Fear is a Friend You Haven’t Made Yet

Stories of German film director Werner Herzog's calm under pressure are legendary. Not only did he continue an on-camera interview after being shot in the stomach by a sniper, but he saved Joaquin Phoenix from a car wreck that could have exploded.

After graduating college with a focus in Soviet History, I wanted to travel Ukraine—the former Soviet country my parents’ families escaped through the hell of the Eastern Front of World War II. But none of my friends wanted to go with me. One tried to convince me to instead go surfing with him in South America. So I had to go to Ukraine alone, which made my parents very nervous. My mother tried to talk me out of going, and shared her concern that I would be kidnapped by human traffickers—a serious plague on the developing country. The possibility, she said, made her panic. I had worked and saved for a post-college freedom budget, and this was the trip of a lifetime. Yet I had to come to terms with the fear in my own mind: what if she was right?

While traveling alone through Ukraine—visiting the Carpathian Mountains, and the quaint medieval city of L’viv where my father’s family is from—I realized something incredible that left a lasting impression on me. The voice in my head that never hesitated to speak up with an awful prediction of a disastrous future outcome—that voice of fear, sometimes sheer panic—could be reasoned with. My desire to be in Ukraine outweighed my fear, and I quickly learned to stand up to this internal Debbie Downer.

I learned that I could, as we say in New York, “busts its balls” for being ridiculous. Gradually, the shrill voice calmed down and even began to joke back. Yes, the conflicting voices in my head learned to get along and even became friends. My internal chatter became an amusing chorus. And this ensured that I never felt lonely as I backpacked Ukraine and Russia alone, often for days at a time. My intuition heightened, and I experienced my very own post-Soviet “Walden Pond.” The internal harmony created one of the most productive times of my life. (I wrote a screenplay that's now being produced by an award-winning company in Europe.)

Fear is well-known as a nuisance that has survival benefits—it warns us of dangers. For creative minds in creative industries, fear should be treated as a conversation starter, not as a roadblock. “What’s the worst that can happen?” “And if that does happen, what will it look like? Let’s paint a fantastical Tim Burton scenario of this worst case scenario to show you [eye roll] how right you are?”—are some useful conversation movers when fear tugs at you, demanding to be heard.

Often, creative blocks and dull work stem from not opening communication with fear. Instead, fear is ignored, shoved down, and covered up with "busy work"—going through the motions and thinking you’re producing what you desire, but it's not authentic. If you talk to fear and try to make a friend, you’ll turn an irritating phantom into a partner. It might seem scary at first—the demons themselves or the amount of work, like cleaning out a haunted attic—but your mind is your workstation and works best when open and clear.

One of my role models for being fearless is the German director Werner Herzog. His diary Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo lyrically chronicles the piranhas and egos Herzog had to battle while making a film in the Amazon. Stories of Herzog's calm under pressure are legendary. Not only did he continue an on-camera interview after being shot in the stomach by a sniper, but he saved Joaquin Phoenix from a car wreck that could have exploded. This latter story is one I like to keep in mind, for it reminds me of the importance of “talking to fear” in order to be present. (Phoenix tried to light a cigarette while trapped in a crunch of metal, even though gasoline dripped throughout the car.) Here is the animated retelling of the car wreck in Herzog’s own words.

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