Fear Alchemy: Transmuting Your Nightmares into Achievement

By Seamus Anthony

By Seamus Anthony

If there is something you are truly shit scared of doing then I reckon that the best gift you can possibly give yourself is to step up to the plate and do it. But how do you get yourself off the couch and into the fire? Here’s a couple of personal examples of how I managed to confront my worst fears and come out reasonably unscathed.

Flying into the Face of Fear

Ok – so “feel the fear and do it anyway” has become one of many clichés in the Personal Development world, but nevertheless, like most clichés it contains a powerful truth. I have repeatedly found that if something is worth doing then it is probably going to be a bit scary. Why? Because it means stepping outside of your comfort zone and risking failure.

I can think of several occasions where this has been true for me: getting on an airplane to fly from Australia to Europe for example. Despite all the comforting statistics, my Taoist/Zen philosophies and my deep breathing techniques, I still hate flying and the longer the flight the more jittery I get. Nevertheless, it meant a hell of a lot to me to see Ireland, the country of my immediate ancestry and France, my wife’s country of birth, so I got on the damn plane and strapped myself in. The failure I was scared of was fairly remote (crashing) but like most fear, rational thinking had nothing to do with it. I was shitting bricks for months in advance and had repetitive nightmares (about falling out of a disintegrating airplane hull and down through the air to wind up bobbing about in a burning sea waiting to drown) in the weeks leading up to and during the trip away.

Well, suffice to say, the plane didn’t crash, although it did seem likely at one point. We were flying over the Himalayas and the old bird relentlessly shook and bumped like a bronco for three hours while lightning strikes outside briefly illuminated grim stewardesses faces, their South-East Asian complexions looking decidedly pale and disconcerted. Meanwhile my wife, who isn’t scared of flying – just of apparently imminent and genuine catastrophes – was sobbing uncontrollably into my lap about how she didn’t want to die this way.

That bit wasn’t so cool, but apart from that I enjoyed the trip immensely. If I hadn’t gone the pain of the real failure would have slowly have eaten away at me. Some opportunities you just have to take, not to do so would just lead to future dissatisfaction and remorse – and this would have been the real failure.

How To Puke and Shit at the Same Time

The airplane journey from Hell was a couple of years ago now, but just yesterday I confronted another fear and transmuted it into achievement: I stood up in front of a large crowd and delivered 5 minutes of my own original stand-up comedy material.

The reason I decided to do so was twofold. Firstly, I am a solo singer/songwriter and after many years of hit-and-miss banter between songs, ranging from brilliantly executed comedic genius to embarrassing, lame nervous mumbling, I have long desired to get my act together to the point where the bits between the songs are as reliably entertaining as the songs themselves. Secondly, I just love stand-up comedy so, so much and I have been writing my own material for a couple of years and secretly coveting this particular flavour of the limelight – after all, I know I am a funny guy, I just get too many laughs out of people to doubt this. So why not?

I’ll tell you why not … because cracking your mates up with spontaneous one-liners and standing up on stage delivering quality (funny) stand-up comedy are two very different things. I didn’t even need to have done any stand-up to know this is true – it’s just a well known fact. And making a mug of myself in front of rows of un-amused faces just scared the willies out of me.

So for years I avoided acting on it, but as part of my renewed commitment to my live music show this year, I decided it was time to bite the bullet. So I signed up (in a fit of bravado) online for the annual Raw comedy competition here in Melbourne, Australia. (Home of the International Melbourne Comedy Festival, Melbourne is an awesome place for live stand-up comedy.)

As the event drew closer I began to wonder if I should just call up and drop out. But no, I didn’t. Not because I am particularly brave but because the true extent of the fear I was going to have to face just wasn’t kicking in yet. Unlike long plane flights, I don’t get that nervous in advance of stage performing, mainly because I have been getting up and singing in public since I was eighteen (so that’s nearly half my life). But, I do get quite nervous the night before and all during the day of the event and I knew I would be super-nervous before this because of that fact that when it comes to stand-up comedy, quite obviously, I had no idea what I was doing. I was (and still am) a complete comedy noob.

