“...hell is very likely filled with people who have not carried out what they meant to do; theirs is the worm that never dies.”-Isak Dinesen
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” -H.P. Lovecraft
Love me some Lovecraft, but I’d go even further and suggest that our fear of the unknown frequently includes all that is foreign and unknown within our very selves. How many of us tread carefully within our souls, averting our eyes, ignoring the witchy whisper of our blood? We fear aspects of ourselves. And our ambition is one of the most intimidating aspects. Ambition is a curious thing, n’est ce pas, simultaneously calling forth all of our most noble thoughts, and darkest anxieties.
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and...wicked: who can know it?” Jeremiah 17:9
In the early days of my coaching practice, I kept a mental tally of all the clients recounting defining (translation: devastating) incidents in their childhoods, wherein a parent, or someone else, snapped, “Who are you to want so much? You’re nothing special.” Like the woman who, when she was four, told her dad she wanted to be painter, and he snorted, responding, “You’ll never be an artist, what the hell do you know about art?” Thanks, dad. When I last heard from her, she was a bankrupt sex worker, but at least, you know, she wasn’t polluting the world with her art. I’m sure there’s a happy ending in there somewhere...probably several times a day.
In this life, words matter. The approval, or disapproval, of others can make or break us.
Eventually, I stopped keeping track of all the stories because it was too heartbreaking. All that wasted talent and potential. Our bruised, lonely world.
“The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.”-Joseph Conrad
Today is Halloween, a day when we dress up our dogs and children, and take ghoulish pleasure in fear. Halloween is when we drizzle our fear and prejudices in sugar and chocolate and choke on them: delicious! Would that we spent more of our lives eating our fears, instead of giving them such preternatural range and power.
Certainly fear can be useful; trusting your gut can save your life. But the narcotic of fear can also destroy your life; fear is ravenous, and once we succumb, and, for example, decide not to go for the promotion...or not apply for that exciting job since we don’t believe we’re worth it...or not allow ourselves to fall in love... well, every time we give in to fear, we’ve lost a crucial part of ourselves. And our truest (emotional) lives require all of our courage...and all of our hard-earned failures. As a coach, I find it fascinating how few people realize that failure is the mother of all success.
Let’s say, for example, that you apply for some challenging job, and you’re rejected. Okay, that’s no fun. But at least you went for it. You gave yourself a shot. And anyway, what if, in doing so, you realize, “Yeah, my interview sucked because I didn’t prepare. I was so intimidated, that I procrastinated, and when it came time for the interview, I choked.” That honesty could change your life.
Because, going further, before your next application and interview, you make a conscious decision to prep with a friend. And you get the job. In fact, not only do you get the job, but your new manager raves about how polished your interview responses were. Inwardly you’re smirking thinking, “...if they only knew...!” Spoiler alert: They do. How do you think they became managers and bosses and owners of companies, and entrepreneurs? How many rejections do you think the men and women you admire endured? How many times did they sob in the shower? How many days did they crawl exhausted into bed, defeated, heartbroken only to wake up the next morning, and try, try again?
Today is Halloween, and as we savor our delicious fears, let’s admit that no boogeyman in the closet, no fanged monster under the bed, could ever be as terrifying as our lives, and all the sacrifices and hard choices they demand from us.
Because our ambition defines our lives in ways big or small. And our ambition—whether it’s to launch a successful tech start-up, or fall in love, or move overseas, or get into law school—demands that we step out of our comfort level, and take risks. Our ambition has a real taste for making us step forward, take initiative and
terrify challenge ourselves. To paraphrase Anton Chekhov, our ambition wants us to”...drop by drop wring the slave” out of ourselves, in order to eventually become “a complete human being.” Our ambition is a serious pain in the ass. Trust.
“One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—
One need not be a House—
The Brain has Corridors— surpassing
Material Place-...”-Emily Dickinson, 1862
And despite being irritating, our ambition is right. Fear kills. I love horror films, and ghost stories, but I hate fear. Fear ruins lives. Yes, fear is a normal human emotion...but left unchecked, fear runs wild. And as fear gains potency, courage deflates. In one of my favorite horror films, The Changeling, the hero, George C. Scott, has just lost his entire family in a terrible accident. As he attempts to start his life over in a new home, he stumbles upon a monstrous family mystery that he must solve. The ghost, aware of Scott’s preternatural sensitivity, brought on by tragedy, won’t let him rest until the truth is out in the open. Throughout the film, the hero is threatened, but having already lost the loves of his life, he is never afraid. Disgusted perhaps by human cruelty, but never afraid. As a child, the film terrified me. As an adult, I found it so sad: ghosts are as haunted and unhappy as we.
But as we live, we have hope. When I help my clients, I don’t expect them to change everything in a single day, but I do expect them to take at least one substantial act every single day. That act leads to more acts. Over time, those actions take on their own momentum. Courage, like a muscle, grows, while fear withers away.
“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance....”-President FDR, March 4, 1933.
No horror film can compare to the daily horrors our brave troops battled in World War Two. Even after his death, the memory and spirit of President Roosevelt’s beautiful words and radiant optimism, helped lead us to victory over monsters. We call them our “Greatest Generation” because they made all Americans believe that we were great, that we could do save the world. That may sound corny, but how can you save your own life if you don’t believe in its value?
Halloween is a day to delight in fear, but perhaps tomorrow, November 1st, as you’re brooding about the things you want to do in your life, you’ll remember that carpe diem is more than just cool words on your coffee mug or tote bag. Perhaps you’ll consider embarking on other important battles, such as the constant battle we all endure between the best and worst of our nature. The battle to become our truest selves.
As Lauren Bacall said, “There are a lot of people who don’t like me at all....But I wasn’t put on earth to be liked. I have my own reasons for being and my own sense of what is important and what isn’t, and I’m not going to change that.”
If you’re holding back on your life and ambition because you fear you’ll cause some people to dislike you...oh, baby. Not to break your heart, but someone is always going to dislike you. Such is life. You, like the playwright Joe Orton, are an acquired taste. Savor yourself. Like yourself. A great way to like yourself is to fight for yourself, and what matters to you. Fight for your ambitions and your values. Fight for your dreams. Even the ones the scare you. Not everyone likes carrot cake, not everyone will love you either: c’est la vie. On the other hand, what joy is there to be had, if all your friends think you’re adorable, but you can’t stand yourself?
“Living is what scares me. Dying is easy.”-Charles Manson
Monsters are everywhere nowadays, but you’re braver than you know.