In Tai Chi practice, there’s a concept called “monkey mind.” It’s the little voice in the back of your head that nags you about your every flaw—real or imagined.
The monkey says things like: “You’re a failure.” “You’re a fraud.” And its favorite refrain: “Nothing you do will ever work out right because you’re just not good enough.”
Freelancers and solo creative pros are particularly susceptible to monkey mind, partly because we have fewer defenses built into our workflow. People who work in corporate jobs have the illusion (false, as many have learned since 2007) that they have a safety net. Freelancers are on their own, without benefits or a steady paycheck if you don’t fill the pipeline.
Don’t believe the “stories”
The monkey is a master storyteller. It likes to make up tales with unhappy endings. Things like: “that contact at BigCo. Inc. hasn’t called you back because your proposal stinks” or “you offended that great contact you made at the Creative Freelancer Business Conference by not following up for a month and now she’ll never talk to you again.” Most of the time, you’ll discover that the stories simply aren’t true.
Define success in your own terms
Success can mean making a lot of money, owning the latest Apple gadget, driving a flashy car and wearing designer clothes. But that’s not necessarily success for all of us. Success doesn’t mean being perfect; it’s living the life you want, being authentic and true to yourself.
Every day I meet people who have the clothes, the job, the car, the marriage, the 2.5 kids—every tangible thing we associate with success—and they’re miserable. Your definition of success may be living in a one-room apartment on $500 a month and minimizing your carbon footprint. When I started my business in 2002, my definition of success for at least the first few years was simply being my own boss, even if it meant eating a lot of my own chili (which I did).
Success may be having the freedom to work when you want, as much or as little as you want. Whatever your definition, make it yours, not someone else’s. Not society’s, not your mother-in-law’s, not even your significant other’s. This can be difficult if you’re in a relationship with someone whose definition is different from yours.
If the monkey is telling you that you don’t make enough money (or that you never will), don’t despair. One of the best cures for this is to do something to make some money. It doesn’t really matter how much—even a small success can provide enough motivation to get the monkey off your back. The same defense can be applied to any other perceived “shortcoming.” Look for a way to take a step in the right direction, and you may discover that you get further than you expected.
Don’t be afraid to fail
When it comes to trying new things, the monkey gives notoriously bad advice. It will confront you with a barrage of seemingly compelling reasons why you shouldn’t try anything innovative or outside your comfort zone. In short, it’s terrified of risk.
The problem with the monkey’s logic here is the common misconception that successful people never fail. This can be disproved with even a casual review of the lives of successful people. Sir Isaac Newton, Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Oprah Winfrey, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Fred Astaire, Thomas Edison, Vera Wang, and many more achieved their best-known successes by making mistakes along the way. Success doesn’t spring forth without trial and error—it is the product of that process.
One great way to overcome the anxiety associated with failure is to think like a scientist and “experiment” with change. Approach new ideas with the attitude “let’s try this for a while and see what happens.” Give yourself a specific period of time to stick with your new approach. If you don’t like the results, give yourself permission to declare the whole business a worthwhile experiment that teaches you something even if it doesn’t work out.
Realizing that each failure is a necessary stepping stone on the road to success goes a long way toward silencing the monkey, or better, putting it to work for you. When you accept that success won’t happen without taking a few risks, the monkey starts asking a different question: “What are you waiting for?”
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