Overcoming Paper Tigers

I’m blessed to share a name with the brilliant trailblazing aviator Amelia Earhart, who was tragically taken from us too soon. She was quite the boss babe, consistently having to overcome chauvinism in her chosen field of aviation. Amelia was also a successful writer in her own right. In her writings, she offered some poignant bits when it comes to motivation. Because of this, Earhart is a major reason why I have focused on motivational topics for many of my essays. 

One of my favorite of these Amelia Earhart quotes has to do with tenacity. It’s been mentioned plenty over the years in various motivational articles. While this is a good quote as such, people need to read the entirety of it to get its full meaning. Here’s how this famous Amelia Earhart quote reads on BrainyQuote

The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life; and the procedure, the process is its own reward.”

Most of this quote is straightforward. But, there is one phrase that particularly stands out. What are “paper tigers,” you ask? According to Merriam-Webster, the phrase “paper tiger” refers to something ”that is outwardly powerful or dangerous but inwardly weak or ineffectual.” It’s a literal English translation of the Chinese phrase zhilaohu. It means, being made of paper, it won’t withstand real challenge. 

We all have paper tigers that we face in our daily lives. But, we can’t let our fears become monsters which get the best of us. We may even be told that our fears are irrational. So, we strain our brains trying to rationalize them to others. But, what we should be doing instead is think through why these certain fears exist for us. 

Attempting to Tame My Own Paper Tigers

I’ve always had a terrible fear of heights. But, as long as you’re safe and don’t put yourself in situations where falling is likely, that fear is a paper tiger, right? Otherwise, that fear of heights could prevent you from doing a lot of things, such as going on a plane flight. My fear of heights is a major reason why I didn’t take a commercial flight until the age of 34. It’s incredibly ironic then that one of my all-time heroes is the most famous aviator of all time!

But, I’ve collected quite a few other paper tigers over time. My fear of heights is far from the worst of my menagerie of paper tigers. Chief among them is the fear that what I do will never be enough. People’s expectations for me have always been unrealistic, and I’ve never lived up to what my family or friends expected of me. So, I just want to work at something all of the time, fueled by people constantly calling me lazy because I lacked a traditional job. 

But, even trying to fight against these paper tigers, I realize that I’m actually being unproductive because my fears lead me to take unreasonable actions. Yes, it’s an entirely reasonable fear that my work won’t be consistently productive. It’s also entirely reasonable the fear that the words I write won’t resonate in the way I wish them to with others. There’s even the worry that I will make decisions that will be financially disastrous in the hopes that they will pay off eventually.

These paper tigers held me back for too long because I started taking action for the sake of doing something. I found myself sinking far too much time into unproductive ventures just to keep myself busy. Now, I’ve always been pretty good about not worrying about the sunk cost of money in projects, as most of my life it was chump change in the grand scheme of things. But the one sunk cost fallacy I continued to give into until well into my thirties was wasting my time. It often takes much too long in life to recognize the worst sunk cost is time, and it took me until about 35 to recognize my failing in that area.

As it turns out, these are the same paper tigers that I know other writers and artists keep staring at day after day. We always have to look busy. We have to say we have a plan in mind. We need to commit skin in the game, even if it’s a lost cause. But just because most people give into these fallacies and fall flat, it doesn’t mean you have to let those paper tigers freak you out in the same way.

What’s the Key to Overcoming Our Paper Tigers?

How did I eventually make the realization that my paper tigers were leading me to make unreasonable choices? The key was that I decided to act more deliberately and carefully. As Amelia said in the same context of the above quote, “You can do anything you decide to do.” So, I ask myself, what do I really want to do? Many of our paper tigers emerge from the expectations of others. The trick then becomes to ignore everyone else and focus on what we personally want to get out of life. 

