At the start of his career, George Carlin followed the style of top comedians like the Smothers Brothers and Johnny Carson.
After achieving modest success, he was afraid of becoming a derivative entertainer instead of an artist. The world already had a Johnny Carson and the Smothers Brothers. Those close to Carlin couldn't understand his darker, edgy, creative direction. When his wife Brenda asked Carlin about this creative angst, he told her:
“I’m going to be the person on the outside that I’ve been on the inside my whole life.”
Carlin introduced what many saw as offensive bits into his acts through his 1972 comedy album FM & AM and stage performances. He exposed parts of his inner life most creatives hide.
Some fans turned away from Carlin, but a subset loved his edgy direction. His comedy albums FM & AM and the follow-up Class Clown peaked at number 13 and 22, respectively, on the Billboard Charts, a career-high.
In Class Clown, Carlin riffed on Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television, as an entertainer. A New York man heard a bit from his edgy routine on WBAI radio and complained to the FCC. The FCC declared his performance as "indecent" and "offensive".
The WBAI fought the ruling, and the case went to the Supreme Court. In 1978, it found in the FCC's favor.
Carlin took particular delight in the idea of nine members of the Supreme Court listening to his "filthy words" routine. A July 3rd 1978 edition of the Los Angeles Times led with "Court Bans 7 Dirty Words".
Notoriety skyrocketed Carlin's career. He became one of the biggest comedians of the 1970s and 1980s. Carlin's experiences aren't unique. Here are some of the common fears of creatives and what you can do about them.
1. I’m Not Creative
It’s common to consider the work of successful creatives like George Carlin or Elizabeth Gilbert wonder, How did they do that? But, every creative starts somewhere. And they often have far more failures under the belt and public successes. Like with an iceberg, you only see the top 5%. George Carlin played cheap, gigs before opening for the Smothers Brothers and Johnny Carson.
How to Feel Like You’re Creative
Reframe what it means to be creative. It's not confined to obvious public success as like writing a bestseller, a hit song or starting a seven-figure business. It could be something more private like a novel way you cook a family dinner or solve challenging problems at work.
2. I’m Not Good Enough
The first time I walked into a creative writing group, I felt like an imposter. And when I first tried to write a book, I couldn't understand how somebody could produce 60,000 words and…then rewrite it several times. My inner critic said, “Perhaps you’re good enough to write a book.”
Oddly, enough I wasn’t but trying to write a book helped me improve at the craft.
How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome
Permit yourself to create without worrying about the results. It doesn't have to be a great article, video or podcast the first time around.
At the same time, take a relevant course from somebody more knowledgeable or further along the journey than you are. Join a group of accountability partners. If you're the smartest person in the room, you're in the wrong room.
Later on, hire someone who can help improve your work. For example, many successful authors hire researchers and editors to clarify and condense their thinking, as do podcasters and YouTubers. Think of working with them as part of your training.
If you get into the habit of acting on creative ideas and shipping the results, you’ll earn more opportunities for critical feedback. Feedback will give you the confidence to keep going, and a natural content creation process will evolve.
3. I’m Afraid of Starting
Starting a new creative project feels daunting. George Carlin was terrified his fans wouldn’t understand his edgier material, but he started recording FM& AM anyway.
Considering something more contemporary like a podcast. You must figure out the right equipment, podcast hosting, finding guests, interviewing, editing, post-production and promotion. All of that is off-putting and could deter an aspiring podcast from ever picking up a microphone and hitting record. It's the same for writing a book or even starting a business.
How to Start Creating Today
Break a creative project down into smaller milestones that feel achievable. If you want to launch a podcast, today prepare a list of ideal guests. Tomorrow, worry about pitching them. You can figure out the equipment later. Once you start, momentum will take over.
If you want to write a book, skip those mammoth three-hour writing sessions, at least for now. Instead, aim for fifteen minutes or 300 words, for a week. The following week, try for twenty minutes.
4. I’ve No Good Ideas
You read a book, watch a film, consider another business, and think I should have thought of that. Or an author says something in their work you've always known to be true but never expressed. Now, it feels like they've used up all the best ideas.
How To Find Good Ideas
More ideas exist than you’ll ever have time or resources to use. Many successful online content creators complain it’s hard to focus on one opportunity with so many in sight.
Instead of trying to find one great idea for your book or business, focus on quantity over quality. Put execution first. Creative work has a long tail. Shipping more ideas of varying quality increase your chances of success, as it’s hard to predict what will resonate with followers. Engaging in creative work consistently may reveal a surprising answer.
5. I Feel Blocked
A new creative opens up a word processor or turns on their microphone and camera and discovers they’re unsure what to say, write and create content about. Could it be a form of writer’s block? Should they take a few weeks off to recharge and then return when they feel a eureka moment?
How To Overcome Everyday Creative Blocks
Even top tier creatives worry about running out of ideas, but they have a system that prevents this from happening. George Carlin said about running dry:
“Occasionally that does flash through your mind, because it’s a natural human impulse to think in terms of beginnings and endings. The truth is, I can’t run out of ideas—not as long as I keep getting new information and I can keep processing it.
Creativity involves consuming old information, synthesising it and then producing something new from what you learnt, a process geared towards online content creators. As part of your creative process, take notes about ideas you come across. Apply what you learnt. Create content about your learnings. And press publish early and often.
