In the decade I’ve spent teaching design and creativity, I’ve noticed one common trend that gets in the way of all creative work: Fear.

Fear comes in different forms for different people: The fear of failing at a task, the fear of looking stupid in front of our peers, or the fear of wasting our time and money on pursuing a crazy dream. Every time we start something new our fears return.

As someone who has been working in a creative field for more than twenty years, I know that our war against fear will never end, but that doesn’t mean we can’t win a few battles along the way.

Today, I want to arm you with a few tactics you can use in your fight.

When I was twelve, my summer camp took us on a field trip to Hershey Park, home to one of the world’s largest wooden roller coasters. Everyone around me seemed excited to get in line for the big ride. Everyone except me.

I had never been on a roller coaster before, and the sheer size and speed of the thing terrified me. I wanted to be anywhere but on that ride, but at the same time, I didn’t want to look like a coward. So, faced with certain doom, I stayed in line.

As we moved forward, my eyes darted around, from person to person, desperate to witness the fear I felt on the faces of my friends. If they were scared, then it would feel okay for me to be scared too, but as far as I could tell, everyone else was cool, calm, and collected. So, I did what any kid would do in that situation—I tried to play it totally cool and failed. I forced laughter and jokes and hoped no one saw the beads of sweat dripping from my brow.

Finally, we made it to the front of the line. My hands gripped the last part of the railing before stepping onto the rickety wooden platform. Every fiber of my being was screaming at me to run away before it was too late… but I stayed. I let the attendant direct me to my seat and strap me in next to a girl about my age who looked just as terrified as I felt.

I said, “Hi” and introduced myself, telling her, “we should at least know each other’s names before we plummet to our deaths.” She smiled. Then we heard the crack of the attendant’s lever, we felt the car jolt forward, and her smile disappeared just as quickly as it had emerged.

Seeing how terrified she was, something in my brain switched. Suddenly, I wasn’t focused on my fear, I was focused on hers. As she looked for an escape route, I just started talking… and talking… and talking. I honestly don’t remember what my twelve-year-old brain was able to come up with, but I managed to get her attention and keep it for most of that ride up. I could see her shoulders relax a bit.

It wasn’t until we crested the top of that rollercoaster that my attention finally turned back to the terror I had briefly forgotten. I yelled something like, “What the hell are we doing up here?” Then my stomach dropped out, and we careened down the track…

As the speed picked up, I couldn’t believe I was alive. I couldn’t believe I was having a good time.

My fear of rollercoasters had been transformed into exhilaration. The excitement of that first drop was so much more fun than I could have ever imagined. I had forgotten to be afraid for long enough that I was finally able to just enjoy the ride.

Rollercoasters are a great parallel for the kind of fear we face when embarking on a new creative project. There is very little real danger, but what’s there (and what we perceive to be there) feels real.

Our physiology treats a rollercoaster (or giving a new presentation, or showing off a new game prototype) as a threat to our safety, and if we can learn to recognize and dance with that emotion, we can overcome it.

That day, I learned a few things about how to conquer fear. Here’s the breakdown:

Use social pressure to your advantage

If I was alone in that roller coaster line, I would have never made it. My fear of embarrassment outweighed my fear of the ride. Join a group of peers who are working toward the same goal (e.g. join a writing group) or put pressure on yourself by publicly declaring your target (e.g. schedule a public playtest of your new game).

Focus on helping others: connect to a purpose bigger than yourself

Once I was on the ride, thanks to the scared girl next to me, my focus shifted from myself to someone else. Working on creative projects is hard, but when you think about the joy and connection you can bring to others, it gets easier. If you have children or others who look up to you, it can be helpful to focus on the example you want to set for them. The behavior you model will affect everyone around you. Living a fulfilling creative life is not just something you do for you, it’s something you do to help inspire everyone you care about.

Use the previous times you’ve overcome something as fuel to overcome future fears

As silly as a story about getting on a roller coaster might sound, it has had a profound impact on me for the last 30 years. Every time I get scared, I can think back to the feelings of fear I had then and the fact that I overcame them. Now, I have countless stories I can go back to whenever the fear of a new project arises. David Goggins in his book, Can’t Hurt Me, talks about the idea of building a “Cookie Jar” of your accomplishments. Make a list of all the things you’ve accomplished in your life and the times you have overcome fear or adversity. When you feel fear or lose your way, open up this “Cookie Jar” and realize that you do have the strength to move forward.

Recognize that most fears in modern society are illusory: there is nothing to fear but fear itself

The roller coaster ride “felt” scary but in reality, was safe. In modern society, 99% of our fears are just as illusory. I was terrified when I quit law school to become a game designer or quit my game design job to start my own company, but in reality, I always could have gone back to doing what I was doing before. Recognizing your fears as mere illusions can help you push past even the toughest forms of resistance.

The physiological sensations of fear are almost identical to that of excitement: transform your frame to transform your experience

Most people believe that their thoughts create their emotions (i.e. We think something is going to be scary, so then we feel fear). This is completely backward. Our physiological response to a situation happens first (sweaty palms, increased heart rate, etc.) and then our minds interpret that data to create an emotion, which we then tell a story about. In the case of a roller coaster, the reason that it is “fun” for most people is that the physiological response to fear and excitement is the same! The only difference is how we choose to interpret the response.

Once our brain realizes that we are actually safe and not in danger, we see the increased heart rate and energized state as one of enthusiasm and joy, rather than terror end fear. Use this power to your advantage. The fear you feel around joining that new class, starting your creative project, or pursuing your dream job is also excitement. Push past your old story and tell a new one.

If you can make this one shift and start on the path to a creative life, trust me, you will enjoy the ride!

Happy Gaming,
Justin Gary

P.S. If you’re interested in joining my Think Like A Game Designer Mastery Course, the doors are currently open for the Winter 2022 class. As a special bonus for reading this blog, you can use code JGREADER and get $300 off!

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