Forget the fear of failure: What I really fear is being mediocre

Lady in contemplation of her fear pyramid.

Fears are not all created equal. There is a hierarchy.

I think of every individual having his or her own Pyramid of Fear. (Which sounds like a Survivor challenge or a carnival ride, but never mind that.) Think: One singular Ultimate Nightmare at the top—say, Death; followed by an assortment of Major Terrors (i.e. Heights, Spiders, Driving in England); and finally, at the base, a virtual cornucopia of Slight But Persistent Sources of Distress, such as Fancy Restaurant Meals Featuring Obscure Organ Meats and the Kardashians.

For me, very close to the top of the pyramid you would find Fear of Mediocrity. Its cousin, Fear of Failure, gets more press, and certainly I’m not immune to that either. But mediocrity has always seemed more menacing to me—perhaps because it’s quieter, less dynamic, more, well, average. As awful as failure could be in the moment, I could always transform them later into mirthful anecdotes: “Talk about a klutz—did I ever tell you about the time I stapled my finger twice in one day?” “Wow, I bombed the math SAT so badly that I couldn’t have even qualified for a football scholarship.” And in so doing they became a part of my personal mythology. But literally no one is intrigued by experiences that fall into the muddy middle: The time you acquitted yourself just fine at yoga? The fact that you can cook decently, if nothing to write home about? There is no cocktail party so dismal that you can get away with these stories.

The era when average was awesome.
The era when average was awesome.

No doubt that’s why I’ve always gone out of my way to be seen as something other than mediocre. A few examples:

  • At the age of 11, I went on a cross-country flight carrying only the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, despite the fact I couldn’t understand a word of it, in the hopes that the flight attendant could compliment my impressive reading material.
  • At summer camp in middle school, concerned about how weakly I did in the sporty activities everyone else seemed to excel in, I memorized a monologue from Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw, donned a burlap sack, chained myself to a corner of the mess hall and performed this opus on skit night. Even the risk of seeming weird or pretentious paled with the possibility of seeming run-of-the-mill.
  • I spent nearly every day during my last year of high school visiting our chorus teacher, a pompous twit, attempting to curry favor with him by learning an array of unnecessary vocal music, all so that I would win the Senior Soloist award at the end of the year. The grand prize attached to this award? The honor of singing the school song, an overwrought dirge, at graduation ceremonies while (and this is true) a small plane with a banner addressed to the assistant principal that read FUCK YOU flew in a continuous loop overhead. This honor also earned me a lifelong earworm (See it’s happening right now? “Fair Orange, we thy loyal ones, where ‘ere in life our journey runs…” Dear Lord, make it stop.)
  • At the DMV, I have rounded up my height from 5’4” to 5’5”, all so that I could tell myself (because no one else cares) that my height is above average.

So it was no small thing to do what I did several weeks ago: I started a new career at a nonprofit. In the course of my days now, I sit in meetings where I understand approximately 35% of what is being said, jargon of various sorts whizzing past my head; This is by no means unusual, of course. My new boss knows I am green at this particular field. Like any new position, a learning curve is expected. It’s normal. Typical. Average!

And perhaps you see where this is going: That is just why it’s been so challenging—I am used to feeling on top of my game; not striving for adequacy. It’s been a long time (probably since 10th grade) since I just sat, nearly struck dumb, thinking to myself, Just say something. Say something that sounds like ANYTHING. (Since this change, it has occurred to me how tone-deaf our public dialogue is on the retraining of middle-aged workers. Politicians always say that 50- and 60-something people should just go learn new professions. Just! As though it’s easy. Not terrifying, or humbling.)

Everyday, I get a lump in my stomach before I walk into work, cowed by the newness and sheepish about being a novice again on some level. No doubt that’s why I didn’t try this change sooner; keeping to the status quo is always easier. But it can feel bracing, invigorating even, to do something new, to be expected to learn all over again. At least that’s what I tell myself as I sit there, waiting for the words to come in the meetings, and until the moments arise when I feel like a full participant in my workday again.

THIS YEAR IN FEAR: 1967, when people were afraid their penises had been stolen

imgresAnd you thought eating pork only ratcheted up your cholesterol levels.

In 1967, the men of Singapore were seized with terror that their love of noshing swine products was causing a condition called koro, which is literally defined as an individual’s “overpowering belief that his or her genitalia are retracting and will disappear.” (Although let’s be honest: Men tend to be juuuust a little more anxious about the relative size of their nether regions.)

According to Scott Mendelson, the author of The Great Singapore Penis Panic (a.k.a. The Best Book Title Ever), a newspaper article stating that some men had contracted koro from eating pork from animals that had been vaccinated with anti-swine-fever meds set off the panic. (Hey, nobody tell Jenny McCarthy about this.) At one point, as many as 500 men were certain their penises had disappeared wholly or partially. They remained convinced until an aggressive public health campaign by the government urged them to believe otherwise. Or until they looked down. Either way, the situation eventually abated.

