• Dara Schaefer

Blasting Through Blocks

Updated: Jan 17, 2019

It was all very well to say “Drink me,” but the wise little Alice was not going to do that in a hurry. “No, I’ll look first,” she said, “and see whether it’s marked ‘poison’ or not.”

—Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland


Fear is part of our evolutionary DNA--- it exists to keep us safe. Fear lives at the base of our neck, where the hairs stand on end. From an evolutionary standpoint, it is the oldest part of our brain. It is our reptilian brain, and it is the first part of our brain to develop in utero. In the face of threats, fear hijacks our creative and intellectual thoughts. It literally unplugs our logical thinking brain, and puts us in a state of fight, flight or freeze.

Fear was an important evolutionary tool for our ancestors who lived in a world full of dangers. Continuously exposed to the threats of becoming someone else's lunch, fear kept us safe, it was a tool for our survival. Fear is what flooded our fists with cortisol to fight off a predator about to grab a young child; fear is what injected our legs with adrenaline to flee across the street in the face of an oncoming Mac truck; fear is what induced our hearts to stop and caused us to faint and seem dead when encountering a a predator searching for live prey. Fear puts us in a state of fight flight or freeze. Fear tries to keep us safe. Creativity is about taking risks.


The problem with fear is that it is terrible at executive functioning and it is antithetical to time management. Even without the imminence of the crit, creativity and fear coexist. They are dualities in the same way as night and day will always coexist. Fear will always be triggered by creativity. Here are some common reasons why, notice how they are all dualities:

  • You’re afraid your work will be ugly OR you’re afraid your work will be beautiful but meaningless.

  • You’re afraid someone will steal your ideas, so it is better to keep them secret OR you’re afraid that your idea isn’t novel enough- someone has already done it and that you are stealing their idea.

  • You’re afraid that your idea has no political, emotional or practical importance OR you’re afraid that the Pandora’s box will be opened if people realize the political, emotional or practical implications of your work.

  • You’re afraid your work will be ignored OR you’re afraid your work will be celebrated and you will have to exit the comfort of your shell into the public realm.

I could keep going, and, for those young architects or other creatives out there, I suggest when you have a moment, that you make your own list, but the truth is, the main reason why I can speak about fear, is because I have lived it.


As a student, usually in the beginning of each semester, that fear left me feeling paralyzed. I would spend days, if not weeks hesitating, staring at a blank paper, trying to think of a good idea, and self-editing each one before even putting pencil to paper. I sat in the studio, with a Sony Walkman and headphones (yes, this was before iPods existed!) trying to tune out my inner-critic. I would use music to try to drown out the inner-voice telling me to stop before I even started. As the weeks progressed, and the finish-line/end-of-semester approached, the adrenaline would kick in and more often than not, a bolt of inspiration would propel me to the final reviews.

In other words, I hesitated until the fear of having nothing outweighed the fear of having a less-than-brilliant something. I usually ended each semester with the beginnings of something interesting, which would have been much better, if only I had had a few more weeks to develop it. Obviously, those extra weeks I spent self-editing, would have been better spent making. I recently learned the saying “Done is better than good.” If only I knew then, what I know now… It wasn’t until I was reviewing student work as a guest critic, that I realized that I should have thought of my professors more as coaches and my fellow students as teammates. In addition to my own inner-critic, it was the perception of all of them as judges, which strained my creative output.


If the work had been continuous, if I had been able to be more like a marathon runner than a sprinter, my years in architecture school could have been much less stressful. Runners often describe the first few miles as the toughest, each step feels agonizing, until they hit a state of flow. Then once they find their rhythm, it's as if they could keep going forever. Once they enter that zone, they stop thinking, resisting, and can enjoy the state of flow. If I could give my younger-self advice it would be to “think with your hands, not your mind.” You see-- your hands are in fact extensions of your creative brain. As long as your hands are making, they are outwitting the fear brain telling them to "stop." While the first few creations will feel awkward and ugly, it takes time to massage them into what they want to be. It takes time to find that flow, and the sooner you tap into the inertia of flow, the longer you will have to enjoy it.



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