Watching other people do something doesn’t prepare you for doing something. Reading “how to” books about doing something doesn’t prepare you for doing something. The only thing that prepares you is having a go and getting some experience under your belt.

Two weeks out from the event I realised that if I didn’t start preparing soon then I was a dead duck. But the trouble was I wasn’t sure where to rehearse. I sure as hell wasn’t going to do it at home on front of my wife and child, and I wasn’t about to shell out to hire a rehearsal room so I found a novel solution. I have been in the unenviable position lately of having to drive into the city between two and four times a week (for work). This drive takes me about an hour in the traffic, and everyday I see people apparently talking to themselves in other cars. I presume they are talking to people on speaker-phone into their cell phones. So, I figured, if I were to be practicing my stand-up routine aloud in the car to myself as I fly down the highway at 100 kilometers an hour, other drivers would probably assume I was just another tosser using his mobile phone on the go. Perfect!

After nearly two weeks, I had a routine that I hoped was good memorized, but I hadn’t yet bothered to time it. Often I would actually stop for a few seconds while I was running through it in order to concentrate on driving (it wouldn’t be very funny if I crashed while cracking funnies to myself now would it … or would it?). So I decided the time had come to go out to my bungalow office and put up with the fact that my wife and my neighbours could probably hear me and run through the routine with a stopwatch.

It came to 12 minutes! Whoops – the competition only gives each contestant 5 minutes each – and unlike the music business where people just tend to do little more than complain privately about stage-hogs who go over their allotted timeframe, in the comedy world you get a very blunt “fuck you” in the form of a red light in your face, followed shortly by loud music and a dead microphone should you fail to take the first hint!

So I went through the material and chopped it ruthlessly back to five minutes. Trouble was I had been over and over this stuff so much without any audience feedback that I had little idea if I was cutting out the funny stuff or not. I would just have to wait and see on that one.

The big day arrived, and although my wife (a classic ‘shrinking violet’) was apparently catatonic with fear, I felt ok. A little highly strung perhaps, but apart from a few truly non-Zen moments, I was cool … or so I thought.

It was an afternoon gig, and as I drove into town to face the music (although strangely not literally for once) I ran over my material one more time for good luck. Suddenly I was struck with a terror powerful enough to stop a nation. As far as I could tell, there was absolutely nothing funny about the useless drivel I had been rambling on about to myself over the past two weeks, and it would be best for everyone if I just turned the car around and went home and got really drunk by myself in the dirty gap under the house.

But no, fool that I am, I continued on. I walked into the venue and, as it was a first round heat of a competition, there were about twenty other wanna-be’s there for a briefing. I felt relieved that nothing the organisers had to say was disconcertingly new to me. Do your five minutes and get off basically. Not a problem. Then the doors opened and as I sat there waiting for my friend to rock up and hold my hand, it was just me and a bunch of gloomy, sweaty-palmed hopefuls sitting around, trying to avoid eye contact and sipping on beers a little too fast. It was very similar to the atmosphere in a plane shortly before take-off. Actually (minus actual screaming, I suppose) this was more like the atmosphere in a plane, shortly after take off, in which the captain has announced that he’s a lunatic terrorist and intends to fly the plane really fast into something really hard.

I truly didn’t care about winning the competition, I just wanted to do the gig, remember my lines, and hopefully get a few laughs, nevertheless the nerves began to play major havoc, especially when actual people began pouring through the doors in disturbingly large numbers. I had imagined a tiny crowd of about twenty other funny guys and their girlfriends, but obviously others in the line-up were not so shy of inviting their entire Facebook friends list along to the gig! Fuck!

