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22 February 2010 @ 12:14 am
confidence, fear, knowing what you’re doing…  

A friend of mine posted a few days ago about her constant struggle with confidence and fear. Her post was mostly just an “argh, this is hard” vent sort of thing rather than being something in search of deep profound commentary, but it happened to cross with a rather terrific article entitled “Nobody Knows What the F*** They’re Doing” that another friend posted via Facebook, and it’s all apparently inspired me to write something about, well, confidence and fear and the appearance of knowing what you’re doing. I’m not sure it’ll actually have a point. It may just be me rambling on for a while. It will, however, inevitably get long, so I’ll stick it behind a cut tag.

I come from the other end of the spectrum as the friend who made the original confidence/fear posting. It’s just the way I’m wired; confidence is apparently part of my nature, to the degree that it really never occurred to me that I was confident until people kept *telling* me I was. I never thought about it. This does not mean there’s nothing that frightens me (institutionalized money like the IRS, for example, just freaks me the fuck out even if intellectually I appreciate that it’s not necessary to be freaked out), but it does mean that most of the time, if I want or am interested in something, I’m inclined to seize the bull by its horns even if I find the prospect somewhat alarming.

I was thirteen when I essentially learned to do that. I’ve blogged about it a few times before, but in a (largish) nutshell, on a class trip as a teen, I was wandering through the airport and saw a Really Cute Boy who looked oddly familiar. I spent a while hiding out and watching him, really very certain he *did* look familiar but not knowing why, and chickened out on going up and saying “Um, you look familiar, how come?” Turned out it was Kirk Cameron, star of the very popular TV show “Growing Pains”, which I’d never actually seen, but I’d seen his picture on friends’ bedroom walls. Twenty minutes later, after I’d slunk away, my classmates discovered and mobbed him, and I ended up at the back of this group thinking “If I’d had the nerve to go talk to him, I’d have actually gotten to *meet* him instead of being part of this mob. That was really stupid of me.” Flash forward fifteen years and I was in exactly the same situation again, only with Jim Byrnes of Highlander fame, and that time I by God went and talked to him. And he remembered me for *years* after that. Lesson learned. Anyway, so that’s sort of where I’m coming from on the whole topic of fear and confidence.

I don’t think being confident means you have no fear. Mostly I think it means you control it when it’s important. Lemme tell you, selling URBAN SHAMAN scared the holy living *bejeezus* out of me. Even though THUNDERBIRD FALLS was halfway written and I had something like 7 or 8 books under my belt at the time, part of me went AAGHGGLGLGHGLAHGLH I’LL JUST GIVE THE MONEY BACK I CAN’T DO THIS OMFG AAGHGGLGLGHGLAHGLH. And then I pretty much said “This is what you’ve been working for, so get a fucking grip, Kit,” and did. Because, well. It was what I’d been working for.

This is something They rarely mention: success is scary. Success is much scarier than failure. Failure is familiar, it keeps you in the same paths you already know, it doesn’t require much effort, and it doesn’t test your limitations. We as Americans, at least, are pretty much sold the idea that success is going to make everything Okay, that it will make life easy and beautiful and full of roses etc etc etc, but really it means treading new territory and facing the possibility of newer bigger more exciting failure, which is frankly not all that reassuring.

From the outside, however, success looks pretty shiny, and people very rarely say “Jesus Christ this is terrifying”, partly because again, we as Americans, at least, aren’t especially sympathetic to somebody who is succeeding and who then *says* “Jesus Christ this is terrifying”. I mean, really, why would we be? “Look at CE Murphy, she’s put fifteen books out in five years, she’s moved to Ireland which is half the world’s dream, she’s making a living as a writer, she has an absolutely fantastic family, what on earth could she possibly have to be afraid of or complain about?” And believe me, I’m not complaining. I’m just saying that I recognize that where I’m standing isn’t a position people are going to say “gosh you poor darling” over. Nor should it be, but it does tend to stymie any inclination to admit to fear of failure, which isn’t very helpful in societal terms where most people deal with their fears with very little idea of how other people–perhaps especially people perceived as being successful–may be coping.

To be fair, I don’t really have much fear of failure anymore. At this point I figure if I give something my best shot, then I’ve done what I can and that’s all I can expect from myself. And (to bring this back around), that probably *is* an aspect of confidence–but it took me quite a while to get to that level of acceptance or certainty in myself. I mean, like many other people I know, I bombed out of college. For me it was mostly because it was easier to fail than try, so despite being pretty much hard-wired /for/ confidence, I still very much had that self-destructive tendency. I *loathed* myself for it, and eventually scraped through on my teeth, but the whole overcoming a fear of failure isn’t something that stems from never failing, it’s just a matter of having gotten a grip on the fear.

