“The Fear of Failure”
11 minute read
I’d like you to conjure up this vision in your mind.
You’re stood on the edge of a huge cliff face and as you look ahead all you can see is an endless grey sea. Dark grey and black clouds gather overhead, and as you look down you can see the waves crashing in against the rocks, hundreds of feet below. The wind starts to pick up and you become a little unsteady on your feet, rocking from side to side, and feeling the menace of what is right there in front of you. Deep down inside you know that you can’t turn back, but you also feel that to take another step forward will result in disaster. Rain begins to fall heavily. The wind continues to blow hard. And then out of nowhere you know what you must do. Putting one foot out beyond the cliff edge, you begin to fall.
This, my friend, is how it feels when the fear of failure takes a hold of you.
The fear of failure usually occurs at that transitional moment when you move from being in a position of safety, to being in a position that feels completely unfamiliar and even downright scary. It’s when you put yourself on the line, when you reach that point of no return, and when there’s absolutely no turning back.
Building up to these moments you tend to have an inner belief about yourself and your dreams, and while ever that’s kept inside of you it feels safe and you feel secure, because it’s locked away where only you can see it. Nobody can judge you for it, and nobody can take away the power and the motivation that your inner belief and vision grants you. It’s a vision of all that you believe you can be, of all that you desire, and it’s a snapshot of the life that you wish to attain.
Unfortunately though, knowing and believing is not enough and the proof always lies in the action that you take. To quote the movie, Batman Begins:
“It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.”
But taking action is scary, and so whenever you place yourself in this position you instinctively fear that you’ll come unstuck, that you won’t live up to expectations, and that you may even be left feeling like a fraud.
And it can happen at any time, in any place, and under any set of circumstances.
It could happen in your professional life during that moment when you walk into the board room and are about to begin an important presentation. You’ve entered the room, your clients turn to face you, the room goes silent, all eyes are on you, and now you’re about to speak.
It can happen during competitive sport and at that moment when you climb into the ring to fight an opponent. You’re now inside of the ropes, the referee calls you both to the centre, you touch gloves, the bell rings, and then the referee calls ‘FIGHT!’
And guys, how about that moment when you spot a beautiful woman in a bar and you start to make your approach? To begin with you feel safe because there’s still some distance and you have time to back out, but then there comes that point when you’re so close that she’s noticed you, and now it’s too late to back out. You’re face to face, eye to eye, and now you have to speak.
In all of these circumstances you’ve just stepped off the edge of that cliff and are now falling.
There have been times in my own life when I’ve taken that step into the unknown and have come face to face with my fears. Sometimes I won, and sometimes I lost. But each and every time there was that feeling of reaching a point of not being able to turn back.
During my time as a Muay Thai boxer, I had two competitive fights and took home one win and one loss. Looking back, it’s easy to see which result benefitted me the most. The win was great; knowing that I could defeat another man and enjoy my fifteen minutes of fame, but it was the loss that had one of the greatest impacts upon my life. To suffer a loss and to accept defeat, and then to retire to the dressing room, alone, feeling broken and bloodied and at an all-time low, but then to get back up on your feet, to clean yourself up, and to then walk back out and mingle with the very same crowd that just witnessed your defeat, teaches you something that no victory ever could.
It was this experience that truly gave me the intense ability to no longer give a damn about what people thought about my actions and my decisions anymore. And this is a side of your character that must be developed if you’re ever going to succeed at anything.
When I won a fight, it felt great and there were backslaps and congratulations and a lot of people shouting HURRAH! But it’s a different story when you lose. When you lose at something, at anything, you suddenly find out which people are really there for you, and when you lose at something, you also face critics. Now the amazing thing about this is that it’s the people who don’t know what they’re talking about that are the quickest to criticise. And it’s the people who have never taken chances or risked anything that are the quickest to criticise.
But the people who have taken risks and who have failed at something will never criticise you.
And in this instance, I don’t believe there’s a fighter on this planet that would ever turn around and criticise another man for getting into the ring, no matter what the result. Because it is only those who have put everything on the line that can know how much courage it takes to do that; whether that is in fighting, relationships, business, career, anything.
