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The Economics Of Fear - The Watchtower of Destruction: The Ferrett's Journal
October 19th, 2009
11:11 am


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The Economics Of Fear
Scientific studies have shown that you can destroy a child by calling them "smart." Even when they're very young, little kids know that being "smart" is what makes them special - and so, the first time they encounter something they don't understand immediately, it's a threat. Their specialness is in danger of being stripped away. And if they lose that smartness, then what are they?

Kids who are called smart take fewer chances. Why risk all that glorious social acclaim for a stupid test? And if you don't really try, then you can still be smart - you may have potential, but even a six-year-old knows that having the potential to be smart gives you more benefits than finding out that no, you're not really smart at all.

Far better to tell a kid that they're hard working. Hard work is something you can't take away. Hard work is something that can always be improved. Smart can just... vanish.

I was told I was very smart.

Like many others who grew up in the Generation Of Unfettered Self-Esteem, I reacted by sandbagging my efforts. I wrote stories, but sporadically. And when I sent them out, it was to friends who'd tell me how great it was. And on the rare occasions I sent them out to actual paying markets, one or two rejections sent them right back into the drawer.

As long as they were in the drawer, they could be good. And I could be a good writer. If I worked at it. Which I wasn't, but that potential gave me all the glory of feeling like I might be a great writer some day without all of that icky negative feedback. Sure, I had this constant underlying fear that maybe I wasn't good enough - but I had a moderately popular journal, some folks who liked me, and wasn't that enough?

Recently, however, I've started going for it. I've been sending out stories almost constantly, and yet I haven't had a pro sale in a year. Eighty rejections sit on my desk, each one proof that the stories I'm writing aren't good enough yet. And I'm writing every day, really stretching myself - and recognizing that in the end, I may write my ass off and still not be good enough. Effort doesn't always equal success. I may push myself to my limit and discover that limit's still well underneath where "pro writer" needs to be. Failure, as Adam from Mythbusters is so fond of saying, is always an option.

So why did I change? A friend of mine, who was also crippled by smartness, called me "brave" - but I'm not brave.

It's just simple economics, is all.

What I realized was that I was living in constant fear. No matter what I did, no matter what success I had, I knew that I was failing. And when I did some calculations, I realized that every day I woke up and felt like I wasn't doing well enough. And what would happen one day, when I was seventy, it would be too late to actually succeed and I've have to realize that I had squandered my life on fear and paralysis.

In that sense, "not really going for it" was like paying the interest on my credit card. It got me by, it was easy, it let me buy other things - but eventually, that bill would still be due and I'd be no further along.

These days, I really am putting myself on the line. And not only do I have the potential payoff that I might achieve what I want, but that underlying fear has transformed. It hasn't vanished - no, that constant gentle sucking has been replaced by brain-melting spasms of terror. Whenever I get a rejection letter for a story I had hopes for, that panic of OMG WHAT hits me like a freight train, and Gini has to calm me down.

The rest of the time, though, it's just not there. I've exchanged one constant, low-grade fear that never went away for spikes of anguish. The overall fear amount is about the same, but the spikes have one critical difference: I might, actually, turn out to be something.

What it comes down to is economics. I can have a constant, low level of fear with no payoff at the end, or I can have panic attacks and no fear elsewhere, with the additional potential of seeing whether I have the talent I think I might.

You're going to live in fear, smarty. The question is, which fear?

So I'm going to find out. Either I'll fail magnificently at fiction, or I'll get to seventy and fail by default. I'm forty now, which makes my own choice easier; I only have so many years before that clock runs out. Every morning when I wake up, the danger is not that I'll find out, but that I'll run out of time to find out. Twenty years have already been devoured by my own insecurities. Do I want the rest of my life to be swallowed up by that?

What I'm doing is, perhaps for the first time in my life, making an informed choice about the matter. I'm still scared shitless every goddamned day. I'm still breaking down whenever I get stonewalled on a story I loved that hits the reject-o-skids.

But I think every writer - hell, every artist - will, eventually, come to a long and dry desert where there is no positive feedback, no hope of success, no way of finding that magic button that turns on the talent within you. It may last for years. And most artists don't talk about that empty space, because there's no way of conveying it because all anyone ever sees is the glorious, envious end product. During that time you're Jesus, wandering in the desert, trying to find yourself and not finding a damn person in the world who'll tell you you're good.

You're not smart. You're hard working. That's all you have.

(73 shouts of denial | Tell me I'm full of it)

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Date:October 19th, 2009 04:03 pm (UTC)
We were just discussing this this weekend with my HS freshman daughter. She's finally gotten to the point where she needs to study, whereas before now everything came easy.

Had I been pushed in school I might have done really well, but I learned early on that I could skate through on A's and B's and the occasional C by not doing anything - so I didn't. And then I got to college and was in way, way over my head.

In some ways, I'm glad she's hitting this point now, when she's at home. I wish someone would have pushed me as a kid so that I'd have been challenged and didn't expect everything in life to just come to me like magic.
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Date:October 19th, 2009 03:25 pm (UTC)
You have hit the nail on the head with this post, at least with me, who I jokingly call an "Arteest".

