a habit. And once your creativity becomes a habit, nothing can stop you, not even fear.
Interactive Workbook Questions To Help You Apply These Lessons
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Further Reading & Resources
Book: Big Magic - Elizabeth Gilbert
The first section of Big Magic is all about dancing with your fear and cultivating the courage required to live a great creative life. It’s worth the price just for that section alone, but all the other stuff in this book is just as valuable.
Book: Body of Work - Pamela Slim
Pamela Slim also devotes an entire chapter of her book to a concept she calls “surfing the fear,” and it's full of all sorts of practical tips for doing just that. Again, the rest of the ideas in this book are worth their weight in gold, especially if you want to craft a great filmmaking career that's in line with your values.
Book: The War of Art - Steven Pressfield
This book is a classic amongst artists and entrepreneurs for a reason. It’ll help you defeat the forces that prevent you from doing your best creative work once and for all. I'm actually about to read it again to give me one final push so I can get these lessons finished.
Book: Uncertainty - Jonathan Fields
Why do some people fall apart during uncertain times while others find new levels of success? This phenomenal book attempts to answer that question, and it comes with an immense amount of practical tips that’ll help you turn fear into action.