The Right Kind of Fear

Why It’s Not Always a Bad Thing to Be Afraid

I don’t have a dream. It was the fear that haunted my thoughts that day, lingering in my mind.

I sank down deep in my seat, surrounded by a hundred pairs of hopeful eyes. We were all there, gathered in that multipurpose room (which was doubling as a conference center that day), for the same reason. To pursue a dream. To find the thing our hearts had been searching for.

Some of us wanted to be novelists; others aspired to start our own ad agencies or travel to South America to make a documentary.

Each dreamer represented a unique and beautiful dream, some special skill the world needed. The passion in that room was infectious, which only reinforced the feeling that I did not deserve to be there.

“What’s your dream?” was the opening obligatory question, and we all did our best to respond in kind. It was even something we had to inscribe on our name tags. I think mine said something profound and nondescript like “creative catalyst.”

In other words, I didn’t know.

I had no idea what my dream was or what I was doing there. When people asked what I wanted to do with my life, I used big, fancy words and complicated phrases that meant little to me but caused people’s eyes to glaze over just enough so that they were too intimidated to ask any follow-up questions.

Which was precisely the intent.

“I want to be a storytelling sherpa,” I told a guy carrying around an iPad. He nodded, the fear of following up obvious in his eyes. Mission accomplished.

A few times during the conference, I talked about my day job, but that felt boring and unoriginal. I was sure my dream was some- thing new and interesting, something “out there” that I’d never done before but would recognize as soon as it appeared on the horizon.

At some point during the conference, it would walk up to me and say hello, greeting me with a smile, and we would start the rest of my life together.

Every time I answered another question, I felt like I was betraying myself, that people were slowly seeing through the facade and beginning to feel sorry for me. Me, the hapless wanderer who was at a dream conference and didn’t have a dream. The guy with no vision for the future, just a fancy name tag.

And then, just as I was getting ready to excuse myself from my table and sneak out the back exit, the opening speaker stepped up to the podium. With a few short words, he shattered my illusion: “Some of you here don’t know what your dream is,” he said. “In fact, most of you don’t.”

I looked around to see dozens of heads nodding slowly in unison. Apprehensively, I did the same, a little worried who was watching me but eventually letting go and feeling the freedom that came with admitting I didn’t know what I was doing. “But the truth is,” he continued:

“You do know what your dream is . . . You’re just afraid to admit it.”

My heart sank. As soon as he spoke those words, one word popped into my mind: writer. Now, I was no longer afraid of failing.

I was afraid of not trying.

Most people waste the best years of their life waiting for an adventure to come to them instead of going out and finding one. They succumb to the status quo and dream of life being different someday. Plagued with indecision, they wait, unsure of the right path to follow. And as they wait, they miss an opportunity to live.

I certainly did. When I began calling myself a writer and owning my dream, things started to happen. But I almost didn’t do it, almost didn’t make that simple shift from dreaming to acting — just because I was afraid to fail. The truth is I should have been afraid of something much worse.

Most of us have some sneaking suspicion that there must be more to life than this. We understand we have a part to play in a larger story, but we just don’t know where to start. We all want to “just know” what we’re supposed to do with our lives, for our purpose to be spelled out for us, but that’s not how it works. Things are never clear and hardly ever obvious, especially when you’re starting out in pursuit of a dream.

Finding your dream doesn’t begin with knowing. It begins with acting. Those “lucky” few who find their purpose can testify to this. Taking the first step, they overcame the myth that “you just know” and decided to act anyway. And they learned, as we all do, an important lesson: Clarity comes with action.

The first thing that prevents us from living the life we long for is fear. We fear the unknown and what we might lose — our security, our reputation, even our lives. This is initially what keeps us from our life’s work and what numbs our awareness to the call — mystery. We are afraid of what we don’t know. But the second thing that holds us back is the belief that we ought to know before we act. And that is a myth.

You will never have clarity.

Discovering your purpose will take work and trust. Finding your life’s calling will require a fear-facing journey that may last a lifetime. Where does it begin? Not with knowing, but with listening — with discovering what your life is already saying to you.

And as you attempt to uncover this mystery, consider one more question, a much more constructive one: What happens if you don’t do this?

That’s what should really scare you.

This was an excerpt from my new book, The Art of Work.

Jeff Goins is the author of four books, including The Art of Work. For thoughts on writing and life, you can join his free newsletter.

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