Let’s Talk about Fear

Edvard Munch — The Scream

Given our culture’s infatuation with perfect performances — evidenced all around us in Olympics and film-awards coverage — I really love it when successful people talk openly about struggles they face in their work.

Dazzling achievements — whether a great work of art, a gold-medal performance, or a scientific breakthrough — tend to do just that: they dazzle us with their perfection, blinding us to how they came to be. Candid conversations that reveal the inevitable blood, sweat, and tears behind those achievements are a service to all of us, especially students. And with creative people as with students, the “blood, sweat, and tears” often takes shape as fear.

In a recent joint interview in the New York Times, fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg and film director David O. Russell were refreshingly candid about facing fear in their creative work. While Russell talked about the more familiar “fear of failure,” von Furstenberg claimed that “fear of failure” wasn’t fear because it emerged from the commitment to create something — and therefore was far preferable to true fear:

David O. Russell: You can’t be ruled by fear. And if you’re pretending to yourself, then you will be ruled by fear — because you’re not being real. But fear of failure is pretty normal. It can even be. …

Diane von Furstenberg: Yes, but that’s not fear. Fear of failure is not fear. Fear is when you don’t do the thing.

DOR: I’m always looking over my shoulder saying, “This could suck, so be careful.”

DVF: That’s not fear.

DOR: Right, because I’m still going to go for it very hard. We’re not going to hold back.

For a creative person, von Furstenberg implies, true fear comes “when you don’t do the thing” — in other words, it comes from not creating at all.

(For my part, as a creative professional, both fears are a problem.)

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So what does von Furstenberg attribute her determination to?

Philip Galanes, New York Times: In practically every article about you, Diane, I’ve read the statement: “Fear is not an option.” But no one ever asks what it means. We’re all afraid, no?

DVF: When my mother was 20, she was a prisoner of war and went to Auschwitz…. And when she came back to Belgium, she married my father.
They said to her: “You can’t have a child. It won’t be normal, you won’t survive.” And I was born nine months later…

PG: Wow! Her example made you fearless?

DVF: If I was afraid of the dark, she’d lock me in the closet. Ten minutes later,
I realized there was nothing to be afraid of.

DOR: Your mom did that?

DVF: Uh-huh. That’s the biggest gift. She did not allow me to be afraid, ever.

PG: Sounds a little rough.

DVF: But I’m not afraid.

Von Furstenberg’s creative determination surely didn’t emerge from one ten-minute lockup, but her narrative lends support to the idea that successful experiences with emotional challenges in childhood can be the basis for resilience that reaches deep into adult life.

This idea is the foundation of character education. Short of locking students in dark rooms, character education strives to offer students experiences designed for character growth while also supporting the growing pains that inevitably accompany it.

That latter half — supporting the accompanying growing pains — is essential. Character education, particularly as I have observed it in high-performing charter schools such as KIPP and Uncommon Schools, champions the toughness that academic success requires, and rightly so. But I think there’s also a place for the acknowledgment of fear. Students can only benefit from the understanding that achievement is a process in which less-than-tough feelings can play an acceptable part — and honest classroom conversations about fear are one means to that valuable end.

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