Crunch Time…

(…”crunch” being the sound my balls make when they voluntarily compress together in an attempt to form a new black hole to suck me into in order to save me from hideous embarrassment and a life of bitter regret…)

Once I had watched about two contestants be really, really good (funny) and two others really, truly woeful, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to puke or shit or both at the same time.

Then my moment came, they called my name out over the pumping music, the applause still continuing from the act before and I was walking up the stairs to hit the stage.

How it went isn’t important, or maybe I am just saying that because it didn’t go fantastically well. Not that I can remember it very clearly. I don’t know about other performers, but my time on stage is usually all a vague blur to me as soon as it is over and the more nervous I am the more this is true.

I certainly wasn’t the funniest there on the day, not by a long shot, but I did get a few laughs here and there. That’ll do me for starters.

I didn’t forget my lines, but I went so fast due to extreme nervousness that I ended up reinstating some of the material I had axed. Really what I should have done (and I knew it at the time but just couldn’t seem to find the brakes) was slow down and give the jokes some air.

I discovered just how fucking horrible it is when you crack a joke and nobody laughs … and I felt the sweet, sweet relief when people did. I spontaneously dropped in a couple of ad-libbed moments, and to my surprise they got the biggest laughs. I don’t think this was because the jokes were better, but because they didn’t come out sounding scripted, which, to my detriment, the pre-prepared stuff did (but that’s the key to stand up, apparently, appearing spontaneous when delivering tightly scripted material).

Oh, and I didn’t get through to the next heat, but I really didn’t care about this. Why? Because I know for a fact that many of Australia’s most successful comedians didn’t make it through their heat in this long-running competition, and they made it anyway. How? Well, I don’t know but I can hazard a guess: persistence and hard-work. Or maybe they knew who to sleep with, I dunno…

I went home that night happy that I had faced my fear and rode it through. And I went home determined to do it again, and again, until I get better at it and can relax up there in the (incredibly bright) glare of the spotlight and just ramble away like I do when I am cracking up my mates.

So how do I suggest you face your fears and do it anyway? Well, just make the initial commitment and then get ready for the ride. Buy your plane ticket, book your spot on stage, or lock yourself in for whatever it is you want to do. Then, when the time comes, – – just do it.

…and you don’t even need a new pair of Nikes.

Photo by Fluzo

Hi, I'm Seamus Anthony. I am an author, artist and musician from Australia. Here at Rebel Zen, I document my journey as an creative artist and human and in doing so, hopefully help you in your own progress through your life of creativity. Go get your free E-book by me: "Taming The Monkey Mind".

6 comments Write a comment

  1. Pingback: Why Trying to be Productive is a Huge Waste of Time | Illuminated Mind

  2. Thanks for this post. It certainly resonated with me because I gave my first workshop on Wed. Like you said, the biggest laughs I got were moments when I ad-libbed something that seemed mildly funny at best to me (like “so it looks like everybody’s too embarrassed to raise their hands”). It seemed like they were responding more to my candor than my sense of humor.

  3. TThanks Chris – certainly makes the heart beat faster, this public speaking palava. As a note to this article, I did a music gig on Friday night and in between songs I delivered some of my rambling pre-written comedy material as well as the usual ad-libbed joking about and I am happy to say that I got plenty of giggles, and it was because I was so relaxed in that kind of a setting, for sure.

  4. Well done! I think getting through it for the first time without having a complete flop is a big achievement. I imagine you’d have to stand up there quite a few times before you could relax enough to get your timing right and respond to the moment.

    Re fear of flying: I have, at time of writing, had 100% success with holding the plane up by the armrests. Pretty good workout too on a 20 hour flight.

    And re getting off the couch and into the fire: looks like the fire is coming to your couch if last night’s news is anything to go by, so relax, stay where you are. Well, actually, good luck with it. Hope your house stays safe. I have a property in Warburton so I have been keeping an eagle eye myself. It would be so sad to see the antique township lost.

Leave a Reply