It’s been about a month since I finished the first draft of my book, a project I’ve been working on since early 2016. It’s very long, about 180,000 words (which, if published now, would be over 600 pages) and far from publishable, but it is, at least, a completed draft. I wish I could say it feels “great” or feels like the weight of the world has been lifted from my shoulders, feelings I came to expect as I inched closer to this point. But strangely I feel anything but. I feel, instead, like I’m at mile 20 of a marathon. Anyone who has run a marathon knows that mile 20, while past the geometric half-way point of the race, represents about the experiential half-way point. Though only 6.2 miles remain, you tend to expend as much energy, both physical and emotional, in that remaining 6.2 miles as you did in the first 20.
When I was marathon swimming, I always kept this in mind during my training. If I was training for a 20-mile swim, I knew I needed to train to get to about 16 miles with relative ease, to stack the odds in my favor for a successful swim. I have many stories of how that insight proved valuable on game day as the suffering of the last few miles grew logarithmically from what preceded it.
But unlike running, swimming, or cycling—all things I’ve done and pushed through—I find myself in a different situation with the book, and I’m a bit ashamed to admit it, which is exactly why I forced myself to sit down and write about it this week.
I feel like quitting. I feel like handing the publisher back their advance and scrapping the whole project, never letting anyone see a word of it. I don’t want to push any more. If this were a marathon, I’d stop at the next water station and catch a ride back to the starting line. Such feelings are really unusual for me. In fact, I’m not sure I can think of a time in my life when I’ve felt this way. I’m pretty good at pushing through pain and muscling through struggle.
After brooding over my feelings for a few weeks I’ve started talking about them with a few close friends and I’ve come to realize what may be going on. A big part of what triggered this response is actually fear. Fear that the book will not live up to the (probably impossible) standard I have set. Fear that by the time it’s published (target date is spring 2021), some things I wrote in 2019 will be incorrect. Fear that I will make a mistake—either incorrectly cite some research or incorrectly interpret it. Fear that I can’t update it every few months as my knowledge and experience grow. Fear that the trolls who have created a cottage industry of tearing down people they are jealous of will do to me what they have done to many others before me. Fear that I won’t be proud of it, or worse yet, that I’ll be ashamed of it.
I have never experienced such performance anxiety before. Ever. I’ve never stepped foot in the ocean to begin a long swim and worried I would not finish it. I’ve never stood at the starting line of a time-trial and assumed I would fail to approach a PR. I’ve never started a project and worried I would fail (though I did end up failing at many things, I never went in with the fear).
And yet here I stand, 9 rounds into a 12-round fight, so afraid of losing, that I’m looking for any excuse to throw in the towel.
I suppose on some level I’m writing this to hold myself accountable to you, a potential reader of this book.
At the risk of coming off as a total cheese ball three days after Thanksgiving, there’s a dichotomy in the way that I’m thinking about the book and the related fear. On the one hand, I do appreciate the value of both appropriate praise and criticism, but on the other hand, I am hardwired to detest praise and feel emotionally devastated by criticism. That’s a pretty sad combo that can make for a very miserable life, I realize.
While I’m feeling this way now, I have also been reflecting on all that I have to be thankful for. I’m thankful for you who read my thoughts and emails each week, who listen to the podcast, who call us out when we don’t produce things as good as we should and make mistakes (there are definitely a few podcasts where I believe I have failed as an interviewer, and let listeners down), and who always encourage me to keep going. When we started this weekly email and podcast, I didn’t think I would enjoy it as much as I do and I didn’t think it would grow and reach as many people as it has. I may not be able to respond to all the emails or messages on social media, but I do see the encouragement, and I’m thankful to each of you for your support as I look to enter this next grueling 6.2 miles. And ultimately, I hope we both enjoy the final version.