Just by putting yourself into the arena, you are already a winner.
My favourite quote on this subject is that of The Man in the Arena by Theodore Roosevelt. Any person who has ever taken a chance will understand every word of this:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
The bottom line is this. If ever you aim to be successful at something, there will be times when you fail. If ever you compete against other people and try to win, there will be times when you lose.
It’s all part of the game.
But it’s how you see those things and what you take from it that really matters. Your response, your reaction, the lessons that you learn; all of this will determine whether you really come away as a winner.
And the fear of failure is not just about things on a grand scale, but extends to so many other aspects of life. How about relationships? Anybody who has ever loved and lost knows how scary it can be to begin that next relationship, but if you don’t ever take that chance and go all-in, then how will you ever get to love fully again? The lessons from failed relationships can be taken in order to create something better next time around.
More often than not we focus more on the possibility of failure, rather than on the possibility of success, yet there is no person on this planet that has taken chances and got everything right all of the time.
And it becomes apparent that what we actually need to do is reprogram our minds as to how we perceive failure.
If we can see FEAR as being a friend who presents you with challenges and thrusts difficult situations upon you, and if FAILURE allows you to grow as a person and teaches you the lessons you need to succeed and to shape your character; then as ironic as it may be, both FEAR and FAILURE will be two of the greatest friends you’ve ever had.
An important side of your character that will develop through the process of trying and failing is resilience. And developing this trait is essential, because you cannot succeed in life without taking risks, and in order to take risks, you need resilience so that you can bounce back to try again. Therefore if failure leads to resilience, then failure truly is a prerequisite to success.
To fail is to learn, and the lessons that failure brings will create the footholds you need in order to climb towards your goals.
However, during those times when things don’t go the way you hoped, ask yourself the following two questions:
Where did I go wrong?
What can I do better next time?
If you can be honest with yourself and find an answer to both those questions, then you’re already moving upwards.
But let’s now take this one step further and take a look at the bigger picture, and of the wider impact of taking risks.
Part of what scares us is the possibility that not only will we suffer individually for failing, but that the spotlight will shine upon us and that we’ll stand out from the crowd. We imagine we’ll be pointed at, laughed at, and shamed for our actions. It’s so much easier to just follow the crowd and do what everybody else does. Stay safe. Blend in. Keep your head below the firing line. Stay off the radar.
Fade away into insignificance.
But what actually happens is that if we believe in ourselves enough, and if we decide to take risks, to step into the firing line, and to go balls-out towards that which we desire, what we actually do is become a spokesperson for those who need inspiration to do the same. You become a leader.
Think about it. When you play it safe and follow others then you’re not being your most authentic self, and when you’re not being authentic, you’re simply being a follower. To fail, to learn, and then to grow is something that you do as an individual, and once you grow as an individual, standing on your own two feet, that is when you become a leader and can empower others to do the same.
Be the inspiration. Be the change.
Now I want you to go back to that vision of yourself on that cliff edge, only this time you have a pair of wings strapped to your arms. You step off the edge and you begin to fall. You’re plummeting fast! As you fall through the cold air you can feel the spray from the sea, crashing against the rocks and blowing upwards. You suddenly remember that you have a pair of wings to use and so you fight to get them into a position so you can use them. But the wind continues to blast you hard and the grey sea and the black rocks are getting closer and closer. Your momentum is gathering as you hurtle downwards and everything is becoming a blur, but right at that last moment you manage to tip your wings at just the right angle. All of a sudden your wings slice through the air and the momentum has swept you back upwards. The sea and the rocks suddenly become distant again as you start to rise back towards the clouds. And at this moment the rain stops falling and the clouds start to part, exposing a beautiful clear sky. And now you’re gliding, away from the rocks and off into the distance.
And this is how things eventually appear when you face your fears. The falling, and the failing, is what will give you the momentum to ultimately succeed.
You will never forget what it felt like to be hurtling towards those rocks, but it’s that lasting memory which becomes a part of your new found resilience.
It will also keep you humble.
