Seven Ideas on How to Overcome Fear and Become More Creative

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creativity2 Seven Ideas on How to Overcome Fear and Become More Creative
When I was researching my upcoming book, QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, I met a scientist performing groundbreaking work on the neurobiology of social anxiety. An articulate and seemingly confident man, he confided that his interest in the subject came from his own struggles with shyness. When I asked if I could tell his story in my book, he hesitated. “I don’t think so,” he told me. “Not everyone is as comfortable as you are exposing their true feelings.”

To that, I could only say: “Ha!”

Because I am not a natural self-exposer at all. In fact, it took me thirty years to realize my childhood dream of becoming a writer, mostly because I was afraid to write about personal things — yet these were the subjects I was drawn to.

But eventually my drive to write grew stronger than my fear, and here I am with my first book coming out next year. I do envy friends who write about impersonal subjects, like science or politics. They can announce their book topics at dinner parties without having everyone wheel around to ask, “Are you an introvert?”

But you know what? I’m getting used to the self-exposure.

I tell you all this because I hear often from readers who want to flex their own creative muscles, but are held back by the fear of “putting themselves out there.”

Maybe you fear others judging you, and your work. Or you’re uncomfortable with self-promotion. Or perhaps you’re afraid of failure, or  of success.

So many fears, so much creative drive. What to do? Here are seven ideas to help you power through these disabling emotions.

1. Know that you’re in good company: Creative people have always had to put themselves out there. There’s a lot of hand-wringing these days about how the greats of the olden days, people like Harper Lee and Emily Dickinson, didn’t have to self-promote the way we do today. This is true. But they had to go public with their deepest feelings and beliefs, too, and this has always been scary. Darwin waited THIRTY-FOUR years to publish his theory that humans evolved from monkeys. Scholars call this “Darwin’s Delay,” and many believe it was due to his fear of how others would judge his heretical idea.

2.  When it comes to social media, think self-expression, not self-promotion. Here’s a comment I get a lot: “For a quiet person, you sure do a lot of blogging and tweeting.” I think this is a great misunderstanding of social media. Blogging and tweeting, if practiced properly, feel more like a creative project than an exercise in “brand-building,” even though of course they are both. They also don’t require the all-hands, in-person social multi-tasking that many people, especially introverts, find so exhausting. In fact, an online poll on Mashable, the social media news site, found that only 12% of its readers were extroverts. (See also this blogpost on “Why Introverts Love Social Media,” from Mack Collier, a prodigious blogger and social media consultant whose Facebook page reads “Online extrovert, offline introvert. It’s complicated.”)

None of this exempts creators from old-fashioned, in-person appearances, of course. But online social media helps to ease the path toward live interactions. You can break the ice with strangers online, and feel as if you already know them when you meet “IRL.”

3.  Coffee is magic. It gets you up and excited about new ideas, and helps you ignore the chorus of judgers inside your head.  I’ve found it to be so potent that I allow myself to drink it only when I’m working, so as to preserve its magical powers. Apparently I’m not the only one who feels this way about caffeine: there’s a saying among the number-crunching crowd that “a mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems.” Johann Sebastian Bach loved caffeine so much that he wrote a Coffee Cantata. Balzac, Kant, Rousseau and Voltaire all swore by their cups of Joe.

4.  Train yourself, a la Pavlov, to associate creative work with pleasure. In addition to my daily latte, I usually work in a sunny café window and indulge in a nice warm slice of banana-chocolate bread. I would probably be five pounds lighter without this habit, but it’s worth it.  By now I so associate writing with pleasure, that I love it even when when I don’t have a picture window or slice of cake handy.

5.  Work alone (or “alone together” – for example, sitting by yourself in a coffee shop or library). There’s a lot of nonsense floating around these days about how creativity is a fundamentally social act. Ignore this. Yes, creativity is social in the sense that we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us; and, yes, collaboration is a powerful and beautiful thing (think Lennon and McCartney, or any mother-and-child pair bond.)

But for many people, the hard, sleeves-rolled-up creative thinking process is a solo act.  As William Whyte put it in his 1956 classic, The Organization Man, “The most misguided attempt at false collectivization is the current attempt to see the group as a creative vehicle…  People very rarely think in groups; they talk together, they exchange information, they adjudicate, they make compromises.  But they do not think; they do not create.”

6. Work at night when your cortisol levels are lower. When I was a kid in summer camp, I noticed a strange pattern. I was horribly homesick first thing in the morning – I would lie in my bed waiting for the bugle to blow signaling the start of the camp day, and would be wracked with longing for my mother’s kitchen table.  As the day wore on, the homesickness faded. By nighttime, I was having a grand time and could think of the family kitchen without a pang.

I was sure I’d wake up the next morning feeling just as strong. But the homesickness always came back.

Back then I couldn’t explain this pattern, but I can now. Cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone, and it peaks in the morning and steadily dissipates throughout the day.