You can also find inspiration through creative practices like meditation, reading, visiting art galleries and journaling. All help with feelings of burnout too.
6. They’ll Judge Me
When I first started writing, I worried what my mother would think if I wrote about sex or depression, money or lack thereof. I held back from using honest and personal stories in my work and hid behind statistics and research.
What’s to enjoy about revealing a job didn’t work out, I was lazy, and my work failed? Then, I read this advice from Stephen King:
“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”
My mother wasn't my ideal reader, and I was doing my work a disservice by holding back to avoid offence.
Although I stopped writing fiction, I started including more personal stories in work, and I even wrote a personally uncomfortable memoir about becoming a Dad unexpectedly at 24.
How to Face the Critics
Worrying about negative reactions, particularly from friends or family, is an irrational fear for many new content creators. When you're starting, your biggest problem isn’t their reactions. It’s capturing the attention of readers, listeners, followers and fans. Remember, criticism is better than being ignored.
So reframe it. Some of George Carlin’s old fans and his family (and the FCC) couldn’t understand the edge direction of his comedy in the 1970s, but his new fans loved it.
7. I Won’t Make Any Money
“Create content and you’ll make money.” That’s a piece of advice many aspiring professional creatives hear, but it’s a tough commandment. How exactly can you make money when producing good work is hard enough, let alone finding an audience?
Some creatives like to hold on to the concept of the penniless starving artist. They don’t like the idea of selling their work because they feel it's debasing.
How to Overcome Limiting Beliefs About Money
Yes, some creatives struggle to pay the bills, but the internet offers far more opportunities to earn a living online from creative work e.g. Kickstarter, Patreon, Product Hunt.
At the start of your career, it’s best to disassociate money with creative work so you can concentrate on improving your craft without expecting it to pay the bills. Many online content creators start a side business before working at it full-time.
If you’re worried about selling, remember you can use money from a sale to improve your next project. For example, a podcaster could hire an editor, freeing them up to spend more time recording higher-quality shows.
8. I’m Afraid of Finishing
Finishing is harder than starting. When I was in my mid-twenties, I spent years struggling with procrastination. I wrote dozens of short stories and abandoned them. I thought of articles I wanted to write, and then I never finished them.
There wasn’t any moment when I learned how to finish my work.
Instead, I got a job as a journalist writing for a newspaper. The editor told me, “Finish your stories on time or you’re out the door.”
How to Finish
Set artificial deadlines and stick to them. Make a public commitment to a group of people you trust, like accountability partners. Make a private commitment to yourself.
Most prolific creatives cultivate an intense form of self-discipline that enables them to turn down working on a potentially good idea because it's not taking them towards the top of their personal Everest.
9. What If I Fail?
When I tried taking writing more seriously, I looked at the blank page and found myself unable to start. Later on, I decided on launching a podcast. But I procrastinated for months because I didn’t have the right microphone or an ideal guest list. The prospect of creating an online course and offering it to my list was terrifying. What if they all complained and unsubscribed?
Instead of trying to launch ten podcast interview episodes, I recorded one. Later on, after I’d recorded and published several more, I pitched ideal guests. A few said now. But to my surprise, many of them were receptive once they saw I was publishing episodes consistently.
I stopped worrying about a big course launch. Instead, created a much smaller offer from email list subscribers. Not many bought it, but they didn’t unsubscribe either. And I used this feedback to create another offer the converted a little higher.
How to Find Creative Courage
Take small steps. If you’re considering quitting a job to work on a creative business, try and cap the downside. Instead of quitting, could you reduce working hours, say no to a promotion or take a leave of absence? That way, you can avoid the worst possible outcome.
A creative failure can prove instructive too. Carlin considered the early part of his career a failure because his work felt derivative. He used these insights to create his best work.
10. What If I Succeed?
Consistent creative work in public can change your life. Call yourself an author, sell a few books and suddenly readers email you. Record podcast and people start listening to it. Set a YouTube channel and friends and family stumble across it and wonder what you're doing.
How to Prepare for Success
Avoid letting fear of success deter you from shipping, let alone starting a new project. Cling onto a secure job or an old way of working, and change will arrive anyway whether you’re prepared or not. Best face it on your terms. The counterculture movement arrived as George Carlin was considering his act. Instead of fighting it, he embraced it. He said,
“The noisier the culture becomes, the stronger your voice has to be to be heard above the din.
Your Creative Journey Starts Today
Experiencing fear when engaged in creative work is a healthy sign. It indicates you're ready to step outside of your comfort zone and push through to the next level, like George Carlin.
It's also motivating to step onto the verge of fresh, exciting creative endeavours. Caveat: Too much fear is debilitating.
Let's say you want to quit your day job to create content full-time… and you also have a family to support. Many new content creators are better off working on the side of a day job that pays the bills, so they don't have to worry about financial hardship. They can wake up early to work on their craft or put in the hours after work.
It's impossible to enter a state of creative flow and keep focused if the fridge is empty and you're worried about a call from the bank manager. Find a balance between using fear as fuel versus taking reckless risks.
- Ask yourself: What would I create if I wasn't afraid?
- Keep a file for your cut-offs. An idea might not work for this creative project, but you could potentially use it later on. Let nothing go to waste.