Paper Tigers: Facing Your Fears with Tenacity

person climbing on mountain

“The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity.” – Amelia Earhart

I’m blessed to share a name with the brilliant, famous aviator Amelia Earhart, who was tragically taken from us too soon! She was quite a 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. 

For example, I have 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!

Even now, the idea of being tens of thousands of feet in the air is absolutely horrifying to me. But, I did finally overcome it enough to take a flight to see family. Still, even after gathering up the courage to fly, I was sick to my stomach on both flights on the trip with awful motion sickness. It also didn’t help that when I tried to rest that the stewardess kept waking me up, like there was something wrong with me, even with Tom telling her to leave me alone. I considered putting a formal complaint, but I knew it would get me nowhere. 

So, I’ll never fly again unless my life depends on it! At least now, my fear of heights isn’t stopping me; a poor airline experience and motion sickness are logical enough reasons to avoid that form of transportation.

Of course, 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.

So, how do we overcome 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.

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.

3 thoughts on “Paper Tigers: Facing Your Fears with Tenacity

  1. I agree with you! We spend so much time thinking about wanting to do things, but the biggest leap forward it to actually do it. I’ve seen Amelia Earhart featured on Soaring in DCA. I feel you about the fear about how the things we do is never enough. It is frustrating but we need to take a step back and reflect on what we have done :).

    Nancy ✨

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