When on top, you are 'God'.
When people pass by your wares without a blink (and it happens to everyone at some point), you are in that desert, trying to find that mirage again.

But for me, the Hard Work is a part of it all. Those desert walking times force you to stretch and take chances, and even if some of those endeavors are complete and utter flops, at least you do have that label as a 'hard worker'...that you can pat yourself on the back for, and feel great about.

To me, that's better than being an Arteest.
[User Picture]
Date:October 19th, 2009 03:37 pm (UTC)
Thanks for writing this. I hit a wall of fear today and lost faith in something and you helped me get back to a place of faith.
Date:October 19th, 2009 03:38 pm (UTC)
And that's all that matter. That you do the work. Because at the end, at least you'll know you made the effort.

Good on you, ferret. Yes, the desert fucking sucks. I know exactly where you're coming from.

And yes, you are brave. Because coming out here and saying this? It takes guts. Thank you for speaking it.
[User Picture]
Date:October 19th, 2009 04:36 pm (UTC)
Po Bronson wrote about this exact problem in NY Magazine about two years ago.
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Date:October 19th, 2009 07:48 pm (UTC)
The exact article I was looking for to link him to - I have it bookmarked somewhere, as it really resonated with me. I'v always been "smart", and it makes me (even now) prefer to not do something than to do it poorly, even though everyone starts out bad. But I'm working on it.
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Date:October 19th, 2009 04:44 pm (UTC)
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
Date:October 19th, 2009 04:51 pm (UTC)
Oddly enough, while I generally agree with you, my problem is and has always been that I'm NOT hardworking enough. I never really felt my "smartness" on the line (least not that I can remember) but there was a point somewhere in the middle of high school that I realized I had never really needed to work that hard because "smart" was usually enough to get me through.
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Date:October 19th, 2009 04:57 pm (UTC)
I was always told I was smart. Everything else about me was broken, ugly, warped, but "at least" I was smart. People said it while throwing up their hands. I can say I never had much of a work ethic when it came to schoolwork until I started my Classics program, which I couldn't fake my way through. But still, I've found that ethic in writing and blogging in a way I never had it when I was younger. In fact, I'm not sure I ever made the connection between hard-working and smart--in our culture, smart means not working hard at it, the way you're not supposed to work at being beautiful, either.
Date:October 19th, 2009 05:03 pm (UTC)

Maybe 90

Millard Kaufman published his first novel at the age of 90.

I just gave you 20 more years to become a pro; you're welcome.
[User Picture]
Date:October 28th, 2009 07:06 pm (UTC)

Re: Maybe 90

Well, yes. But he was an acclaimed screenwriter before that --

Still, point taken.
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Date:October 19th, 2009 05:12 pm (UTC)
Interesting, I have a whole slew of people on Facebook, who were classmates at Hunter College HS, which is a competitive HS based solely on being smart. New York Magazine called us "The Joyful Elite". It was drilled into our heads how brilliant we were.

And most of them are huge successes. You, being a writer, may know of some of them. I am humbled by the greatness of my peers, seriously.

They're hard working, but they were told they were smart. Just like successful kids in great colleges, and some of the other competitive schools and programs out there. (Hunter starts in Kindergarten for some kids.)
Date:October 22nd, 2009 10:05 am (UTC)
Many of your classmates probably avoided this problem because they were conditioned to be confident.

I know from personal experience that being told you're smart can be paralyzing, and agree with that part of the article wholeheartedly. However, what the author didn't make particularly clear is that as soon as you gain confidence in your ability, that fear falls away. Success can give you as much of a high as failure can give you a funk. And once you gain confidence, your work will probably reach a whole new level.

It only takes a little bit of depressive thought for that fear to return, but with practice you can learn to mitigate it.

Children need to be given confidence in their ability at the same time as being told they're smart, so that they *know* the can achieve a lot because they've always done so, rather than thinking they *ought* to be able to achieve something, but never being sure because they've never really been tested and succeeded.
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Date:October 19th, 2009 05:15 pm (UTC)
Hm. I'm not sure I agree with that study, at least from my experience - what I learned from "smart" was to try for work that I valued, because I was a tougher critic of myself than most people. The thought of taking cheap approval as worthwhile, even as a kid, did nothing for me, and I actively tried to preserve my "smart" by reading the classics. (Weird strategy, in retrospect, but there you go.) As an adult, the thought of surrendering my ability to control my situation, even if ineffectively, is not one that ever did it for me either. It's possible that this is a generational thing, but I've seen plenty of other artists my age who took the fear of failure strategy as well... so I suspect it boils down to whether people fear failure or incompetence more.

[User Picture]
Date:October 19th, 2009 05:36 pm (UTC)

I am really feeling this post.
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Date:October 19th, 2009 05:41 pm (UTC)
Thank you for posting.
Running out of time to find out... I completely understand that fear.
[User Picture]
Date:October 19th, 2009 05:52 pm (UTC)
I'll get to seventy and fail by default

This is the only part I disagree with.

You might live to see ninety. You won't have failed by twenty years.

The only time we can calculate failure is sometime after a person is dead. Exactly when that is, I'm not sure.
[User Picture]
Date:October 19th, 2009 06:24 pm (UTC)
Damn. You really hit the nail on the head with this one.
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