Singaporean men didn’t invent this mass hysteria on their own. It actually dates way back. In 400 B.C., according to, “the condition was known in Chinese medicine as ‘suo-yang,’ which translates roughly to ‘Bye for now, penis. Hope to see you again soon.’ In his 1834 compendium of remedies, Pao Sian-Ow recommends several methods of treatment for suo-yang, including taking warm alcoholic drinks and rubbing the affected crotch with the ashes of burnt female undergarments.” And during the Middle Ages, the Malleus Maleficarum (the 250px-Malleusguidebook that helped Inquisitors put the screws to alleged witches), warned of a koro-like condition, in which “witches can take away the male organ not indeed by actually disspoiling the human body of it. but by concealing it with some glamour.”

But lest you think koro went out with other pre-1970s fads, like fallout shelters and witch-burning, it’s still around. Outbreaks of koro have occurred in just the last 10 years in West and Central Africa, sometimes leading to tragedy when someone is accused of being a black-magic practitioner-come-penis thief and gets (literally) strung up in the town square. And yes, while it’s unlikely this specific malady will befall American men en masse, we’re certainly no stranger to believing something despite all evidence to the contrary. Once again, I refer you to Jenny McCarthy.

On fearing bananas, indoor plants and fringe moccasins: A chat with best-selling author Julianna Baggott

When I was a magazine editor, one of my go-to writers was Julianna Baggott. And here’s why: She is a bottomless fount of ideas and energy. Get this: She has written 19 books in 12 years. She also cofounded a literary nonprofit with her husband. She also teaches college, and boosts the work of her students on social media. And has four kids. And she can fly. OK, not the last one. But I think that’s only because she hasn’t tried.
     And yet, it’s hard to be too intimidated because Julianna is also really, really nice. Case in point: She was willing to take time out of what must be the world’s busiest schedule to answer a few questions about fear.
My Fearless Year: Name one thing you are afraid of. Do you tend to face it, or flee it?
Julianna Baggott: I’m afraid of death. I flee it. I drive cautiously. I bombard my doctor with questions. I want to know exactly how other people have died so I can take notes and avoid it. Of course, not forever. That’s the thing with death. Super tenacious.
MFY: When I was at Real Simple, you contributed an essay about your mother’s tendency to tell lies—a habit you once emulated. Have you ever pretended you weren’t fearful about something that terrified you? 
JB: I shake people’s hands and pretend that I don’t want to Purell right there in front of them. Sometimes, with great bravado in a full elevator, I’ll touch the button with my bare finger instead of using my elbow. You know… tough guy stuff.
MFY: How did your experience growing up shape your relationship to fear?
JB: I was taught to fear bananas, mugs made in Mexico, indoor plants, the entire outdoors, ticks, germs, chipped paint, bus drivers in fringe moccasins, idling cars, etc.
MFY: Is there a common fear (fear of heights, etc.) that doesn’t faze you at all?
JB: Public embarrassment. I’ll do shitty karaoke. I’ll make bad dance videos at the drop of a hat as gifts … My partner and I really enjoy this kind of thing — in others and ourselves.
UnknownJulianna’s new book HARRIET WOLF’S 7TH BOOK OF WONDERS, out in August includes the story of a woman, a hermit, raised to live in abject fear. Pre-order it here.

On overcoming the fear of flying and of sounding stupid: A conversation with best-selling novelist Ann Packer

UnknownI first encountered the Ann Packer in 2003 when, like much of America, I read her riveting debut novel The Dive From Clausen’s Pier. Years later, I had the privilege of editing her essays at Real Simple. (If you want to mist up a little, read her paean to the quotidian pleasures of car-pooling.) Last week, just before a bookstore appearance to promote her new novel, The Children’s Crusade—a gorgeous, sweeping family saga with a pretty scary mother—she did me the honor of sitting down in a noisy Manhattan coffee shop to talk about fear.

Ann Packer  Credit: Elena Seibert
Ann Packer
Credit: Elena Seibert

My Fearless Year: What are you afraid of?
Ann Packer: I’m afraid of flying. It started when I was probably in my mid-twenties and got a whole lot worse after 9/11. It has limited me in some ways. But about three or four years ago, I took a fear of flying clinic at the San Francisco airport and it helped me a lot. It gave me a little more wiggle room—the strategy in that clinic is partly education, and partly relaxation techniques. I had already done the relaxation techniques; I’d gone to cognitive behavioral therapy for it and it hadn’t really made a dent. So for me, the education piece was really important. We had a pilot, flight attendants, we went up into the air traffic control tower and they talked to us for about an hour, we had maintenance people talk to us, we had a tour of the area. My essential feeling was: You’re not supposed to be up there. I still don’t get the physics of it, but I much more trust the experience. My thing is turbulence. Awful. And that’s pretty common. They talked about what it actually is: There’s the analogy of a lake, and that waves can be calm or choppy. One thing that stuck with me was the pilot saying that “As far as a pilot is concerned, we don’t like turbulence because it makes our coffee spill. And we don’t like it because you don’t like it. But really, it’s nothing.” I take a beta blocker, and I last a lot longer. It’s not like I love it though.

