“But what if I lean into my passions and it doesn’t pay off?”
Your marvelous, creative mind is out to get you. You might think you’re on the same team, ready to impact the world in positive, beautiful ways, but behind the scenes, your brain is plotting your failure in big ways.
Foreclosure, bankruptcy,humiliation, losing the love of your life and making your home in the oil-stained shadow of a dumpster off main street. It’s all there in your mind filed under, “Possible outcomes of pursuing my passions.”
If your inner nay-sayer is keeping you tied in knots - try these 5 tips to beat your brain at its own game.
Shake it Up
We are inundated with upwards of 100,000 words, daily according to a study conducted by the University of California. Playing into this word deluge by responding to your inner critic in words is like not cleaning the lint filter on your dryer. It’s dangerous, it’s ugly and it’s easy fixed with some decisive action. Beat the word-fatigue by shaking up your visual brain.
Make a list of all the jobs you’ve worked - in pictures. This exercise forces your brain to take a concrete, “words,” problem: “Create a job history,” and process it visually. If you can bypass your inner nagging voice telling you all the reasons why such a fun exercise is stupid, you’ve scored a point for Team Success-Brain.
Draw out symbols that represent your work history in color, whether you consider yourself an artist or not. Don’t worry, you don’t have to show it to anyone. You also have complete permission to stick your tongue out like a four-year-old-girl trying to color inside the lines on one of those new zen coloring books.
Try practicing this left and right brained handoff in as many different materials as you have available. Give your brain room to play. It might just hand you a creative solution to your career struggles.
Set the Scene
Our brains are our own personal movie-making machines. When you try to envision success, however, your inner critic can meet you at the door of the theatre with a strong stance, and an intimidatingly closed body posture while doing that Dwayne Johnson eyebrow thing.
Here’s how to make a break for the good seats in time for your inner-success movie premiere.
Think of a time when you used your creativity in a big way.
What was it like? Did tiny beads of sweat form on your brow while you waited to learn whether it had all paid off? Was it a time when you glided from, “what if,” into, “this is awesome,” with little resistance?
What was it like to experience the affirmation of success in your creative work? What time of day was it? What color do you remember most vividly from the room? What smell do you remember?
How long did you let your heart do embarrassing old-school dance moves in your chest before regaining composure?
Now that you have that memory of success, fast forward it ten or twenty years and imagine yourself experiencing the same type of success on a larger scale with a future project.
Our brains aren’t as instantly defensive over recalling past wins, as they are when we try to jump into daydreams of performing for an elite audience. Whether your reward for your earlier success was in cash or in kudos, you’ve already proven you have all the creativity you’ll need to succeed. Go ahead, dream big, but build it from a past win, played forward.
Embrace the suck
In his 2001 bestseller, Good to Great, author Jim Collins introduced us to the unbreakable man, Admiral Jim Stockade, who survived eight years of bleakest uncertainty and torture during the Vietnam War, creating mental endurance systems that have saved the lives of men and women facing wartime conditions ever since. And you thought advancing in your creative career was scary!
We can’t control all the variables impacting our career success, but we can lean in to the parts that scare us most. Jim Collins calls this the Stockdale Paradox, quoting Admiral Stockdale’s advice:
“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end - which you can never afford to lose - with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.”
While you may be, “faking it ’til you make it,” in parts of your creative journey, it’s important to be honest about the odds stacked against you. How many other creatives are in your the same line of work in your town? In your state? What makes you different from them?
If you put your head down, create good work and hope for the best, your inner critic will whisper to you about all the other people who are doing better work than you. Put your inner critic on the spot - by doing research on your market, you’re telling your inner critic, “If you’re going to talk, talk loud enough for everyone to hear.”
Acknowledging the competition doesn’t mean that you’re doomed. Be realistic about the size of the monster in the closet and face it anyway. Your success brain deserves a clear shot at bringing the hairy cretin to its knees.
Name the Worst
Think of what you want most in life. Now think of what would happen if every attempt you made to reach that outcome was a dismal failure.
When we think of things that could go wrong in our lives, often we’re really only thinking of the notion of failure, or the words describing the negative outcome.
By delving deeper into the worst-case scenario, we recognize our own resilience through a process mega-entrepreneur Tim Ferriss described in his book The 4-Hour Workweek, now on its second edition, as, "fear-setting".
“If you telegraph out ten years and know with 100% certainty that it is a path of disappointment and regret, and if we define risk as the likelihood of an irreversible negative outcome, inaction is the greatest risk of all.”
In other words, unless you’re a bad guy in a hollywood shoot-em-up movie, chances are whatever goes wrong in your life won’t instantly kill you. That means that you have limitless opportunities to screw up and recover, getting better with each progressive failure.
The next time your inner critic says, “What if the worst happens?” Be specific. Give the worst a NAME, and then answer the question, honestly. Don’t create some superhero fantasy in which you save the day and instantly overcome adversity - answer what would happen if you fell flat on your face tomorrow and had to get back up, little by little. Go ahead. Your success brain can take it!
Bungee jump down the rabbit hole
If there were prizes for remembering obscure, instantly crippling information, like the time you got way below market value for something you sold, or the time you attracted that nightmare client from the Pit, your inner critic would take the gold medal.
As long as your inner critic is sending out these failure-tales, your temptation will be to drop everything and listen to each story like an under-aged teen at a slasher movie. Being constantly reminded of your past failures is a surefire route to inaction.
The key is to set a limit on how many stories you process at once. Give yourself a lifeline out of the pit of self-analysis by deciding to document and follow no more than 7 (or 5, or 3) of the rabbit trails offered by your inner critic.
Not getting paid what you’re worth? What a perfect time to take a look at your sales skills. Attracting lousy, impatient clients that think the number on your proposal is in cents instead of dollars? Take a look at the messages you’re transmitting about the value of your products. Take notes on what you learn, with a friendly tip of the cap to your inner critic for turning up so much great information for your success brain to put to good use.
Your inner critic can be the worst enemy that you’ll ever let inside your head. As long as the two of you will be spending so much time together anyway, harness the power of your inner critic to feed your success brain valuable information that will help you overcome your fears by facing them head-on.