Somebody in comments on my friend’s original post said she was pretty sure even the most confident-appearing of people were just faking it while inside they were cowering and whimpering. I’m not sure that’s exactly true. Certainly I’m trepidatious about going into new situations, as I imagine many people are, but … well, no, mostly, I really am that confident. The worst that can happen is it will all go horribly, horribly wrong, but essentially if you don’t take that risk, you also don’t take the chance that it will all go wonderfully, amazingly right. There’s a Zen quote which I’m very fond of: “Leap, and the net will open.” I’m a big believer in the net opening.

I don’t think this is the same thing as always knowing what you’re doing, though. I’m pretty sure I /look/ like I know what I’m doing most of the time, but huge amounts of what I do is contingent upon things over which I have absolutely no control. It’s a little hard to actually know what you’re doing, in that case. I’ve got my five year plans, certainly, but my “plan” to get 10 CE Murphy books on the shelves in five years was based entirely on publishers deciding to buy that many books. The best I could actually do was *try*, but pfffssshhht, there’s jack-all that can be done about a plan to get 10 titles on the shelf if publishers only buy 4 books. As it happened, it *worked*, which I suspect leads (not just with me, but in general) to the perception that if somebody’s succeeding, they’ve got a really clear idea of what they’re doing, what to do next, what do in case of failure, and that probably they have quite a few answers, many of which we don’t especially feel like we’ve got ourselves. I’m not sure having all the answers is all that important. I’m pretty sure being able to roll with the punches *is* important, because ‘Man plans, God laughs’. I suspect adaptation is a more useful and overlooked tool than is generally considered, in terms of the appearance of confidence and fear.

…yes, see, like I said, not sure I actually have a point, after all of that. Possibly my point is just that I think it’s probably perfectly fine and normal to be terrified of things, and that indeed, really, nobody knows what they’re doing, even those of us who tend to look like they do, and that possibly the biggest difference between where I stand on the edge of my precipice and where my friend stands on the edge of hers is that I believe that when I leap, the net *will* open.

But then, I believe hers will, too.

(x-posted from the essential kit)

Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful
Bryantbryant on February 21st, 2010 11:43 pm (UTC)
Somebody in comments on my friend’s original post said she was pretty sure even the most confident-appearing of people were just faking it while inside they were cowering and whimpering. I’m not sure that’s exactly true. Certainly I’m trepidatious about going into new situations, as I imagine many people are, but … well, no, mostly, I really am that confident. The worst that can happen is it will all go horribly, horribly wrong, but essentially if you don’t take that risk, you also don’t take the chance that it will all go wonderfully, amazingly right.

Yeah, it's about like that. My trick for landing on my feet is about the same; you've got to be willing to deal with whatever comes up and be ready to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. Lots of opportunities pop up if you're keeping an eye out for them. I am somewhat amused that I figured this out playing AmberMUSH -- once I realized that I could do it in an utterly consequence-free RP environment, I was pretty sure it'd work elsewhere as well, and it does.
Flitterbyflit on February 22nd, 2010 10:03 am (UTC)
Gaming, not just for creating devil worshipers. ;)
joycemocha on February 21st, 2010 11:51 pm (UTC)
Two things have really helped me in dealing with confidence and fear: jumping horses over fences (low, mind you) and downhill skiing. In both cases, once you commit to the action, you create more of a mess by bailing except in very very extreme cases. That doesn't mean you won't be chilled by fear throughout taking that fence or bashing down that slope, but you've got to have a shining emblem of confidence as well to carry you along, because once you visualize a fall, you're down.

It's amazing how many other life situations are like that--including what you're doing. A key element is implied in the very phrase you use to describe it--the net will open--well, the net will open if you've prepared it to be open. Taking risks needs to have a solid foundation of preparation in order to succeed. A lot of hard work has to come first....

and when it does, you can leap confident that the net will open. Even if it's not quite what you expect.
spiffikinsspiffikins on February 22nd, 2010 01:23 am (UTC)
Success is much scarier than failure. Failure is familiar, it keeps you in the same paths you already know, it doesn’t require much effort, and it doesn’t test your limitations.


succeeding at something new, drives you further down the path of new things, generally potentially *harder* things, and builds up expectations (from others) of future success - which doesn't always make logical sense, from the perspective of the person who succeeded at the first thing

that said - it's good for us, if not very comfortable!

rfrancis on February 22nd, 2010 02:48 am (UTC)
I cite again that letter that a mutual writer friend once sent me:

I know how hard it is, man. Believe me, I had nine years to experience it. I vibe.

But this is what you need to do:


Russ, EVERYONE gets rejected, and EVERYONE feels insecure. *I* get rejected still, and I get so insecure about whether or not my writing will be successful that I've got a full time road crew to keep repaving all the holes in my stomach. It's the nature of the beast, man. It's the gauntlet.

