“Houston, we’ve had a problem.”
With those calm words, astronaut Jack Swigert radioed NASA’s
Mission Control that the Apollo 13 lunar mission was not going as planned. An
oxygen tank in the Service Module had exploded, blowing off part of the
capsule’s exterior skin and venting most of the module’s oxygen and hydrogen
fuel (used to create vital electricity) into space. At the time, Swigert and
his fellow astronauts — Jim Lovell and Fred Haise — were nearly 200,000 miles
away from Earth and heading towards the Moon at thousands of miles per hour.
There is no room for denial in space, especially when you’re
sitting in a cold metal box roughly the size of a Winnebago, wondering if
you’ve got enough water and oxygen to survive the next 90 hours.
What’s terrifying about this story is when we realize how
isolated the astronauts were. They could not expect help from anyone outside
the space capsule. They couldn't pop over to Wal-mart and buy a new oxygen
tank. They were completely alone, hundreds of thousands of miles from help and
home. If the crew were going to survive, they could only make use what they had
on hand. And many of those things, as they’d continue to discover over the next
three days, were already broken.
When I was a kid, I used to imagine the Apollo 13 crew
working diligently in the face of danger with no thought for themselves. To me
they were like superheroes in comic books, men without fear living in the
certainty that they were about to run out of air and freeze to death in deep
Our culture encourages us to imagine that successful
creative people like famous artists, musicians, scientists, inventors, and
entrepreneurs just the same way.
We are taught that real writers never feel fear (like we do)
when they stare at a blank piece of paper. Jack Kerouac just start writing, and
three days later, he'd changed American literature forever. Serial
entrepreneurs aren’t terrified that they’ll lose everything when they put a
second mortgage on their house to fund their struggling business: we imagine
Steve Jobs happily soldering a circuit board in Steve Wozniak’s garage,
unconcerned about paying health insurance premiums.
Once we decide that real heroes don’t feel fear, we come to
the conclusion that there there’s something wrong with us because we do, and
that this defect in ourselves is why we got stuck in the first place. From this
perspective, we deserve what we get, and there’s no hope for us, so we might as
But when we read interviews with the Apollo 13 crew, we
discover that they were terrified:
“Of course I was scared. When we found out that that the
second lithium module had torn off as well, it was as if all the air had been
sucked from my body,” said crew member Jim Lovell, in an interview years later.
“I started to hyperventilate. It was the worst moment of my life.”
“I looked at Jim (Swigert), and he looked at me. I could see
the same thing in his eyes. And then I looked around our tiny capsule, and
everything became sharp, and crisp. I really wanted to live to see my family
again. We didn’t have a choice, so we got back to work.”
Lovell didn’t pretend he was Superman, or Indiana Jones, or
any other comic book hero. He just didn’t let the fact that he was scared stop
The minute we stop fighting fear, it becomes an ally. This
doesn’t mean fear goes away — but if we’re willing to make use of it, we
discover that hand in hand with fear comes clarity. It can bring a sharpness of
attention that cooly examines our situation, and we discover solutions that
might not otherwise have been obvious.
Fear is an ally of creativity. Think of it this way: when
everything is going as planned, we’re happy and content. In those moments we
aren’t usually motivated to create anything radically new.
I’ve created, built, run, and sold over a dozen mostly
successful businesses. I’ve written books and directed films. Over dozen of the
products I designed are in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art's
permanent collection. And right now with the help of my six partners, I’m busy
creating Ello. We hope it will change the world.
When things are going well, there’s a tendency take it easy
and rest on success. We just keep doing whatever it is we’ve been doing already
But when relationships are melting down, and we’re losing
money hand over fist, and the company is about to go out of business in four
weeks for lack of funds — this is when over and over, I find the resources
within myself to do something really creative. These are the times when
It's ironic than when we make the decision to take a risk
and live creatively, the first thing we are faced with is our own fear of our
weakness, stupidity, and failure. Every time we move forward, we walk right into
our own fear.
We’re scared of failing, we’re scared of losing, we’re
scared of looking stupid. We’re scared of all the hard work it might take to
get ourselves unstuck.
We’re even scared of being scared.
Returning to the example of the novelist with writer’s
block: in order to start writing again, she will have to face fear of failure
(but not eliminate it), and just accept that she is likely to write a terrible
novel. Getting back to work is different than “getting over it”.
Because the secret that most truly creative people know is
that if we kill our fear, we also kill a lot of the magic that fuels into the
creative process. Living a creative life isn’t about getting over fear.
It’s about using it to our advantage.
We make an agreement with ourselves to stop hating ourselves
for being cowardly, boring idiots (which we are), for being talentless failures
— and instead accept that whatever we are, it's all we've got.
And then we get to work.
Back Apollo 13: After the command module melted down, the
astronauts’ space capsule had very little oxygen and fuel remaining. They were
still hurtling towards away from Earth at thousands of miles an hour.
Calculating the amount of fuel they had remaining in their damaged tanks, they
realized that it was impossible for them to turn around and make it back alive.
The astronauts chose to do the thing they dreaded most: they
pointed their tiny craft towards the moon, and away from Earth, and fired the
rest of the fuel in their rockets. The Apollo 13 capsule went into lunar orbit,
and the moon’s gravity to whipped them home to Earth.