Feeding Fear

How giving yourself permission to take a bigger bite of your own career can be the scariest, most rewarding thing you ever do

I was thrilled to be part of a panel called “Taking A Bigger Bite out of Your Career” alongside Dana Cowin, Melissa Clark and Susan Ungaro at the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs Conference on April 19 in New York City. Moderator Leiti Hsu asked each of us to speak for 5–10 minutes on the topic of “Taking A Bigger Bite out of Your Career” and I decided to talk about fear. This isn’t necessarily the way I said everything, but it’s the way I wrote it.

If you are in this room, you chose a really challenging, generous, scary thing to do for a living, and I admire the hell out of that. And that’s what I want to talk about, because this is ostensibly a safe space and I truly believe in the power of female solidarity. I wanted to take a minute and address fear, minus the shame that usually comes along with it.

It might be because of the focus of this particular conference, or because I’ve been spending so much time in my own head writing a book about anxiety (It’s called Hi, Anxiety and it comes out on March 29, 2016), but I’ve been thinking a lot about fear and where it’s helped or hurt my career.

A little bit of background: My undergrad degrees are in painting and sculpture, and my MFA is in metalsmithing. I moved to New York City at 23 because one of my professors said that if you really mean to be an artist, you owe it to yourself to try it for at least six months. (19 years later, I’m still here.) And when I moved here, I was broke and clueless in so many ways, and while it wasn’t so especially pleasant at the time (particularly the broke and hungry part), it was somehow freeing, because I had next to nothing to lose.

So I tried a million things: Making terrible performance art about birds and nuns where I was inexplicably half-naked, working in artists’ studios mopping their floors and fabricating their sculptures, working in galleries, wrapping and shipping paintings, being an office manager for a therapist who really liked porn, being an office manager for a verbally abusive graphic designer, working retail during the holidays at that HMV across from Macy’s (people are really, really mean to cashiers at the holidays, like it’s our fault they have to go shopping).

I learned many valuable survival skills and (barely) kept a roof over my head. But I wasn’t making my own visual art — which is why I’d moved there — because I was afraid of being rejected.

And then something knocked me out of my paralysis. Seven young men surrounded me on the doorstep of the filthy, illegal loft in which I was living (and not making art) and demanded all my money. That was $7 — a buck apiece for their efforts — and I still remember so vividly that one young man hung behind and asked, “Miss, are you going to be OK?”

No…and at the same time, oddly, yes. Better than I had been for a while, because I thought, “OK, screw fear.” It’s healthy to be afraid for your physical safety, but swaddling your soul for the same purpose eventually smothers you.

So I started looking for jobs making art, and I got them, mostly at online magazines and city guides. And I was pretty good at them — or at least nobody yelled at me and told me I sucked, which is mostly what I feared would happen. And I was still running away from the other thing I wanted to be: A writer.

That was for people who’d gotten English degrees and internships and worked on their college literary magazine (we had no such thing). Not me who scribbled in notebooks and wrote funny staff emails when she could. So I sneaked it in around the edges, taking jobs at places where I could be the art director (I allowed myself that because I’d gone to school for it.), and maaayyyyybe sneak in a music or restaurant review, but never actually call myself a writer. I waited for other people to do it, to give me permission. Waiting for an editor to take pity on me and notice that I was going to a show or really liked restaurants, because I was too scared to pitch them. And if they gave me a shot, I was so afraid of letting them down that I worked so, so, so, SO hard, to the exclusion of anything else, even romance or rest.

Because if I stopped moving and tap dancing and sparkling and trying harder than anyone else, they’d realize they’d made a mistake. Sorry, kid, we were wrong about you. Back in your corner.

And the work paid off. I screwed up my courage and made myself a business card that said “Kat Kinsman — Designer & Writer” and I called myself a “writer” on my taxes. I got a summer gig as the grilling editor at AOL. The food editor left in my first few weeks, and I got her job, and then the senior editor was laid off, so I took over her job, and I worked and worked and worked and worked to make up for the fact that I’d gotten it all by accident. And so they didn’t realize that I wasn’t supposed to be there.

I guess I fooled them all. I got a job creating a food site for CNN, and I spent the first few years terrified that people would figure out that I wasn’t a journalist. That I was just writing this cute little food blog while they were doing the work that actually meant something. So I worked and worked and worked until I learned from them how to be a journalist, too.

And I was still terrified.

But the thing that happens when you’re terrified all the time is that it all just becomes white noise. You’re going to be terrified anyway. You shouldn’t be scared of your own passions, your own possibilities. You might as well fall face-first into the void.

I learned that if you do that, and if you talk about it, people — especially other women — will reach out and catch you. Because they’re feeling it, too.

I began writing stories about mental illness, depression, anxiety, not being a mother, turning 40, stigma around sexuality, and yeah — a lot of food stuff, too. I realized that even though I hadn’t gone to journalism school, I could tell stories in a whole new way at CNN, and bring a format and a voice and a human quality that maybe hadn’t been there before. I had something to offer them.

These stories weren’t always easy to tell, especially the deeply personal ones. I was terrified each and every time that people would think less of me, think I was weak or crazy, figure out that I was a fraud and a fake. And every single time, I was paid back so much more than I’d given by people who came out of the woodwork to tell me, “My God. Thank you. I thought I was the only one.”

I’m here to tell you you’re not the only one who’s afraid. Not the only woman. Not the only one in the food world. Not the only one in this room.

Let’s talk about it.

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