I have a difficult relationship with failure. The source of the difficulty is fear. I am afraid to fail. As a result, I hold back, which makes failure virtually certain in many situations.
I’ve known about my fear of failure for some time. It’s something I’d like to change, and I’ve given it a fair amount of thought without yet coming up with a solution.
This morning, completely out of the blue, I had a breakthrough in understanding the implications of my fear of failure. The breakthrough realization was this:
I am afraid to fail, so instead I reserve the right to fail in an acceptable way.
Instead of committing to whatever it is I am doing, I instead make a half-effort; I “try”. And at some point, I assess whether or not I think my “trying” can succeed. At that point, if I don’t think success is possible, I allow myself to change course and head towards easy, excusable, comfortable failure.
It’s much easier to accept that I “can’t” succeed in advance than to put myself on the line and fail despite my best efforts. In that regard, failure in any given situation in my life is not a lack of success. It is more likely to be a lack of willingness to show up; to put myself on the line; to commit, holding nothing back.
One example of this tendency to avoid failure in my life is found on the race track. A few years ago, I raced a 125 superkart in the club championship at my local race track. The general impression I got from my brief attempt at motor racing was that I was naturally quite fast, but I was never quite sure how fast I could be.
Failure in racing is quite scary. It involves finding the limits of machine and driver and then going over those limits. The result of failure on a race track is spinning and crashing.
In 5 race meetings – that’s 5 practice sessions, 5 qualifying sessions and 15 “heats” – I didn’t spin a single time. I was never once out of control of my kart. Not once.
Why not? Because I was afraid. I didn’t want to hurt myself. And so I held back. I drove at a speed that I deemed “good enough”, rather than going all out to be as fast as possible.
I failed in a way that was acceptable to me, rather than failing in the attempt to succeed fully.
The result of that “acceptable failure” was that I don’t actually know how fast I can be on the race track. I live permanently in a world of vague potential, rather than actual achievement.
In other areas of my life, things are the same. I “try” rather than “do”. I reserve the right to fail on my own terms to save myself pain, disappointment, embarrassment or humiliation. In so doing, I don’t really achieve anything. I’m always operating within what I know to be possible, rather than pushing the boundaries of my own perception to discover what really is possible.
I can see the negative effects of “trying” rather than “doing” in my work, music, writing, personal finances, personal relationships, etc. Pretty much everywhere.
In all aspects of my life, I am held back by a fear of failure. It’s universal. That’s not to say that I don’t ever experience success. I am able to commit fully sometimes, and when that happens success is truly exhilarating. But those experiences are few and far between for me.
I’m starting to see the wisdom of Yoda’s words in The Empire Strikes Back: “Do, or do not. There is no try.”
As long as I am “trying”, I will get nowhere. It’s time to quit trying, and start doing.