I grew up missing out on a lot of things because I was afraid that if I tried, I would mess it up or come out looking stupid. As a kid, I don’t think I had the general thought that I was afraid of failure. I wanted to play kickball on the elementary school playground, but I was aware that my friend Brenda had a bolder temperament. She was more aggressive, faster, and stronger. Rather than directly thinking about my own failure, I was focused on the fact that she outperformed me at anything athletic. This meant that while I still may have been concerned with failing at a game of kickball, I was more prone to turn down joining in on the game to avoid what felt to me like a predetermined outcome. I certainly wasn’t going to be first pick for anyone’s team, and I was unlikely to be an asset to bring my team to victory. Even so, why couldn’t I just play for fun and enjoy every chance I had at hopefully kicking the ball?
The idea that the fear of failure is the biggest obstacle to making significant and lasting change in life somewhat minimizes all of the gray area of thought patterns. In a 2019 TED Talk by Joan Rosenberg, she discusses the all-or-nothing thinking. She says, “Sometimes we see people or situations in either/or categories whereas in reality, our lives unfold in shades of gray.” There are definite shades of gray when it comes to a fear of failure mentality. It is important to recognize some of these as shades of gray when it comes to failure:
1. I’m not good at that
2. I’m not talented
3. I’ve tried that before and it didn’t work
4. I wasn’t born with that ability
5. Other people are at an advantage
Some things in life have a clear measure of success, like being on the winning end of a game of Checkers. Consider all the areas in life where the measure of success may not be as clear. For example, passing or failing a class, arriving at your destination after a long road trip, or paying all your bills on payday. Some of the gray areas in these scenarios might be passing a class but not with the high score you wanted, arriving at your destination after a long road trip but you took a wrong turn and arrived late, or you’ve paid all of your bills on payday with nothing left over to buy that new pair of shoes you wanted. If the measures of success are not always black and white, then perhaps the measures of failure aren’t either.
I’ve been playing acoustic guitar since my early 20’s. I practiced here and there and over time got better. By 2017, I began marketing my ability to play professionally in small venues and continued to refine my performance skills. A couple of years ago I was contacted by an entertainment booker requesting that I perform the national anthem to open for the nationally-touring band Old Dominion. As an acoustic artist who completely believes my success is found in the totality of what I do when I’m performing, I did not feel equipped or confident to sing acapella or tackle a challenging song like The Star-Spangled Banner… you know, it’s kind of rangy and I don’t have a big voice. At the same time, I felt like I would be an idiot to turn down the opportunity. So, I said yes.
I’d like to tell you that I walked out onto that stage in front of thousands of people, gave a flawless performance, soaked up the applause, and walked off stage with pride in my musical rendition of our national anthem and in my country. However, that’s not what happened. When the moment came, I couldn’t get a handle on my nerves. While I was fully capable of delivering a respectable performance, at the end, my voice gave out purely due to the strain of the muscle tension on my vocal cords from the nervousness that I could not control. I briskly walked off the stage and disappeared into the nearest exit. My failure made the air feel thick and suffocating.
After allowing some distance between myself and my failure, I realized that I benefited a lot from the Old Dominion experience. I learned that I should have been doing more along the way to prepare for that situation. However, the outcome was not all bad. First, when the booking agent initially called me, he told me I was very talented based on what he had seen and heard in my demos. I needed the encouragement at that time so THAT was a big win! Secondly, even while I was afraid to say yes, I recognized that I shouldn’t let that hold me back from something I wanted to do. The younger version of myself wouldn’t have even tried. The fact that I went for it meant that there has been a progression in my life.
Ever notice how sometimes people can find fault or failure even in your success? If that’s true (and it is), it is important that you always view your failures in their absolute totality. Failure doesn’t sit there in front of us as a one-dimensional all-or-nothing outcome. It is a layered, dynamic, and multi-faceted result. Failure is not only a fact of life, but it’s also a privilege to experience so it’s something that we should actually practice. Yes, practice failing.
When you don’t prepare yourself to do things, regardless of if you might fail, the risk becomes boredom, apathy, refrain, and easily defaulting to fear. I remember when my son played high school football. I heard his coach tell the boys, “If you go out onto the field afraid of getting hurt, you will not play as aggressively as you should be and you are more prone to injury.” If you live life afraid of getting hurt, afraid of failing, or afraid to try anything different, new, or hard, you are robbing yourself of a healthier life, a stronger mind and body, and a more positive mindset. Practice failing at things so that you have every opportunity to gain from those experiences. Not only will you benefit in your life, but you will inspire those around you!
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