how to be fearlessly creative




Successful people do not lead statistically sensible lives. — Srinivasan S Pillay


You know that myth about Pandora? The gods give her a box and tell her not to open it — which, when you think about it, is the one way of ensuring that she will.

So she unwittingly releases all the troubles of the world.

At the bottom of the box, though, is something else: hope.

And it’s still there when she closes the lid.

I used to think: oh, hope, big deal. It couldn’t have been an invisibility cloak or the ability to teleport or a genie who looks like Keanu Reeves?

I have a new slant on that myth after reading Srinivasen S. Pillay’s remarkable book LIFE UNLOCKED, in which he draws from neuroscience to present strategies in overcoming fear.


Some of the best life advice I ever got was this: Whenever you make a decision out of fear, you will regret it. I’ve applied that to writing, to relationships (and the end of relationships), to life.

I’ve learned to separate my fears from my intuition and, at times, to follow my intuition through the fear.

I’ve learned that love is a powerful antidote and can scare the demons back into the dark —

— but according to Pillay, the main enemy of fear isn’t love.

It’s hope.

When we send the action centers of our brain hope-based messages, they direct our attention and set our focus in very different ways than when we’re operating from fear-based messages.

As Pillay puts it, it’s like switching off the light that shines on the fallen tree trunk blocking our path, and switching on a light that shows the way around it.

Hope is much more than wishful thinking.

Hope is a way of moving through the world.

Pillay describes it as an hypothesis about the potential of the human unconscious. Hope quickens our imagination and prompts us to ask the right questions, acknowledging the challenges we face while searching out surprising answers, creative solutions, unexpected pathways that lurk beneath the fallen leaves.

It’s why successful people tend to be optimistic people. They rely less on existing facts to get what they want – or justify why they can’t get what they want – and use the blade of hope to carve out new facts, the kind that allow them to reach their goals.

When you send your brain the message Yes, this is possible, it will go to work sketching out what Pillay calls “motor maps” to lead you through the gap between where you are and where you want to be.

Keep in mind that none of this is likely to be easy. Then again, if it wasn’t difficult, or immensely difficult, you wouldn’t need hope in the first place.

Hope is necessary for action.


A man at my gym was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

The doctors gave him about three months to live. Six on the outside.

Chemo isn’t worth it, they told him. Think about your quality of life.

The man had a young daughter, and out of his love for her he decided not to go gently into the night: but raging, raging all the way.

He underwent chemo and revamped his diet. He showed up at the gym as often as he could. He lost his hair. He became scary-thin. Three months passed. Six. One year. More. His hair grew back. He regained the weight. Another year passed. More. The doctors were amazed.

Then the ground opened up: the tumors came back, a staph infection felled him, and the disease raced too far ahead for him to catch it again.

He died – more than three years after his initial diagnosis.

But he got those three years. Time to spend with his daughter. Time for his daughter to grow to know him, to more deeply remember him when he was gone.

News of his death saddened me, but also filled me with a kind of awe. That’s how you fight, I remember thinking. Even when you know you will lose in the end. (We all lose in the end. Death comes for us all.) You fight out of love, out of hope, out of everything you have. You fight out of the knowledge that every day — every single day of your life — is worth the battle.


But sometimes we’re afraid to fight, we keep our hopes small, so we won’t have to. We fear risk and disappointment and loss. Instead of using hope to counter the fear, we allow the fear to get ahead of us and shape our beliefs, our thoughts, our actions, our lives. And then we wonder why we stay stuck. Why we can’t seem to play a bigger game.

You can reset your life if you reset your attention. Thinking of the big picture can freak out your amygdala, which sees and registers it as threat. But, Pillay points out, you can think your way around this kind of fear by thinking small.

When you shift your mental energy from the big picture to the details of that picture, you shift to a different part of your brain.

The amygdala calms the hell down. You can breathe and think and act again.

So Pillay recommends that you write out a list of ten actions you need to take in order to achieve your big goal. Then you take one of those actions and break it down into ten smaller actions. Then you take one of those actions and…

You see where I’m going with this.

That way, you can dare to dream big while chunking the fear into smaller and smaller pieces until it disappears…for a while.

I don’t think that, as humans, we’re meant to overcome fear – unless you’re a sociopath who doesn’t feel anything at all (in which case you might have other problems, like how to avoid getting caught). We’re meant to lean into it, to learn from it.

You can use it to anticipate problems and then work to prevent those problems: to be productively paranoid. You can use it as an inner signpost, pointing to what you want to have, do and accomplish in your one wild and precious life. You can take it as a signal that you’re at your ragged edge, the outpost of your comfort zone, growing up and out into some better badass version of yourself: a version that lives in your mind’s eye, and you can slowly hope into existence.


So in one corner: fear.

In the other corner: hope.

Your brain is the arena.

You are the judge who declares the final winner.

Fear is a powerful beast. But we can learn to ride it. When we dare to hope for a certain outcome, and take action after action toward that outcome, we’re dealing with nothing less than the spirit of creativity itself.

