For a Freelancer, Fear Is the Mind Killer

I will face my fear 2

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

― Frank Herbert, Dune

Freelancing of any sort can be scary. More stressful even than crazy deadlines is an uncertain future. When will my clients pay? When will their checks come in? Will I get any work next month? Next week? What if I never get another job?

Past prosperity is no guarantee of future success.

Every job could be my last. This prospect always seems likely, no matter how many months I’ve spent working without a break, all day, every day, no matter how often I’ve looked back on a dry spell, wishing I’d just taken it easy for once.

Mundane worries about deadlines and clients and money, especially in the dead of night, readily lead to existential terror.

It’s easy to panic; these are well-grounded fears after all, firmly based in reality. Pretending that it ain’t so, that everything is gonna be all right doesn’t work for me.

What does? Just breathing, and, sometimes, the Litany Against Fear.

I’ve read Frank Herbert’s Dune many times since I was a child. Perhaps that’s why the Litany often comes to mind, unbidden.

I must not fear.

Herbert knew.

Fear is the mind-killer.

The anxiety immobilizes me, turning me into prey paralyzed by the glint of life’s sharp teeth.

It doesn’t do much for my body or family life, either.

A friend of mine, also a lifelong freelance translator, has tried to tame the dread by giving it a name, “Freelancer’s Disease.” Many suffer from this debilitating condition.

Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

The fear itself is what’s miserable, the clenched gut, the elevated heartbeat, the dark bedroom ceiling mocking me with phantasmal visions of worst-case scenarios, daring me to close my eyes in sleep.

The ceiling wins every time.

Giving up, I get out of bed, kiss my sleeping wife on the forehead, and go to my office, where I try to do something productive.

I will face my fear.

The next day, on a Safeway run with the wife, I grab an India Pale Ale while I can still afford it, sticking the expensive craft beer in my shopping cart between bunches of organic kale.

Now comes the part of the trip I don’t like. Waiting in line, I come face-to-face with what seems, for me, an all too probable future.

A cold, gooey unease creeps over my heart as I watch the cashier, a fiftysomething guy just like me, having trouble scanning the barcodes on shrink-wrapped cabbages. I wonder, How did he come to this? What did he do before he was a grocery store cashier?

After my inevitable failure, when the work all dries up, will I be able to get a job here, too?

I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

I pull out my phone to pay for my groceries, resisting the urge to check my email for messages offering work, those little tyrants that bring both fears about missing deadlines and release from anxieties about being broke and homeless, standing on a corner holding an Anything Helps sign.

Taking the receipt, I look the balding cashier in the eye and say, “Thanks, and have a great night,” meaning it, hoping his life is good because I want mine to be good, too. There’s a hint of satisfaction in his face, certainly no dejection or fear, definitely not much stress.

His present could very well be my future. It might not be so bad.

And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

Popping open a tasty IPA and doing something constructive, reading a book, watching a documentary, or reviewing JavaScript, works wonders on the anxiety-induced stress. I focus on the goal of learning and growing, leaving no room for wriggling fears.

The obstacle is the way; dread is an engine driving me out of my complacency; gnawing doubts about an uncertain future are guides leading me toward self-improvement.

What would I do if I were never afraid, never concerned for what the morrow might bring? Wallow in self-satisfaction and complacency, probably. It turns out, fear is my friend, keeping me from becoming stagnant and irrelevant, useless to everybody.

Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.

Doing something, anything useful brings relief.

I’m comfortable now, feeling like it’s all going to be all right, knowing it might not be without caring.

Focusing on getting the CSS to do my bidding, I have forgotten my insecurities, the concentration sweeping away the rubbish of compulsive thoughts.

I call it a night. Sleep, now, won’t be a problem.

Only I will remain.

With morning comes a sense of clarity and renewal, and a dozen emails asking about my schedule, downplaying the work their projects require, hoping I’ll understand about the tight deadlines.

And so it begins. Again.


Within a few days, I’m booked up more than a month, my schedule lacking any wiggle room. If I make a single mistake, or if Murphy’s Law finds me out, my nicely laid plans will be a train wreck, one deadline crashing into another.

Just breathe, I tell myself. You can do this.

A long-time client calls, asking me to squeeze in just one more thing, something that will help him out of a really tight bind.

Okay, but I’m done for the day. I’ll take no more calls, no more emails.

Even after an Imperial IPA, my dark bedroom ceiling looks especially intimidating today, my wife’s rhythmic breathing more a challenge than a lullaby.

Screw this. I’ll get up and go do some work until I feel sleepy.

My computer’s glowing screen displays words I’ll have to translate over the next week, little oppressors calling me to do their bidding whether I like it or not.

I have deadlines to meet, and many, many words to translate before I sleep.

I put my hands on the keyboard, take a deep breath, and remember.

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.