Dancing with the Thing You’re Most Afraid Of

My conversation with Seth Godin and what it reveals about fear


2013

We were about 10 stops to Grand Central when I knew I was going to vomit.

Right here, right now. Everyone could tell, I was sure. My sweaty palms and empty eyes must’ve been a dead giveaway, right?

With every stop, dozens more people piled onto the already sweaty Metro-North car. I, along with three close friends, were on our way to see one of our favorite blues guitarists. Why does that matter? Because now, on this train, the anxiety seemed to be affecting even the recreational things I always enjoyed doing.

I was having a panic attack. My eyes searched bags or any other receptacle I could vomit in, hopefully to lesser embarrassment.

Next stop, South Norwalk Station. I couldn’t take it. I turned to my friends, and said, “I have to get off this train right now.”

And I did.

Forget the show, I can always see Gary Clark, Jr. another time. What I felt most was shame. I was disappointed my body and mind had let me down in this manner, and also, in the fact that I was sure this was going to effect my professional success.

“Successful people don’t hop off trains, do they?” I told myself, mockingly.

Turns out, they do.


Present

One of the more persistent ol’ wives tales regarding successful founders is that they’re impervious to failure.

And this, above all else, is a prerequisite for their mastery and success.

They’re above missteps, always saying and doing the right things.

He or she is “living the dream”, you often hear.

In reality, it’s the opposite. The ones at the top, the ones you’d classify as successful dreamers, had their share of nightmares. In fact, they’ve likely had more missteps and failures than just about everyone working for and alongside them.

Yup, and they have the scars to prove it, too. Scars that validate the efforts that eventually led to the success of their ventures. (This is important, as scars without insight that inspires change isn’t entrepreneurship. It’s amateur rugby.)

Just ask a founder, “has it always been easy?”

That’s it. That’s all you need to ask. Just be prepared to sit, for a long time, while you hear evidence to the contrary. In my experience, many founders really enjoy discussing their failures, as it allows them to reflect on the two things (professionally) they find more fulfilling then money; perseverance and self-education.

It’s why, when I had the chance to hang out with Seth Godin to record an episode of my podcast Louder Than Words, I made it a point to ask him about failure. And not failure in the general sense, but his failures.

If we’re being honest, I fumbled through my first few attempts at asking. (You can check out the episode for yourself here.)

I really wanted to humanize him. I mean, this is a guy who owns any stage he’s on. His messages are polished, he’s graceful, he’s…shit. I’m doing it right now, aren’t I?

(You see how easy it is to glorify other’s success?)

Turns out, even Seth Godin is not impervious to failure or insecurities. His response was typical:

“I’m afraid every single time I do something worth doing. And if I’m not afraid, then I know that I’m just doing my job, and not the work. The work is dancing with the thing that makes you afraid.”
The work is dancing with the thing that makes you afraid.

Godin is all about originality. Purple cows. Taking leaps.

He’s about letting the low hanging fruit fall off the tree and rot. (Brilliant analogy I stole from Austin Kleon.)

He’s about being the linchpin of your organization, not another cog in the machine.

But in order to do this, you have to give away your lifelines. All of them. To truly do work that matters, you have to move forward without process. Without following any “best practice.”

Best practices are really just “what worked for me.”

But most successful entrepreneurs didn’t become that way by following rules. They became successful by breaking them and re-writing their own. (Hence the nightmares and scars.)

I think about this every day. If I’m not a bit uncomfortable in my methods of making a project a success, am I really breaking new ground?

Am I following a best practice? The norm? The internal wiki? Google?

And if I am, aren’t countless others?

Sometimes the most successful people get that way not by avoiding failure, but by going it alone and all but welcoming it.


Illustration by Bobby Kane.

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