MFY: That must be difficult, since, right now, while you’re on a book tour, you have to fly all the time. 

AP: Yes, right now I do. You know, it’s interesting: I didn’t know what to expect from the other students, but I was one of the least fearful people there. There were people who had not been on a plane in 10 years. On the very last day of the clinic, there was this optional flight [from SFO] to Seattle, where you could have lunch and fly back. I didn’t want to spend the extra $300 so I didn’t do it, but there were 10 of us. And of all of us, only two actually got on the plane. Some actually came and left. If you’re able to recognize that you’re not suffering all that much, that’s a good thing. And that was the case for me.

MFY: Do you have any specific writing fears? Anything you have to cope with when you’re writing?

AP: I’m afraid of being alone. I’m afraid of getting things wrong or seeming stupid.

MFY: Particularly in nonfiction?

AP: Well, yeah. That’s why I don’t really write nonfiction.

Is there anything that others are typically afraid of that doesn’t worry you?




There are people who read one bad thing on GoodReads and it ruins their day.



MFY: Is there anything that others are typically afraid of that doesn’t worry you?
AP: I’m not really afraid of what other people are going to think of me.  In my experience, we get upset by the negative opinions that correlate with our own judgments against ourselves, and I’ve kind of worked out a way to–how can I put this?–cut out the middleman.  If someone says something against me I can usually take the insulted or shamed or hurt or guilty feeling, separate it from the other person, and try to figure out what’s getting to me and why.  So when it comes to bad reviews, I don’t like them, and there’s a sting for sure because there’s something humiliating about being the public target of snark, disrespect, condescension–frequent elements of bad reviews.  But I’m not so concerned with the specifics of a bad review, the content.  I’ve already thought so much about the book that there’s very little a reviewer can say that I haven’t considered.  “Your book is slow.”  Well, yes, it’s about the relationship of people and time.  It’s paced exactly as I want it to be paced.  It’s not going to work for everyone.

MFY: There are people who read one bad thing on GoodReads and it ruins their day.
AP: It’s a very vulnerable position, publishing a book, and I don’t want to sound superior or indifferent.  I’ve been really fortunate in getting a lot of public affirmation and that’s made a huge difference.  In terms of other fears, I’m not as afraid as I used to be of not knowing what I’m doing in my writing.  I kind of embrace it. I mean don’t get me wrong, it’s not fun. But in this last book, I did enjoy not knowing how I was going to get from one paragraph to the next. I’ve never been an outliner. It used to be more anxiety-provoking, and I now believe that following an idea that doesn’t sound promising can really be the best way to arrive at something wonderful.

THIS YEAR IN FEAR: 1776, when people were afraid of the night air

John Adams had a lot to worry about in 1776, what with fighting the revolutionary war, founding a country, and hating Thomas Jefferson. Despite all the real and genuine perils he faced, though, he managed to find the time to worry about something else altogether: the night air.

To wit: One evening in September 1776, Adams and Benjamin Franklin were forced to share a tiny room at a crowded inn in New Jersey. You’d think they’d be tired, having just won the war and all. But Adams couldn’t sleep.

“The window was open and I, who was an invalid, and afraid of the air in the night, shut it close.” (“Invalid” is no exaggeration: According to historian Jay Winik, Adams suffered from “constant headaches, fatigues, chest pains, visual impairment, night sweats, insomnia, heart palpitations, ‘quivering fingers,’ pyorrhea, skin eruptions and aching joints, memory loss and acute anxiety, melancholy, colds so severe that Unknownhe thought had yellow fever, possibly a goiter, and perhaps even Graves’ disease.” Oh, and near-fatal toxothyrosis. And bad vision.) Anyway, Benjamin Franklin tried to reassure poor Adams that night air was nothing to be afraid of. But apparently his harangue was so boring that Adams fell asleep, never fully disabused of this particular fear.

Adams was no outlier on this. Over the next few centuries, this fear gained ground, as people imagesembraced zymotic theory—in which poisonous vapors supposedly emanated from the ground (particularly at night…for some reason) and spread diseases like malaria. Belief in the deathly threat of the night air became commonplace, as Wired‘s Matt Simon explains:

Even doctors and other educated folk propagated the myth. For instance, Baldwin notes that in 1850 a prominent Cincinnati physician wrote that we ought to close up our windows when we turn in for the night. “Two effects result from” open windows, he claimed, “first, the exclusion of malaria [from the Italian meaning “bad air,” not the mosquito-borne disease], or the poison which produces autumnal fever; second, the exclusion of moisture, which in the latter part of the night, often chills the body.”