There's a lot more to the letter, but that's the gist, that and this:

Look. Bottom line here is that you'll get in the door at some point. It's just a question of how much work it's going to take to make it happen. Remember, you do not have to beat out the professional writers. You just have to beat out all the other newbie writers who are trying to do the same thing as you and whose morale is getting ground down the same as you. Sooner or later, if you don't give up, enough of them are gonna drop by the wayside to give you a better shot. And if you keep writing, you're going to be developing the skills to beat the fresh wannabes who jump into the race to replace them.

I'm not doing this to give you a pep talk, man. Don't walk away from this with some kind of temporary emotional payoff. This is simply fact.

Fear of failure is simply a misunderstanding of the definition. Failure is what happens when you quit trying.

As for "nobody knows what they're doing," the point appears to be "nobody knows what they're doing to the extent that we think every other person than ourselves does" -- true enough. I mean, Socrates was allegedly saying it way back when -- that the only thing that made him a cut above the people who looked up to him was that he knew that he didn't know squat (and that they didn't, either.) Epistemologically, anyway. If I let that bug me, I'd never preach again. Fortunately, I've come to terms with displaying my ignorance in such a way that it might be edifying for someone anyway. :)
kitmizkit on February 22nd, 2010 10:50 am (UTC)
*laughs* Yeah. Our mutual friend knew whereof he spoke. :)
UrsulaVursulav on February 22nd, 2010 03:38 am (UTC)
I seem to recall you saying to me once that I seemed about as insecure as a steel bear trap.

This line has actually stuck with me--along with another artist who once expressed astonishment that I had con anxiety dreams because I always seemed so competent and together--because for a long time I sort of assumed that I was as insecure as anybody.

Now I think maybe I am confident by comparison with a lot of people...not so much that I won't fail, but I've failed often enough that my response to it is mild disgust rather than terror. One of the benefits of art, I think--you fail constantly, and you learn not to worry about it.

Of course, the nice thing about art is that you fail in a much shorter time than in writing...
kitmizkit on February 22nd, 2010 10:46 am (UTC)
Now I think maybe I am confident by comparison with a lot of people

A while ago I made some comment about swimming which I didn't intend to be funny, but which most people thought was: "I'm only fast compared to most people." I suspect a rather important rub lies therein... :)

And yes, I did say that. :)
Wolf Lahtiwolflahti on February 22nd, 2010 06:04 am (UTC)
I’ve been thinking a bit lately about progression of knowledge—as a specific example, my knowledge about what essentially amounts to applied engineering. When I first started building stuff (“stuff” being a technical term encompassing miniature forts and trapdoors and the like for my toy soldiers), I would nail some pieces of scrap wood together in order to approximate the shape of what I wanted. I learnt, mainly through trial and error but also sometimes by research or example, what resulted in a superior structure. Take four sticks and nail the corners together, and you get something that will collapse if a butterfly sneezes on it. Even so small an addition as a second nail in each corner increased the stability significantly. And a crosspiece, forming any kind of triangular bracing, made it uberstrong and capable of withstanding whatever my 12-inch GI Joe could throw against it.

The thing is, when I originally set out to build something, I thought I knew what I was doing. I didn’t know that I didn’t know how to put a few sticks of wood together in a manner that was structural sound. If I had, would I have gone ahead and tried anyway? Maybe not. And if not, then I probably wouldn’t have learnt how to do it right.

Maybe it’s a good thing we don’t know how ignorant we really are.
kitmizkit on February 22nd, 2010 10:47 am (UTC)
Oh, yeah, I think lots of times it's good we don't know what we don't know. Otherwise everybody would be too intimidated all the time to ever do anything!
mevennenmevennen on February 22nd, 2010 09:22 am (UTC)
I'm reasonably confident. There's a lot I do know and am good at, but also, I'm not afraid either to say when I don't know something, and to ask someone who does.

Fear of failure with writing - well, no, not really. It's just part of the process. I've had written books rejected, edited books suddenly pulled, short fiction obviously rejected - it's nowhere in the same league as some of the things that can happen to you (and many of those things have happened to me, so that's in the category of 'things I do know', at least subjectively).
lady_findellady_findel on February 22nd, 2010 09:31 am (UTC)
I think it's true that most people have fear of failure, but some are just better at controlling it.

In a course on teaching I once read you had two kinds of students. Some students attribute their successes to themselves and failures to the circumstances. Others attribute their failure to themselves and successes to the circumstances. Of course there is a spectrum between this. I think it's true for most people, not only students. I tend to be on the "If I fail, it's my fault/If I succeed, I just got lucky" - part of the spectrum.
Erin Cashiertherinth on February 24th, 2010 06:57 am (UTC)
I needed to read this right now. Thanks :D.