Always be afraid of saying no, but never be afraid of asking why.
Strike while the iron is hot. Make hay while the sun shines. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. We have a whole idiomatic canon of carpe diem-ish motivational bullshit, and whenever we’re faced with a decision – take the job? accept the promotion? bring on that new business? – we use it to remind ourselves that being constantly overworked is “a good problem to have.”
After all, the iron won’t be hot forever. If we don’t strike now, we may never get the chance.
That’s the unspoken anxiety behind carpe diem. Since it doesn’t have a name per se, let’s call it proFOMO. As in, the Fear Of Missing Out, but applied to your professional career instead of your social life. Unlike the neuroses I begrudgingly dance with every day, this is anxiety I welcomed into my writing. If you’re lucky enough to work in a creative field – or even if you’d just like to someday – you might be the same. But before you sign your soul to the doctrine of blind hustle, of throwing yourself into holes and digging out, consider this: it’s not gonna get you where you want to go. Here’s why.
Like cholesterol, germs, or superhero movies, anxiety has both good and bad forms. proFOMO is one of the very best. It drives us out of our comfort zone. It’s the furnace that turns negativity – jealousy, resentment, frustration – into the creative desperation that’s so critical to success. proFOMO is the catalytic converter between inferiority complex and aspiration.
To comprehend how a corrosive inward force like career insecurity could possibly generate fruitful output, let’s look at comedy: an insular world that fetishizes pervasive self-doubt & chronic failure as prerequisites for success.
I had a friend in college who did improv. “There are no rules,” he told me, “except this one: never, ever say ‘no.’” For a long time, this was the only creative compass I had. “Don’t say no” was true north. This works on an improv stage because it protects the momentum at all costs. As long as every actor is saying “yes” to every lead that bounces his way, no storyline will be suffocated before it has a chance to breathe.
When I was just starting out as a writer, this approach worked for the same reason. I had no bylines, experience, or connections. In other words, I had no momentum. So whenever I got a chance to write, I took it. I wrote marketing copy, call-to-action tweets, and advertorial dreck. I begged “editor-founders” of blogs to let me draft unpaid, un-bylined blurbs for their irrelevant WordPress kingdoms. I was desperate.
This was proFOMO in its nascent stage. It was no fun, but damn, was it ever effective. All the while, though, I worried that I wasn’t doing enough to become successful. This constant, critical self-assessment is hardly unique to creative careers, but I think it’s especially pronounced within them because there are so few paths to success. Excellent writers, musicians, actors, comedians—failure is inextricably linked to their existence. proFOMO anxiety stoked the flames of survivalist motivation: I was saying “yes” because I didn’t want to lose, not necessarily because I thought it might help me win.
That was five years ago. These days, I’m a professional writer. Without patting myself on the back any harder than I already have in this essay: I did it! The disquieting restlessness, the persistent agitation, the never-say-no attitude – in sum, the symptoms of proFOMO – were what got me here. Training myself to let “no” fill me with anguish was more important to my early career than any talent I may have had. I’ve earned the luxury of being more creatively selective, and I owe it all to proFOMO.
So why do I still have such a hard time turning things down?
There’s another part of improv’s singular rule that I left out earlier. The full mandate is actually: “never say ‘no,’ and never ask ‘why.’” The second half still works for improv. Does it make sense that a donut maker would also be an evil dictator with a pet turtle named Rex? Nope! But it’d make even less sense to figure out why. Instead, charge forth and try to mold the story into something digestible and hilarious. That’s the game.
It would be nice if a career worked like that, too, but I don’t think it does. In my (admittedly brief) experience, never asking “why” is how proFOMO turns from a productive force to a chaotic, destructive one. You don’t need a reason on stage, but if the only reason I’m writing something is because I was afraid not to, well…that sucks. Being afraid to turn down an opportunity, even when you know it’s not worth your time and energy, is how proFOMO goes bad.
So how do you keep the proFOMO winds at your back (where they can whisk you forward) instead of in your face (where they stop you dead in a barrage of equivocation and wastefulness)? If you’re good at it, you find balance: Always be afraid of saying “no,” but never be afraid of asking “why.” If you’re bad at it? Well, you just have to hope that your creative output can outrun the creeping shadow of burnout, regardless of how many stupid projects you take on. You strike the iron as hard as you can; you make hay long into the sunset; you gather rosebuds even when ye ought not. You gamble that you can extinguish the anguish of saying “no” by always saying “yes.”
I’ll let you know how it works out.