So what caused people to stop holding their breath when it was dark outside? The realization that
mosquitos transmitted malaria made people stop demonizing the sky and start hating asshole insects like they should have all along. Understanding bacteria helped, too. Good one, science.

On eating roasted crickets and fearing winged monkeys: A chat with best-selling author Sarah McCoy

I can’t believe I’ve never met the amazing Sarah McCoy in person. And that’s because Sarah—Unknownbesides being the acclaimed New York Times-bestselling author of The Baker’s Daughter, The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico and The Mapmaker’s Children, to be released on May 5, 2015—is one of those people who is so giving and vibrantly expressive that she may feel like a closer friend than people you see every day. She has always struck me as one of the boldest and most forthright writers I’ve had the privilege of editing, so I wanted to learn what (if anything) she was afraid of.
My Fearless Year (MFY): Name one thing you are afraid of. Do you tend to face this fear—or flee it?

Sarah: I asked my husband, who I call Doc B, what he would say I was afraid of. “Spontaneity,” he said, which garnered a wifely swat, a laugh, and an admission: He’s right. However, I’d probably say I’m most afraid of disappointing those around me or myself. I’m my own harshest critic, and I suppose that lends itself to my fear of spontaneity. I like calm order, knowing where all my juggling items are so I don’t drop any… so I don’t disappoint with an egg splat!
     In that regard, I guess I face my fear daily. I keep moving, releasing and catching responsibilities to the best of my ability. But at the same time, I dodge spontaneity as much as possible. Please, no monkey wrenches thrown into my juggling act, thank you very much. Of course, life being life, there’s always something. Maybe not a monkey wrench but a monkey. Crazy, winged monkeys.
mapmakersdaughter_thumbMFY: Is there a fear you’ve conquered in the past?
Sarah: I was frightfully shy as a child. Crowds and meeting new people used to make me shake with fear and anxiety. I’m an extreme introvert, which often surprises my readers. When I was 13, I remember thinking that if I didn’t buck up and engage people, I’d spend the rest of my days cowering. Seeing Mr. Fear as a character—a villain in my own personal story—enabled me to stand against it. I wasn’t going to let it win.
     I started my crusade on what most would consider the most ordinary of battlegrounds: my dentist’s office. My family had just moved to Virginia so everything was a terrifying unknown. My dad dropped me off at the office and instead of walking in sheepishly, I entered with the biggest smile I could nervously muster and said to the receptionist, “Hi, I’m Sarah McCoy, a new patient. I just moved to town. How are you?” That baby step was the first mighty strike.
MFY:  What book, movie, piece of music or other form of art has helped you get over or cope with a fear?
Sarah: Words have always had weighty power over me. Growing up, my mom kept a quote on our refrigerator door: Be strong and courageous and do the work… it’s part of a Bible verse from 1 Chronicles. Funny how a single statement can burn itself into your mind’s eye without you knowing it. It comes back to me often even now— the image of that piece of paper with one magnet holding it strong. A comfort. A battle cry. An encouragement when I’m afraid.
     Being a writer, stories of characters who conquered their fears have always been a source of great inspiration, too. Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables was one of my childhood favorites. I thought, if she could overcome so much—being an orphan, being mistreated, feeling lost, having a temper, wanting so much more but not knowing yet how to achieve it, etc.—I might be able to do similarly. She showed me that perseverance, faith, and hope were keys.
MFY: What common fear (fear of heights, etc.) doesn’t faze you at all?
Sarah: Ninety-nine percent of creepy bugs. I squash spiders with my thumb. Centipedes with my bare toes. Cockroaches with whatever shoe is handy. Bees and flying pests get the swatter. Ants and colonies of itsy-bitsies, the spray. I have no qualms about eating roasted crickets, toasted mealworms, and skewered scorpions. Oddly, there is only one bug in insect nation that terrifies me, and it’s nearly entirely benign: the praying mantis. Blame a naive, childhood viewing of the mantis mating ritual on the Nature Channel. I get full-body shivers just thinking of them.
MFY: Name one person, living or dead, who exemplifies fearlessness to you.
Sarah: Hm, I’m having a hard time with this question because every person I know has had major fears. They were never entirely fearless but made the choice to get up, stare down life’s monsters and say, I choose to be courageous. I choose peace over anxiety. I choose good over evil. I choose to own this fear and not let it own me. choose. We’re only human so if we aim for “fearlessness,” we’re doomed to disappointment (my aforementioned fear). Instead, I believe all of us have the capacity to take action—to be a little braver each day.