I’ll never forget the day I published my first blog post.
I was more scared then, than I was before jumping out of a plane on my first skydive.
I had wanted to start blogging for years, but kept finding a good excuse to put it off. ‘I’ll start when I have more time.’ ‘It’s not a priority right now.’ ‘I have more important things to think about’, I told myself.
All valid excuses – but none were true.
Fundamentally, I was afraid; afraid of what people would think, and afraid of not fitting in.
In this post, I’ll explore where this fear comes from, why it holds us back, and introduce some ideas I’ve found useful for overcoming it.
Human beings are a social species, and for hundreds of thousands of years, our survival depended on fitting in to our group.
In an environment with scarce resources and dangerous predators around every corner, we could only survive if we belonged to a tribe.
In those days, safety only came in numbers.
Therefore, we evolved strong motivations to want to fit in, and even stronger motivations to avoid doing anything that might threaten our status within a tribe, or even worse; get us kicked out.
Evolutionary theorists argue that our bodies and brains are still programmed for this environment. In other words, even though we live in modern society, our biology is still hardwired for the harsh conditions of the jungle.
This means that when we are about to do something in modern society that might affect what other people think about us, these powerful ancient survival instincts kick in. Our primitive brain thinks:
‘If I do this, it might get me kicked out of the tribe. And if I’m kicked out of the tribe, I’m as good as dead.’
So we play it safe, keep a low profile, and do our best to fit in.
Knowing this about ourselves, how then can we get over this fear we all share, and actually do the thing we want to do, but have been putting off?
#1 – The 1 in 10 Rule
“I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”Bill Cosby
I remember getting my first negative review for The Weekend University.
On the day itself, we had 27 positive reviews and 1 negative.
Which do you think had the bigger impact on me – the 27 positive, or the 1 negative?
Needless to say, it was the latter. I spent a disproportionate amount of time ruminating about this one person who didn’t like the experience; despite 27 people telling me they did!
Evolution has hardwired us to care what people think, and our minds have a much stronger preference for negative information than positive. Psychologists refer to this as the ‘negativity bias’. When I was thinking about publishing my first blog post, I would imagine certain people reacting negatively and criticising me, and it would put me off.
If you have a tendency to do this too, there is an old proverb that can be very useful:
In any group of ten people, you’ll get on really well with two. You’ll be indifferent about seven of them. And at least one person in the group will not like you.
Strangely enough, we spend all of our mental energy focusing on the one person who doesn’t like us.
We can’t help it.
But simply knowing this fact – that about one person in every ten won’t like us, and more importantly, that they don’t have to like us, frees us from needing their approval.
It also enables us to focus our efforts on the people we are trying to reach with our message.
#2 – Separating Tasks
‘Focus on what you can control, and don’t waste energy on the things you cannot.’Unknown
In the book: ‘The Courage to be Disliked’, Ichiro Kishimi argues that the simplest way to get over our fear of not fitting in is to do something known as ‘the separation of tasks’.
Simply put, separating tasks involves drawing a clear boundary between our own tasks, (the things we can control) and the tasks of others (things outside of our control).
When it comes to sharing your work publicly, your task is to do the best job you can.
It is not your task to worry what people will think about it; that’s their task, and their responsibility. You have no control over it, so you don’t waste mental energy on it.
By cultivating this mindset, your validation comes from the quality of the work you do, and the amount of effort you put in. You feel good knowing you gave your best, and are not too concerned by the praise or criticism of other people.
If you can separate tasks, your emotional state depends on factors you can directly control.
If you can’t, then how you feel about yourself will depend on other peoples’ opinions. Peoples’ opinions are kind of like the Irish weather; unstable, unpredictable, and subject to wild fluctuations – probably not a good thing to base your self worth on.
Therefore, if you find yourself worrying about what other people will think, you can break the mental habit by asking yourself: ‘Is this my task?’
If it’s not, then you don’t have to worry about it.
#3 – Skin in the Game
Bizarrely, those who are quickest to criticise others, are often people who aren’t doing very much themselves.
It’s easy to sit behind a keyboard, judge someone else and feel smug about ourselves.
It gives us a sense of superiority.
What’s difficult is being vulnerable, taking risks and putting yourself out there.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.’Theodore Roosevelt
This quote is a powerful reminder that we should be extremely selective about who we allow ourselves to accept criticism from. If we’re worried about what a certain person will think about our work, and if this is holding us back from sharing it, we can simply ask: ‘Is this person in the arena too?’
In other words, is this person taking any risks themselves? Do they have ‘skin in the game?’ Or are they sitting in the stands, observing and judging others?
If it’s the latter, then we have no reason to take them seriously.
If you want to express yourself creatively, but haven’t taken the plunge yet, at some point you will have to make a decision:
Do I care more about putting my work out there, than I do about fitting in?
If you do, then it’s likely you will regularly have to overcome this deep-seated fear we all share.
I still get a flood of anxiety before pressing the publish button.
Therefore it can help to have ‘mental tools’ at hand for when the fear kicks in, so we can overcome it and still get our work out there.
The 1 in 10 rule, separating tasks, and ‘skin in the game’ are three simple concepts that can be very useful for doing just that.