Is fear killing your creativity?

creativity killers Nov 11, 2020

Which fears could be killing your creativity and what to do about them

I once had the privilege of hearing Jay Naidoo speak at a business breakfast. Naidoo is a social and political activist who served Nelson Mandela’s cabinet and is a South African national treasure (in my view.) He told the story of his life being transformed one day when, at the age of 15 and he heard the passionate and charismatic student leader, Steve Biko, speak at a rally. Naidoo says he will never forget this line:The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”

Our minds are so powerful. If we let fear can take hold of our mind it can completely control our lives. Yet most of what we fear is not real. It’s often exaggerated or unrealistic, and even when it is not, the consequences of what we fear are often not as devastating as we imagine. If we don't do these things fear can paralyse us and we can end up living a life of playing it safe.

We can train our minds to leverage the power of our fear to our advantage – more on this later.

You are not alone

Is fear killing your creativity? Fear is such a common denominator. If you are afraid. You are not alone! We are all scared of something.

When it comes to creativity, there are a few key fears that we see time again. Do you recognise yourself in any of these?


1. Fear of letting go of control

“I'm afraid of what I'm risking if I follow you… Into the unknown,” sings the Disney character Elsa as she follows a deep and dutiful calling to go to an unknown place to save her kingdom.

Creativity takes us into the unknown. If you are results-focussed and like to get the job done without dillydallying, then this fear may hold back your creativity. You like to be in control and not waste time with trivia. It is likely that the idea of coming up with creative alternatives to a problem will annoy you. You will get impatient with creative types and just want to jump to implement the solution that you’ve thought of already, which you know is the best one.

Yet, without slowing down and exploring different avenues, we are unlikely to come up with a solution that breaks the mould. Great creations are often unanticipated by their designers and are arrived at by a winding and branching journey.

With this release of control comes vulnerability that will make you uncomfortable. You don’t have all the answers here. You’re not the expert in the room – no one is. You may want to pull back from creative thinking to save face and retain your authority. The paradox is that when we let go of power to put on a ‘beginners mindset’, the mindset of curiosity, we gain power through the new thinking that we can achieve.

Steps you can take:

As a no-nonsense type of person with strong drive, you need to be fully bought into the idea that creativity is worth pursuing in the first place. Start by understanding the power of creative thinking and how it will serve your end goals to help you become fully convinced of its value. This will make you more willing to let go of control, let go of our predetermined ideas and to take time to explore new territory with curiosity.

Secondly, start trying out letting go of control in small ways. Ask a team member to run a meeting for you. Let your partner plan the party for a change. Allow your child to determine the route that you walk. Put your map aside and wander. This will be hard! Think about: is there an area of your life that you control very closely that you can try releasing some of that control. Take baby steps! This is not about letting go of all the strings at once and inviting chaos, not at all.

Finally, if you are feeling really scared about something, it may mean that it is incredibly important. . In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield says: “The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.” If you can connect to WHY this work matters so much, you will fuel to make it possible.


2. Fear of failure

FEAR can make you go two ways: either you can Forget Everything And Run, or you can Face Everything And Rise. The choice is yours.

In Brene Brown's excellent talk 'Sweaty Creatives', she explains that being creative requires courage. We need to show up in the arena and face ridicule, face failure, face making mistakes and face the pain in order to do something worthwhile that we care about. (I highly recommend this talk if you have not seen it already.)

Though we all fear failure to some degree, for some people, the idea of making mistakes, being wrong or our venture being a flop is too much to bear. If you are a person who is cautious and analytical, then the fear of failure could hold back your creativity. The seemingly illogical nature of creative thinking makes you cringe and the idea of there not being one correct answer is frustrating and difficult for you to accept.

With so many voices around us criticising failure, it’s no wonder that we are afraid of it. The whole idea of ‘failing fast’ sounds great from the mouth of a now-fantastically-successful entrepreneur, but it is pretty hard to do in real life. All around us we see people

Steps you can take:

For small fears, one step that you can take is to reframe how you think of the thing that you are attempting. Instead of calling it ‘a venture’, call it ‘an experiment.’ When we think of something as an experiment, we are already half expecting it to fail. The purpose becomes to get the data and learn from the results, more than to deliver a successful outcome.

The ancient stoic Seneca said: “We suffer more in imagination than in reality.”

