The Economics Of Fear, Or: They Told Me I Was Smart.

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 8.442% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

(This is an essay I wrote way back in 2009, back when I’d just started changing my fear distribution. Since then, I’ve published four books and I’m contracted to write two more – and though I’ve not been a bestselling success yet, I’m definitely much further on from where I am when I started back when I was more concerned about being smart.

(I’m reposting this ancient essay because a couple of my friends have stumbled across it and found it useful. I still think it’s one of the more significant essays I’ve ever written… But you can decide that for yourself.)

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.

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