And that, I realize now, was truly at the bottom of Pandora’s box:

The power of creation.

Mar 11, 2013

16 comments · Add Yours

Yeah Justine! Kicking ass as always. Do keep it up.


Goosebumps. The cancer bit hit close to home, in a good way. Thank you for the reminder.


I appreciate the balance in this article. I wrote a post similar to this, about anxiety as a motivator. Effective, but kind of a queasy motivation. Thanks for the encouragement.


Dear Justine,
I just discovered this blog, and you are wonderful.
I have been thinking about starting a blog, and feeling blocked and afraid about it–but you are a model for how to do it right.
Thanks for being so honest and real and inspiring. I’ll be back for every helping.


Wow, I have been reading and lurking on your site for a while now.

I want to be a writer but I am afraid. I tell people “I hope to be a writer one day” but the reality is I am too afraid to actually hope and act.

What I just read was awesome, a lot of your writing is awesome, it makes me think for days and moves me a little closer to actually writing.

I’m inspired, please keep it up.


I LOVED this post!! Thank you.


Always, the opposites jump up to bite us, right?! Fear. Hope.
Creativity has no opposites, however, it just has power when put into action. Even the creative thoughts have power to change the pathways in our brain…otherwise, how did Beethoven continue to compose? He had to imagine the sounds, and create them in his mind and heart.
Wonderful, insightful post. Thank you.


I have thought for years that hope is the most critical human emotion. Without hope, what else is there to keep driving you forward? Loved reading this. Thanks so much for sharing it!


Great post. There are so many ways that fear cheats, robs & hurts us. However fear can serve a purpose and heading into the fear can provide the greatest growth.

Dissatisfaction + Fear = Disaster when you allow dissatisfaction to simply rob your will & fear keeps you from moving. Then you’re stuck in place, miserable & scared.


Dissatisfaction + Fear = Growth when you recognize the message being communicated.

“Something is wrong, we need to change something (dissatisfaction)”

“I’m familiar with or been all those other places.. they don’t have the answer.. but there is that scary road I’ve never been down over there (Fear)”

In this case, dissatisfaction provides the ‘fuel’ for change & fear provides a guidepost.

The journey is definitely easier when you cut it up into bite sized pieces though ;)


Loved this post.
Hope has always got me through everything.


Excellent post. You rarely read blog posts that are profound, but this one is. I just felt a little shift of viewpoint. Thanks for that.



Outing myself from total stalker mode. This message gave me goosebumps. Thanks for reminding us how to live fearlessly. Leap and the net will appear.

Just have to get over the fear and jump.


Outstanding! Great words. Thank YOU!!


I enjoyed reading this post, and it inspired me to get Life Unlocked. I have one other thought that occurred to me while reading your words: While it seems to me that it is vital that each of us lives and breathes hope into everything we do, what obligation do we have to breathe it into others as well? How many people find themselves teetering between fear and hope, and just that little push by an external force gets them moving in the right direction?


@Fritz Nelson I don’t know if I’d say we have an obligation — I’m also not sure that feeling obligated is even necessary….People inspire others (and get inspired) for all sorts of reasons. And people won’t take action unless they’re ready to take action — or at least ready to start without feeling ready. You don’t want to be so focused on another person’s behavior that you take responsibility for their feelings + actions (never a good thing) or use them as a distraction from your own life.

I think the most inspiring people are inspiring because on some level they truly embody what they stand for. They walk their talk, they live from authenticity and passion, they show themselves at the core. We’re drawn to people like that. They light us up. So I think you have an obligation to yourself to find that soul-fire in you, to learn your gifts and develop them and connect with the world in order to contribute to the world. To enlarge your own capacity for hope. Those are powerful actions that ripple outward in all kinds of ways, and show through example a way of being in the world — which could easily serve as that nudge, that external force, that you’re talking about.


@Mary Kathryn Johnson (@SayBumpandTweet)

“Creativity has no opposites,”

The opposite of Creativity is “defined processes”. Checklists that are to be followed on pain of whatever.

This isn’t bad. Creativity is good AT TIMES, but bad at others.

An anecdote to support this:

Several years ago my wife went into labor. This wasn’t unexpected as she’d been pregnant for right at 9 months, so we headed off to the hospital. Things progressed to a certain point, as they will, and then, as they occasionally do, stopped progressing. The decision was made to do an emergency C-section because the baby was showing signs of distress.

The utter *vast* majority of went on from that point was utterly devoid of creativity. The most creative work the doctor did was in the stitching.

Coming out of the IT field it was interesting to watch (and recognize) the processes. To see the nurses counting–and double checking–the number of sponges in and out. Etc.

Yeah, there are some surgeries that call for creative work by the surgeon and medical staff. Pray to whatever gods get you through the night you’re never in that situation, because you’re out there on the edge.

So yeah, there’s an opposite of Creativity, and it’s good in it’s place too.


Add your comment