For bigger fears, involving significant actions like starting a new business, try fear setting. Fear setting is a deliberate exercise that provides an antidote to the fear of failure by bringing your fears to light and really examining them. Tim Ferriss describes this process of Fear Setting (a kind of goal setting in reverse.) This is how it works:

  1. Bring your fears to light and name them. Pick your fears apart. Imagine the terrible thing you fear really did happen. What are these worst-case scenarios? Once you've done this, think:
    • what could you do to prevent these things from happening?
    • Is there something practically that would reduce the chance of their occurrence.
    • Finally, ask then what? What next? What would it really be like if this happened? Would it really be the end of the world?


  1. Once you've done the three steps described above, you then examine two other avenues. Firstly: What might be the benefits of an attempt or partial success? What the thing you are afraid will fail actually works? How big could those rewards be in your life?


  1. Finally, think about and note down, what is the cost of doing nothing? What if you just stayed exactly as you are? Take this scenario out a year, five years, ten years. Would you be happy continuing this way without doing the thing you fear?


3. Fear of taking the first step

I love gathering information. I love learning. When designing new learning programmes, my best part is the research, the brainstorming, the thinking and coming up with all the creative ideas for crafting a powerful and effective learning intervention. However, at some point all that divergent thinking needs to converge and I need to take the first step. Often my thinking can go in so many directions that I get overwhelmed and off track. I can end up going down proverbial rabbit holes and wasting time. Sometimes I can end up so far from the original intention that I have lost my way.

Creativity requires creation. We need to move beyond thinking to create something. True creativity has a bias towards action. However, analysis paralysis can stop us from being creatively active.

Getting out of the starting blocks is usually the hardest part anything venture that is worth doing.  I felt this first step fear in a huge way when I co-founded Creativity Wake-Up. You can read about it here.

Steps you can take:

If fear is making you hold back from taking a step towards something you want to do or feel you are called to do, then know this: easy choices now don't always mean an easy ride in the future. Often its the hard choices now that make for the easier time in the future.

Think about: what is the next smallest step that you can think of to do. Don’t give yourself the task “launch my business” on your to-do list. Rather take the small step of registering your business and then the smaller step of finding out how to do that. That little step is what should appear on your list for the next day: “Call Thabo to discuss how he registered his business.”

Newton's First Law of Motion states that a body at rest will remain at rest unless an outside force acts on it, and a body in motion at a constant velocity will remain in motion in a straight line unless acted upon by an outside force.

Lean forward into action. You will be amazed at the power of inertia when you don’t move and the power of motion once you get going. Then be consistent and keep taking small steps.

4. Fear of looking stupid

When my daughter was young and we were on holiday at a beach resort, children were being given the opportunity to go up onto a little stage by the pool and sing. She adores music and performing and was desperate to be on stage; however, she was more terrified of what people would think of her. There were only a handful of distracted parents and few kids playing around the pool, yet the opinion of these strangers outweighed her desire to experience the joy of the stage. “Muuum, they’ll laugh at me!” I believe they would’ve delighted in a five-year-old taking to the stage and would have enthusiastically cheered her on, no matter how bad her singing was. Nevertheless, in the end she missed out for fear of looking silly.

Most of us want to be liked and admired. I you particularly love praise and approval (as I do), then the fear of looking stupid could be a big stumbling block for your creativity. You fear losing face and being judged. You want to be smart, successful and accepted, so you worry your creative expression could leave you exposed or embarrassed. You end up following the way to avoiding looking foolish which is to avoid putting yourself out there. “What will they think of me!” (referring to family members, friends, colleagues, even acquaintances.

Steps you can take:

Beware of keeping yourself small and wasting your potential. Ask yourself: Are you really so concerned with what people you know are doing? Have you laughed at and mocked someone who is trying hard to use their creativity to step into something new or scary? Unlikely!

I hope this poem by Marianne Williamson will encourage you:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Creativity takes courage

When we move our fears from vague and gnawing worry out into the light and meet them head on, life becomes blissful, more in keeping with how we want to live it. As Seneca said, too often our suffering is all in our minds.

Creativity takes courage. The famous creativity educator, Julia Cameron said: 

“People come to me and they expect to be taught how to be fearless.

They think I’m fearless. I say, ‘No, no, I create despite the fear.'


You can do this

This life is not a dress rehearsal. Don't shrink from your fears. Face your fears square on. If you are still reading this post, you have a creative endeavour inside you that you are wrestling with. Don't let your fears rule you. Bring them out into the light so that you can peel them off and let your creative light shine out of you. 


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