So while you probably think most clearly first thing in the morning, you may be at your least inhibited at night. I’ve noticed that interesting turns of phrase and associative leaps come much more easily in the evening hours. And indeed creativity researchers believe that a relaxed brain, a brain that is not in the grip of anxiety or blocked by other psychological barriers, is a more creative brain.

7. Strengthen your backbone, and therefore your confidence, in small steps. Get in the habit of asking yourself where you stand on various questions. When you have firm opinions or a strong sense right or wrong on a given question, savor the feeling. It doesn’t matter what kind of question – it can be how to organize the silverware drawer, or who should run for City Council.

The point is to get used to the feeling of having a center, and operating from it.  Then, produce your creative work from this same place. You’ll still have doubts about your execution, of course – is this any good? Does it make sense? Will people like it? That’s normal. But you need to have confidence about the underlying purpose of your undertaking.

(*Long-time readers of this blog may recognize some of these ideas. Occasionally I’ll re-post older articles that original readers might like to review and newer readers would enjoy seeing for the first time.)

Do these ideas resonate for you? What are your tips for stoking creativity? Please share; your fellow readers will benefit.


 


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16 Comments

  1. Daphy on 30.06.2011 at 11:49 (Reply)

    Hey Suzy,

    The Pavlovian tip really resonates for me. Hearing good music while creating really gets me going (although, that would probably distract writers). I also strongly agree with tip #6. Night has always been a better time for me to create (not to mention that the added bonus is less noise during night… less phone calls/SMSing and what could calm the brain more than the thought of a comfy bed nearing). I would also add that not having a clock of any form in sight really helps my creative flow.
    Thanks for the tips…will practice.

    1. Christy on 01.07.2011 at 13:21 (Reply)

      Not all writers. I for one love to listen to music while I write. I also find rain to be both stimulating to the creativity and soothing to the nerves.

  2. Susan Cain on 30.06.2011 at 12:30 (Reply)

    Those are great ideas, Daphy. I never thought of the lure of a comfy bed adding to positive feelings, but I do believe I’ve felt the same thing, without identifying it.

    For readers who aren’t familiar with Daphna (Daphy) Stern’s work, she is a very talented jazz singer. Daphy, do you have any clips of you performing that you’d like to share here?

  3. Tim Larison on 30.06.2011 at 13:35 (Reply)

    Hello Susan -

    Just discovered your blog today and I definitely could resonate with your post. I find, too, I am most creative at night. One strategy that works for me is to let the ideas fly in a blog post in the evening and let it sit overnight. Then I look at it with fresh eyes in the morning before publishing it. Those “putting myself out there” fears are diminished in knowing I am not going to publish the blog immediately, allowing me to be more free with my writing. Then the next morning I can take a more objective look.

    Thanks for the tips and I look forward to reading your book and future blog posts,

    Tim (an introvert who just started blogging in the last 6 months)

    1. Susan Cain on 30.06.2011 at 13:38 (Reply)

      What a great idea, Tim. I have to admit that when it comes to blog posts I am often uncharacteristically impulsive. The lure of the “publish” button is just so strong. From now on I am going to think of you and (occasionally) sleep on it before sending.

  4. Luna on 30.06.2011 at 15:08 (Reply)

    This is a great post! I am incredibly uncomfortable with self-promotion. I need to get over it because I am nearing completion of a book I have been writing for a while and well, I guess I need to push it on people now. I shiver at the thought. I do have a thought/question. I know a few people whose self-promotion borders if not leaps into the area of bragging. I have read blogs/ they have posted/written about themselves that even read false about accomplishments they claim to have achieved and I cringe. I know people who have written one article for a local paper referring to themselves as journalists, or individuals running small companies just scraping by calling themselves business moguls. Then there are the people who will go on at length about themselves to an extent that makes me shake my head wondering when they will get over themselves. I know why they are doing it and I get it but I wonder at where you draw the line to achieve your goal. If you have to be false and create an image around yourself that is essentially a lie is that o.k.? Certainly I don’t think so because don’t you lose something in the process? If you have to brag about your accomplishments isn’t there a limit and isn’t there a way to do it with grace and humility? I have a strong aversion to that which is not sincere or genuine (though marketing has tried to hit that niche too). People who brag about themselves or make themselves out to be more than they are really turn me off ditto for people who do kind things as in charitable acts and advertise it. I know what a competitive tough world it is out there and I will have to steel myself for rejection as well as spin myself a little but I just can’t spin too far from my true self.

    1. Susan Cain on 01.07.2011 at 12:38 (Reply)

      Hi Luna, I don’t think you should worry about this at all. Effective self-promotion is NOT about spinning or presenting false accomplishments. It’s just the opposite — it’s about being your authentic self, publicly. This is more true than ever in the world of 24/7 social media — with that level of exposure, people sense inauthenticity right away, and tune out. And conversely, they can tell when you’re being real, and appreciate it.

      By the way, this is not just me spouting off a feel-good theory — marketing gurus like Seth Godin have been talking about this phenomenon for a long time now.

