How Fear Of Failure Can Hold You Back Or Make You Better
The other night, I found myself cross-legged on the floor of a strangers house, eating tofu wrapped in asparagus, and spilling my guts to women whose names I’d only learned minutes before about how fear of failure was essentially paralyzing me in a state of non-action.
I’m not usually so vocal in public settings — but in a room full of equally vulnerable women who didn’t care that I wasn’t wearing any makeup or know my sordid history with self-love (or previous lack thereof) it felt like a safe space to finally give a voice to the fear that had been stunting me for the last few months.
And as the words spilled out of my mouth,
“The truth is, I’m terrified that all of this work will never amount to anything, and so even though I know what I have to do, I just can’t bring myself to start,”
It was as if I was hearing the words spoken by a dear friend instead of myself, and I realized then and there precisely what I would have told her. The same thing my boyfriend has been telling me for the past several months. The same thing the room full of women proceeded to tell me….
“Oh but honey, you simply must start.”
Let me back up for a hot second.
While January always feels like the right time for new beginnings, fresh starts, and recommitments, it has also historically always been a hard month for me. Not only because making the transition back into the real world — from holiday mode to work mode — is kind of like waking up with a hangover for an entire month; but also because I can’t help but think about everything left undone.
What I mean is, in the wake of a new year, new beginnings, fresh starts, and recommitments, I can’t help but think about the graveyard of unrealized dreams and goals I’m just leaving behind. How can I start fresh when I haven’t finished the things I started last year, or the year before, or the year before?
What I mean is, how can I take three years of a single unachieved goal and move forward without fear, or self-doubt, or completely crippling anxiety?
The words echo in my head as I write this…
“Oh but honey, you simply must start.”
For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a writer. Not just any old writer, but a published author kind of writer, a book tour kind of writer, a multiple books kind of writer. And so when I set out on this journey, three years ago, to write my very first book, I knew that it would be a lot of hard work, and I knew that it wasn’t just going to happen for me, and I knew that it would mean sacrificing a lot of luxuries that I really enjoyed — like brunch, and Topshop, and regular hair appointments. What I hadn’t known at the time, was that the closer I got to my goal, the more terrifying the process would become.
Because now that I’ve written 24 chapters, 293 pages, 83,000 words about my experiences as a woman in this world, I’m scared they won’t be enough. I’m so fearful of failure that I’m robbing myself of a chance.
Fear is holding me back.
I used to play basketball pretty competitively. While I never played in university, I played on club teams and my high school team, and spent the better part of my summers training for the provincial teams. Before every single game, a strange thing would happen to me. I would get so nervous, so anxious, so fearful of f**king up on the court — making the wrong play, shooting an airball, getting beat to the hoop — that I would make myself sick. But when the whistle blew, and the ball went into the air, I’d forget my fears and just play the game I knew so well.
Most games, there would be wrong plays and airballs, and yep, I'd even get beat to the hoop. But by the time the next play was called, I would have already learned from my mistakes, and I would call a different play, or take a better shot, or anticipate my opponents move so that I wouldn't get beat again.
Fear can be a double-edged sword. Yes, it can hold you back, but it can also make you better.
My brother, also an athlete — though he went on to compete at a level much higher than I — once told me that the sick butterflies-in-my-stomach feeling that I experienced before every game was actually a good thing. “Nerves and fear are healthy,” he told me. “It means that you care.” And while this might seem like a small thing, it’s a major factor in the equation. Because if the presence of fear can mean that you care enough not to lose, it can also very likely mean that you’re onto something; that you’ve found your calling; that you’re pursuing something worthwhile.
Obviously, this isn’t law. Common sense should be observed as well. Like, if you find yourself scared while walking down a rough and tumble street late at night that’s most likely your gut kicking into gear and you should probably listen to it; not pursue more rough and tumble streets at more unruly hours.
Anyway, the difference between being good at something and great at something, my brother went on to tell me, was in learning how to harness your nerves or fear to motivate you, push you, drive you to success.
How? You simply must start.
Consider Your Options
The way I see it, when it comes to fear, you have two options.
The first, you let the fear overwhelm you, consume you, destroy you. You allow the fear to keep you from pursuing the things you want most in life. You let fear win.
The second option — the much more reasonable option, IMHO — is to consider your fear, accept your fear, and then do it anyway.
Accept That Failure is Inevitable
The bad news? Failure is inevitable. I’m on year three of pursuing my book dreams, and I’ve failed in more ways than I can count — I’ve missed personal deadlines, I’ve had to write and re-write, and then re-write entire chapters again and again and again. I’ve had to hit the delete button on entire pages that I spent entire days working on.
The good news? Failure is the way to success. If you can learn to accept your failures and treat them as lessons, then you’re actually coming out ahead. Failure reminds you that you care; that you have something to lose. Failure is your teacher, and if you pay close enough attention to its lessons, you will find your path to success. (Proof: I have a finished manuscript sitting on my coffee table.)
Harness Your Fear
Once you’ve considered your options and accepted that failure is inevitable, there’s just one thing left to do. Harness your fear — instead of letting it paralyze you, use it as motivation. Are you more scared of failing in the present or being stuck in the same place of fear 2, 5, 10 years from now?
I don’t know about you, but the latter is much more frightening to me.
Back in the living room full of strangers all daring to get vulnerable as we chat about creativity and fear and failure, I find myself humbled by the support of these women who know virtually nothing about me. They want to see me succeed because they see the passion in my eyes when I talk about littlefoolbook.
“What’s one thing you could do today,” asks one of the women, who conveniently happens to be a professional life coach in her day job, “to simply start?”
My heart rate quickens as I feel myself put on the spot — every beautiful set of eyes in the room staring at me, waiting for my response.
“Ummm…” I stall, but the answer is simple.
“I simply must start.”
SO. In the wake of a new year, and despite a graveyard of unrealized dreams and goals, despite fear, despite inevitable failure, and shortcomings, and more than likely a couple of rejection letters in my future, I am deciding to do it anyway.
(If, by this point, you're wondering what?, the thing I'm talking about is writing a book proposal for my finished manuscript and sending it out to literary agents.)
Psssst...I dare you to keep me accountable. Because this book I’m writing, it really belongs to you.
Where is fear holding you back in your life? Call it out, and identify it.
What would you do if you weren’t afraid of failure? You should go do that.
Where do you want to be in 2, 5, 10 years from now? You’ll never get there if you don’t start.