But to bring this article to a close, and while I’m on the subject of wings, let me for a moment make reference to the story of Icarus, from Greek mythology. In this story, Icarus and his father attempt to escape Crete using wings that are made of feathers and wax.
Now this observation is something that I cannot take credit for, but just recently I was reading The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin. In this book, Seth makes reference to how the most remembered part of this story is that Icarus was warned not to fly too close to the sun so that his wings wouldn’t melt. This can be interpreted to be a lesson about the consequences of being overly-ambitious and ‘flying too high’. However, the lesser remembered part of the story is that Icarus was also advised not to fly too low, so that the wings wouldn’t get damaged by the sea. But in the end, Icarus did dare to fly ‘too high’ and as such, the wax melted, the feathers fell away, and as a result, Icarus fell to his death in the sea.
Does this famous story simply promote the idea of remaining somewhere in the middle, to stay safe, and to never aim for anything better than average in life?
A huge part of our mindset is made up by social-conditioning and by being subjected to a myriad of external influences throughout our lives. When we were toddlers we had no fear of the world, of the people in it, and we laughed and played and danced without any consideration as to what other people thought about us. But boundaries were then created, behaviours were set, and belief systems were ingrained. These all served a purpose when we were dependents, but they no longer benefit us as adults. In fact they only hold us back.
It’s time to unlearn.
And so the all important question to ask yourself is this:
If I no longer cared about what other people thought, and if I no longer feared the potential for failure, what would I really want to do with my life?
And your answer to that question is exactly what you need to be doing.
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It’s the people that revel in other people’s failures who need to have a good read at this……
I enjoyed reading that my friend. Thank you
Hey Matt. Thank you for your comment and I completely agree with you.
It’s good to have you on the site and I do hope you come back again.
I appreciate all the wonderful, inspiring articles and adventures since you started this thing. … You still are the single most meaningful part of this “social media” thing I’ve personally encountered. I’ve had a tough year, reading your blog were inspiring. Heartfelt thanks and a big virtual hug to you! <3
Hey Caty. You never fail to amaze me with your kind words of encouragement, and to know my message reaches somebody like yourself makes this all worthwhile. You have my gratitude. I’m working hard to get more content together which I hope you’ll continue to enjoy, and it feels pretty amazing to know this has reached you at a time when you need it. Keep smiling. There are brighter days ahead.
Great post, Elliot! I found your point about welcoming fear (just as one does with failure) to be particularly insightful. I’m headed to Iceland next week and will be pushing myself to do a series of things I’ve never done before–some of which I’m sure will be nerve-wracking–so I will definitely keep your words in mind!
I also found the following quote spot on: “Because it is only those who have put everything on the line that can know how much courage it takes to do that; whether that is in fighting, relationships, business, career, anything.”
Social media and other forms of semi-anonymous interaction allows anyone who broadcasts their dreams to be easily bombarded by naysayers and critics who have never put themselves out there. As you say, don’t let those people get you down; they don’t truly understand, after all.
Keep up the good work!
Hey Andrew, thank you for your comment and I really appreciate you taking the time to read this article. It’s a topic that I find so many of us can relate to, and I believe it’s something that we’ll always come up against as to experience fear is a natural human instinct. It’s how we choose to react when fear raises its head that matters most.
I fight it just like you do, but there are times when I still fail to act because of whatever the potential outcome may be. We just need to keep moving in the right direction and facing the potential for failure more often. If you can keep increasing the ratio between action and in-action, bit by bit, then that’s all that matters. Keep moving forwards. Keep getting stronger. Keep building resilience.
I’m glad you liked that particular quote, because it’s a point that I feel extremely passionate about. And the thing is, the more things you do, the more fears you face, and the more times you bounce back from a failure; the less people like that actually matter to you. Continuing on that path truly does enable the ability to develop a sense of not giving a damn about what anybody thinks.
On a separate note, I am really enjoying your blog and the term ‘authentic travel’ is something that resonates with me. Will you be writing about your Iceland trip? Have a fantastic time, and good luck with smashing your way through those nerve-wracking experiences.
Thank you again my friend.