May 27, 2009    Psychology

Fear of Everything Else

I’ve known many people in my life who are smart and talented yet somehow cannot manage their own lives well. I’ve always been puzzled and fascinated by this phenomenon. I figured there must be some careers perfect for their intelligence and talent. The only problem, I thought, was that they weren’t aware of these careers. In fact, most career orientations offered at schools are based on the same premise. It’s an encouraging and exciting premise too, like finding a Mr. or Ms. Perfect. Needless to say, I’ve never succeeded in finding such a career for anyone. So, at one point, I began doubting my own premise. Maybe the problem does not lie in the careers they choose, but in everything else that they have to deal with no matter which careers they choose. In other words, it’s not about what they want to do; it’s about what they don’t want to do but have to.

In discussing this topic, one of my friends described it as “fear of success”. He believes that they are afraid of all the stress that comes with being successful. It doesn’t sound right to me mainly because this too puts the focus on what they want to do. In most situations, when we feel discouraged about something, it’s usually something that we didn’t expect. For instance, many fine artists, when they are fresh out of school, assume that success would automatically come as the quality of their work improve. But, soon enough, they would discover that they have to network and market themselves just as they would have to in any other businesses. This discourages a lot of artists.

I’ve noticed that people who are in control of their own success (at least to a degree) are great generalists. They might look like specialists on the facade but what sets them apart from the competition is that they are capable of handling many different things. They might become known for one specific thing, but behind the scenes, they are great at many things. I remember reading about how good The Rolling Stones were in self-promotion. Someone in the article said that nobody becomes that successful by sheer luck. I tend to agree.

In the West, specialization is encouraged at early ages. If a 12 year old kid says he wants to be a lawyer, we applaud him for knowing what he wants to do with his life. If a little girl shows a talent for figure skating, we encourage her to skate all day long every day, so she can compete in the Olympics. This bias towards specialization is so prevalent that we define meritocracy in terms of our ability to do one thing really well. For instance, someone’s ability to promote himself would not be considered a merit in fine arts; in fact, such an ability would be viewed negatively.

When we raise children with this bias towards specialization, they become defenseless when they enter the real world. They naively and faithfully keep improving their skills in their own specialized areas thinking that the success will automatically follow. For some people, a big success can indeed follow, but in most of these cases, they are not in control of their own successes at all. They were just lucky. For instance, an artist who has no idea how to promote himself might suddenly become successful because a powerful dealer decided to represent him in his gallery. This is no different from the teen idols who were manufactured by the powerful producers in the music business, like Milli Vanilli. He might one day become nobody again just as quickly as he became famous (as it happened to Chuck Connelly). In comparison, this wouldn’t happen to someone like Andy Warhol who was great at self-promotion.

Getting back to the original point of this essay, I suspect that the reason why so many smart and talented people cannot manage their own lives is because they cannot cope with everything else. Because they were taught to focus on one thing, they quickly become overwhelmed by the various demands that the real world makes on them: the ability to speak publicly, dress nicely, speak articulately, write well, manage their finances, gauge risk and reward, figure out cost and benefit, self-promote, put people at ease, think analytically, judge people appropriately, solve complex problems, manage employees, empathize, fix broken things, negotiate money, cope with stress, manage time, stay healthy, etc., etc..

When someone has Fear of Everything Else, it typically gets worse as they get older unless they realize the trend and make a conscious effort to confront it. As they become overwhelmed by Everything Else, they begin to bury their heads in the sand and focus more on the one thing that they feel comfortable with. This avoidance of Everything Else makes their fear even greater. Eventually they bury their heads so deep in the sand that they are looking at a grain of sand. Nothing else is enjoyable, and Everything Else provokes insecurity and fear.

If your ability to cope with fear in general is low, it wouldn’t matter how intelligent or talented you are; sooner or later, whatever career you choose will make a demand with which you cannot cope. This is when you fail. In most cases, it’s not the lack of talent that causes you to fail, as it is commonly thought; it’s the things other than your specialty. It’s Everything Else. This is what “Emotional Intelligence” is essentially trying to measure. When your emotional container is small, it gets filled very quickly and becomes unmanageable. And, what fills this container isn’t your specialty. The things you are good at do not cause much stress or fear; it’s Everything Else that causes fear and fills up your emotional container. So the focus needs to be on Everything Else, not on your specialty. Improving your specialty would not solve this problem. When your emotional container is too small, switching your career wouldn’t help either. The amount of Everything Else you would face in a new career would not be so different. This is why, again, the focus must be on Everything Else. It is your ability to cope with Everything Else that determines how successful you can become in your specialty.

There are two ways to solve this problem. Grow the size of your container, or improve your ability to cope with Everything Else. They are ultimately one and the same thing. For instance, some people are afraid of all things financial. I’ve met people who pile up utility and credit card bills even though they have enough money in their bank accounts to pay for them. Financial matters make them feel nervous, so they keep putting them off. Eventually this becomes a real problem not just a psychological problem. What if they confronted their own fears and took an accounting class? Their confrontation would make their container larger and their newly acquired accounting skills would help them reduce the stress associated with financial matters.

A friend of mine told me that there is a term he and his therapist use called “Doing the geographic”. Some people believe that their unhappiness comes from their environment, and they keep moving until they finally feel happy. Naturally in most cases, this never happens because their problems follow them wherever they go. In the same way, some people keep changing their careers and never feel happy. I believe this is because Everything Else exists in every career. If they confronted their fear of Everything Else, they might not have to change their careers. Changing a career in and of itself is not a bad thing. (I had 3 different careers in my life.) Especially now with the economic downturn, many careers have low prospects for the future (like mortgage brokers and autoworkers), but this is one more reason why confronting your fear of Everything Else is a good idea; so that you can change your career and still be happy. I believe that if we conquer this fear of Everything Else, the majority of careers would be enjoyable. And, when you enjoy your job, you tend to be more successful.

The American composer John Cage became more interested in the silence between notes than the notes themselves. In the same way, perhaps the key to having an enjoyable career is to focus on the aspects of your career that you don’t like. By improving yourself in this area of Everything Else, you might make the whole career more enjoyable. If you hate every new career you try, perhaps the problem isn’t the career itself. Maybe you are getting overwhelmed by Everything Else, and because of it, you cannot enjoy the aspects of your career that you originally liked. When we first learn to skate, we are so overwhelmed by all the things that can go wrong that we can’t enjoy it. It is only after we master Everything Else that we begin to enjoy the aspects of skating we like (like the sensation of flying). Because of our cultural bias towards specialization, we have been lead to believe that it’s possible to spend our life doing nothing but what we like. The real world is not so Utopian. I believe the key to success lies in how we deal with Everything Else.