Even though my freelance writing work evaporated during the Pandemic of 2020, I continued to pour out all the words as they came. My purpose became not to write for profit or even page views on my website. Rather, I began to write for my own education, reflection, and mental health. While I’ve certainly wavered and hesitated for weeks and even months at a time in writing consistently, I’ve never given up on getting my words out there. That’s even after consistently threatening: this will be my last entry. I’m clearly still writing, as you’re reading this right now, so I didn’t give up.

Yes, my tenacity has often wavered in the face of these paper tigers. Fortunately, I know I can beat them by challenging those fears head-on and blow them away with reasonable decision making and consistent productivity. The process of defeating your fears and taking control of your own life, just as Amelia says, is its own reward.

The first step in overcoming fear is to recognize the real impediments to your success. Once you have your fears set firmly in your sights, you can learn how to overcome them. After all, most fears are simply nothing but paper tigers. As our world grows ever more complicated and nuanced, things have a way of looking bleak and insurmountable at times. But, remember, there is always a way out, even if it’s not obvious at first. 

So, what do you do the next time those paper tigers are staring you down? Tell yourself that no matter how scary they may seem, making decisive action will always bring them down. Most fears are not only illusions, they’re also often fragile and easily conquered with a determined mind.

Taming Your Own Paper Tigers

Alright, dear readers, let’s play a game of “Spot the Paper Tiger.” What’s that one fear that’s been lounging around in your psyche, pretending to be the king of the jungle but is actually more akin to a kitten with delusions of grandeur? Is it public speaking, looking silly in yoga class, or perhaps the fear of singing out loud and being mistaken for a distressed walrus?

Next, set a timer for just 15 minutes. Ponder over why this fear exists. Is it because of that one time in third grade when you misspoke and everyone laughed, and you’ve since vowed never to speak in public again? Or perhaps it’s the fear of spiders, cultivated by watching too many sci-fi movies where spiders are, for some reason, always gigantic and have personal vendettas against humans.

Finally, jot down a mini action plan you can take to confront this so-called ferocious feline. It could be as simple as speaking up in a meeting — even if it’s simply to agree with a good point — or maybe going outside and respectfully nodding to a spider. This challenge is all about showing your paper tiger who’s boss – and that boss is you, armed with a pen, paper, and a dash of audacity.

The point of this challenge isn’t to transform you into a fearless superhero overnight, although that would be impressive). It’s to recognize that sometimes, what we fear is not as formidable as it seems, and with a bit of humor and introspection, we can start to take away its power. So, let’s tickle those tigers today and see them for what they really are – just paper! 

Closing Thoughts

Hopefully, you’ve gained some courage to face your fears with the grace of a cat walking on a slippery roof. Those often over-dramatic paper tigers, love to parade around in our minds. They may roar the might of a leaf blower, but truly possess the strength of a mouse squeak.

Let’s take a leaf out of Amelia Earhart’s flight log, and make the decision to act. The rest is just keeping your hiking boots on. Each time we decide to stare down a paper tiger, we’re essentially saying, “Look here, you origami menace, I’m onto you.” Just like that, these fears start to much less ferocious and more like decorations at a child’s birthday party.

As you mosey on through your day, I invite you to engage in a bit of tiger-watching. Peek at those fears. Notice how, when you really look them in the eye, they start to resemble those cartoon tigers, perhaps even wearing a bow tie. Make a decision, any decision, to challenge them. It could be as monumental as saying ‘yes’ to a new opportunity or as simple as choosing a different brand of breakfast cereal – just to prove you can.

Remember, the true absurdity of life isn’t in the fears themselves. It’s in the way we let them set up camp and roast marshmallows in our brains.

Keep flying high and be wary of ferocious felines,

~ Amelia Desertsong, January 24, 2024

Thanks to Bing Designer for the awesome cover image!

Amelia Desertsong is a former content marketing specialist turned essayist and creative nonfiction author. She writes articles on many niche hobbies and obscure curiosities, pretty much whatever tickles her fancy.
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