(This is the second part of a series I began a few months back with “Don’t Wait To Do Your ‘Real Work’,” an article about overcoming the fears that often hold us back from pursuing work that genuinely excites us.)
Much has been written about the importance of finding work that not only supports you financially but also deeply moves you. Many people react to this kind of advice by thinking something like “well, it’s nice that you can do something you’re passionate about, but I’m focused on trying to survive right now.” Presumably they figure that, once things are more financially stable for them, doing work that feels meaningful can finally become a priority. Or maybe they’ve grown too cynical to believe it’s even possible for them to enjoy working.
Doing something we’re genuinely interested in, of course, isn’t the only thing we tend to put off until we find the financial security we’re looking for. Many of us also put off taking our intimate relationships and outside pursuits as deeply as we’d like, hoping one day we’ll feel secure enough to go for what we want. The trouble is that, for many of us, the sense of security we crave never seems to arrive. For many of us, no matter what we achieve in terms of money and material rewards, a nagging fear that it could all disappear tomorrow lurks in the background.
We tend to assume that the sense of stability we’re seeking will come if we just work a little harder or longer. But is this true? I’ve known many wealthy people who, despite their material success, seem trapped in “survival mode,” fearing they’ll make a mistake and the abundance in their lives will dry up tomorrow. And of course, there are more public examples of famous actors, like Johnny Depp and Jennifer Lopez, who have, surprisingly (at least to me), been concerned that their careers won’t last.
What this suggests to me is that money won’t give us the lasting feeling of security many of us are chasing. Instead, I think it has more to do with our view of the universe. That is, do we see it as a basically safe place, where we’ll probably come out okay if we take some risks and even make a few mistakes? Or do we see the universe as unforgiving and hostile, likely to punish or destroy us for even a minor slipup? If we hold the second view, it’s not surprising that, no matter how secure our job seems, and how much money we have, that fear that “everything’s going to fall apart” keeps its hold on us.
If the degree of security we feel really depends on how we see the universe, how can we shift our perspective to develop the feeling of safety we want? In working with clients, I see it as one of my roles to help them cultivate what A.H. Almaas calls a sense of “basic trust,” or a “confidence in the goodness of the universe.” Here are three approaches to developing a more trusting perspective on life that I’ve found useful:
1. Let Go Of The Idea That “Insecurity Equals Success.” Many of us have spent our lives believing, consciously or otherwise, something like this: the more afraid I am of failing, the more successful I’m likely to be. We tend to assume that anxiety about running out of money or not achieving the status we want in our careers will keep us motivated. If we weren’t so afraid, after all, we’d have no reason to get out of bed or off the couch.
First, notice that this way of thinking puts you on a treadmill you can’t get off. If you really have to stay fearful to stay motivated, you can never allow yourself to relax and let go of your anxiety, because if you did, you’d lose your will to go on. Also, notice that this mindset can actually harm your productivity. When you’re constantly worried about your career security or performance, the time and energy you spend tossing and turning at night, endlessly second-guessing the work you produce, and so on don’t contribute much to advancing your career.
Most importantly, if you recognize that you’ve been thinking this way, just consider for a moment the possibility that sources of motivation other than fear exist. There are things you can enjoy doing so much, and feel so deeply moved by, that you don’t even think about the money, material rewards, or whatever else you’re earning when you do them. In other words, you can enjoy the process of doing those things without even thinking about the end product you’re creating.
Take the activities in your life you see as “play,” for instance. Suppose you enjoy running. Running is obviously a great way to stay healthy, but while you’re running you don’t need to focus your mind on the product—good health—to like doing it. You can enjoy the pure process of it, without giving any thought to the results you’re getting. Once you see this is possible, the next step is to find something you enjoy the process of doing—whether it’s fishing, computer programming, dog training or something else—and incorporating that into the work you do.
2. Face The Possibility Of Failure. Although we all seem to be afraid of failing in our careers and elsewhere, many of us never seriously consider what “failure” really means to us, and what we’d do to pick ourselves back up again if we did fail. When we take a hard look at these issues, we often find that the risk of failure no longer seems so terrifying.
I invite you to honestly ask yourself: what’s your definition of failure? Would it mean losing your job? Getting negative comments from the boss on a project? Not meeting your sales targets? Once you have an answer in mind, give some thought to what you’d do if that worst-case scenario came true. Would you find another job or career? Sell a few of your possessions? Take some time off and write a book?
Most of us are unwilling to seriously consider what we’d do if we “failed,” because even thinking about that feels too scary—it’s almost as if we’d die if the situation we’re imagining came about. But when we actually contemplate how we’d handle a “failure,” and begin coming up with fallback plans, we often discover a strength and resourcefulness in ourselves we didn’t know we had. In fact, we’d probably manage to survive and even thrive in the face of setbacks.
When we recognize we’re capable of dealing with most of the challenges we may face in our work, a peace and focus set in as we go through our normal routine. The risks we thought were too frightening to take, the conversations we thought were too difficult to have, and so on start to feel more manageable, and the success we’re looking for starts to feel more available.
3. Notice How The Fear Of Failure Feels. Ultimately, the worry that things will “fall apart,” in your career or elsewhere, is just a sensation you experience somewhere in your body—for many people, it’s the feeling of some part of their bodies tensing up. Like a cramp or a crick in your neck, it may be uncomfortable, but it isn’t likely to seriously hurt or kill you, and in fact it tends to pass away quickly.
Take a moment, the next time you’re feeling anxiety about your career, financial security, or something similar, to observe how that fear manifests in your body. What sensations let you know you’re feeling afraid?
When you simply start to notice how anxiety about failure feels for you, your relationship with that sensation begins to change. Many of us hold back from pursuing our most deep-seated goals—whether it’s the business we’re interested in starting, the screenplay we’d like to write, the relationship we’d like to have, and so on—to avoid experiencing this fear. But when we realize that the emotion of fear is actually a quickly passing bunch of sensations in our bodies, it ceases to look so threatening.
When we perceive our anxiety about failure for what it really is, the universe starts to look like a less hostile and more welcoming place to exist. And we come to see that the feeling of security we’ve been looking for can actually be found within ourselves.
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