  5. rajnish on 01.07.2011 at 08:36 (Reply)

    Hi Susan,

    I feel anxious because I am surrounded by extrovert friends and that repeatedly reminds me that I am incapable of expressing my ideas, works, and so on vis-a-vis my friends(peer effect). Therefore, I am comfortable being Webtrovert (point 2). Even then, I am under constant pressure (external and mental)to turn myself into extrovert. Sometimes I wonder why extroverts want introverts to behave (and act) like them. Is it because they are in majority or is it because they think they are extra-smart? Well, I don’t have the answer to the first question, but reading your postings on the blog convinced me that the myth that extroverts are super-smart and creative is only a false-myth.

    Thank you for keeping me aware on that.

    1. Susan Cain on 01.07.2011 at 12:44 (Reply)

      You’re welcome! I don’t think extroverts think they are extra-smart. They simply experience the world differently from introverts. They naturally vocalize their thoughts; if they are not speaking, it often means that they have no ideas on the subject at hand. It’s human nature to project what’s true for ourselves on to others, so when they see introverts not talking, they naturally conclude that they must not have anything of value to add. Since we live in a culture that valorizes extroversion, most people have not needed to question these assumptions.

      But they will soon! The zeitgeist is changing.

  6. Mac on 01.07.2011 at 10:38 (Reply)

    Hi Susan

    For the past year I have been flying solo as I move an e-commerce idea from pre-formative to reality. Getting up to speed on an entirely new industry for me has had it’s share of challenges. Once I made the decision to run this marathon, and take this concept across the finish line, I realized early on
    it was necessary to do more than just tap into my creative side and push myself outside my comfort zone. I needed to tap into the experience and expertise of coaches….coaches in the form of bloggers whose advice-through various online posts-I could depend on. And, more importantly, coaches whose knowledge of internet startups, raising venture capital, and, essentially, what it takes to put your idea and yourself out there, was based on experience. I am fortunate to have found some of the best and brightest and it has made all the difference. Not only do I consider you to be among this group, but, this has to be one of the most meaningful blogs I’ve read. I start at 4:00am with coffee and pastry in hand, with playlists running on YouTube. I find I am more creative then and look forward to this time alone. Until now I wasn’t sure why. My children just say I’m losing it. (maybe I’m not giving cortisol and the “chorus of judges” enough time to get rolling…LOL) Anyway, thank you. This was well written. And, thank you for “putting yourself out there” for all of us to benefit from. I’m looking forward to your book.

    1. Susan Cain on 01.07.2011 at 12:47 (Reply)

      Thank you, Mac! I appreciate you taking the time out of what sounds like a ridiculously busy day to write this note. Best of luck with the new business, and keep us posted. Also, let me know if any questions come up where this blog can be helpful.

  7. Patricia on 01.07.2011 at 13:20 (Reply)

    Very interesting about the Cortisol connection. And here I thought I am just not a morning person.

  8. Olga on 04.07.2011 at 15:16 (Reply)

    Hi Susan!
    I absolutely agree that night hours are exactly the time for the creativity!
    I always thought it was wrong and it’s better to do the job early in the morning, but actually you do the amount of the work faster, but the pragmatic, I mean practical part of the job.That’s why night is left for creativity and meditation as I suppose one should become more introvert, make search inside to create smething new.

    Thank you!

  9. Spooky Sean on 06.07.2011 at 23:48 (Reply)

    I enjoy Chuck Palahniuk’s ten tips for writing, which are somewhere on his website. My favorite advice, was the egg timer method, where if you have trouble writing, you set an egg timer, or other timer, for one hour. Write for that hour, and if by the time it goes off, you want to stop, then you do.
    Also, his advice to break up your writing with breaks to do boring house work like the dishes or the laundry is good advice. Way better than taking a break, and watching TV or something.

  10. Social marketing as a creative endeavor | Laura E. Kelly on 07.07.2011 at 09:55

    [...] in a World That Can’t Stop Talking isn’t writing specifically for authors in her post “Seven Ideas on How to Overcome Fear and Become More Creative,” but what she says will resonate with you. Particularly her #2 tip for helping those leery of social [...]

  11. Brittany on 09.07.2011 at 22:44 (Reply)

    I too seem to be most creative at night, it’s interesting that many others on here are the same way it seems. I always used to draw at night, and now I tend to write at night. I came up with my shyness project plan at night too, making brainstorm webs of what I could work on and write about. I did a good amount of research too. I’ve never really been all that self-exposing either, which is why I was hesitant to even start blogging and share my story. At times I feel a little embarrassed of all that I’ve admitted to and written about on my blog, since usually I keep that to myself and don’t mention when I feel nervous or anxious. I’m glad that you are exposing yourself on your blog so it can help others as well, your posts are very interesting. And I’m happy for you that your childhood dreams of becoming a writer have come true, it must feel amazing! I hope one day I can write a book too. I like your idea of self-expression rather than thinking of it as self-promotion, I think that’s one of the hardest things about blogging. I feel uncomfortable writing to others sometimes and leaving a link to my blog in hopes they will visit, but it seems like you kind of have to do that to get any one to see your site. Getting views on your site is hard!

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