Find Your Useful Fear

by Phillip McCollum

So, in regard to disagreeable and formidable things, prudence does not consist in evasion or in flight, but in courage. He who wishes to walk in the most peaceful parts of life with any serenity must screw himself up to resolution. Let him front the object of his worst apprehension, and his stoutness will commonly make his fears groundless.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essay on Prudence

October is here and do you know what the scariest thing is? No, not ghosts, nor goblins, nor exaggerations of malevolent evildoers looking to maim your children by hiding razor blades in Tootsie Rolls.

The truly frightening thing is we’re rapidly approaching that time of year when we reflect. I don’t know about you, but for me, it’s not the wins that I so much remember as it is the moments of disappointment.

If only I had buckled down and wrote a little more on my book each day, I would have something to market.

If only I had summoned the courage to submit those short stories for publication, I may have been in print by now and found some new fans.

And then comes the realization that there are only two months left until January rears its hideous head and beckons us to layer new resolutions on top of the half-dead corpses of those still unfinished.

Fear: Not Always a Bad Thing

So much fear, but I’m not here to preach fearlessness. In fact, quite the opposite. Fear has its place. It puts food on the table and keeps us from having a spontaneous picnic in the middle of the 405 freeway on a Friday afternoon.

Fear is a tool.

Fear is a motivator.

The key is in learning when to recognize a useful fear, when to use it, and when to put it away. Like any tool, I believe the only way we can learn this is through practice, which means one thing:


So how do we do this? No one wants to hear, “You have to find your own way,” but that’s the most honest answer. Our fears are often so personalized, what may work for one person may not work for another.

But I’ll tell you what has worked for me.

The Aimless Writer

I’ve been wanting to be a writer for the past six years, but I can’t say that I’ve been a writer. Sure, I participated in Nanowrimo a few times, even “won” one year, but I would get to the point that I loathed what I’d written and just leave it to rust in some dark corner of my hard drive. Any other writing I’ve done over this span of time has been sporadic and aimless.

A Useful Fear

Recently, the most wonderful fear came along that squashed even my fear of failure.

The fear of failing my son.

I’m scared of this for a couple of reasons:

Firstly, I don’t want him growing up with a father who talked big but had nothing to show for it.

Oh, yeah son, I could have lived my dream, but well, you know, I got busy…

Sure, bud, I could have been something really big, but I just didn’t want to deal with all of the fame…

And secondly, I don’t want him growing up fearful of living. What else is a parent but an example unto their children? Who would I be to tell him to do one thing while I do another? This useful fear has put me on a recent project that has me facing that dread of writing failure like no other:

52 Short Stories in 52 Weeks

(Thank you, Ray Bradbury)

Every Monday morning, I start a story anew and spend the rest of the week using whatever available time I have to finish it, eventually publishing it on my blog and Wattpad by Sunday evening.

Boiled down to its essence, this experiment gives me deadlines and forces me to confront that fear of writing poorly or appearing pretentious. I’ve made myself publicly accountable to other writers. I’ve made myself accountable to my family.

I have to finish these stories each week because now I’m afraid not to.

As of the time of this article, I’ve completed six of them over just as many weeks and am working hard on number seven. Opening a new document, hashing through the plot and characters and themes, getting to the end; these have all become a little easier each time.

Don’t get me wrong. The fear is still there every morning before I get down to business.

But I’m more afraid of something else.

Do you have a useful fear?


Phillip McCollum

Phillip McCollum

Phillip McCollum lives in Southern California, enjoys dabbling in technology, studying history, and of course, writing about whatever interesting characters pop into his mind. He’s recently taken on the business of writing 52 short stories in 52 weeks. In between bouts at the keyboard, he enjoys spending quality time with his wife and son. You can read about his journey at


2 thoughts on “Find Your Useful Fear

  1. Great article. To quote from the movie “Jane Got a Gun”: “Fear is good. Fear will keep you alive.” Probably one of my favorite movie lines ever; and this article is just as spot-on.

    My “useful fear” is similar–fear of letting down all my family and friends who’ve been so supportive of my work.

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