Leave the Campfire; Know Your Enemy: It is you, scared

Fear kills imagination. And fear is always with us. Pretending it doesn’t exist might work in a pinch, but eventually it returns. Learning to name, face, grapple with our fears: this is the start of the art of everything.

Because imagination is related to images, and images are related to the brain, it is logical to think of imagination as a purely cognitive capacity. But imagination is equally about emotion. It is about the animal instincts of fight or flight. It originates in the gut, in the chemical explosions that precede conscious thought. When you can overcome fear, you earn a chance to exercise your imagination. When you can’t, you don’t.

Can you imagine being in charge or being your own boss? Can you imagine writing that novel you’ve dreamed of? Can you imagine striking out on your own? Can you imagine not being stuck? If you can, you are mastering one set or another of fears: of failure, exclusion, isolation, mockery, loss of face or status or power. Of punishment for not following the rules.

Most people prefer the certainty of the mean to the risk of the extremes. Most people have no idea where their power actually originates. One of the hallmarks of the entrepreneur is a willingness to go one way when 99 percent of people go the other. As the technology investor and serial entrepreneur Nick Hanauer puts it, ‘‘If everyone thinks something is a good idea, it’s either not a good idea or it used to be one.’’ But it’s harder than it looks to be that solitary contrary person. Mere independence of mind is not enough. Fundamentally, it demands a habit of knowing what you are scared of. Taking stock of those fears. And then, being purpose driven enough to push through.

Think of any creative act—Steve Jobs deciding to create the first computer with a graphical user interface, Nixon making a secret overture to communist China—and reverse-engineer it. Before there is the daring product or performance, there is an imaginative vision. What bridges the two is a persistence in the face of naysaying, a willingness to say at critical points, ‘‘I may be scared but I can see a new way and I choose to proceed.’’

When Mark Roth, the researcher we met earlier who suspends animation, decided he was no longer going to do traditional scientific research and was instead going to embark on an uncharted course of inquiry about immortality, he knew well that he was ‘‘about to leave the campfire,’’ as he puts it. The campfire represents the safety of community: in a dark and uncertain realm, this is where you can huddle for warmth. But it also represents the oppression of the crowd: walking away from the campfire sets in motion a reaction of defensive self-justification from those still there. You’re not leaving us; we’re ostracizing you!

When Roth sensed that reaction from the huddle, he realized he had to get very clear about how he defined success and failure. His fear of drifting off the grid of respectable science was great. But he took measure of his fear. In so doing, he saw that his desire to search out the boundaries of immortality—a desire born of tragedy, and thus infused with meaning and motivation—was greater than his fear of going down an intellectual blind alley. And he began to explore. All along the way, and even now that his wanderings have led to great discoveries and a MacArthur genius grant, he still likes—needs, it seems—to retrace the arc of his journey.

The telling matters. The choreographer Twyla Tharp has a ritual to banish the paralyzing fears that can prevent her from imagining, let along creating. She calls it ‘‘a staring-down ritual, like a boxer looking his opponent right in the eye before a bout.’’ Once she decides to leave the comfort of what she already knows, once she determines it is time to venture out alone, she reckons that demons await. And she makes a disciplined habit of confronting them. She writes down what scares her about the next endeavor. People won’t like it. I won’t know how to do it. I won’t be able to live up to my reputation. One by one, she knocks those demons down to size. For Roth as well, there was no trick for overcoming fear except confronting it, naming it, and then telling people why he did what he did. It was in that telling and retelling that Roth sharpened not only his story but also his sense of what mattered most. Ultimately, he did not obliterate the fear that was stifling his imagination. He simply trumped it with something stronger: a sense of purpose. And so can we all.

(Excerpt from Imagination First: Unlocking the Power of Possibility by Eric Liu, Scott Noppe-Brandon, and the Lincoln Center Institute)

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