The fear of failure is a familiar face in my therapy room. In the past 20 years, I have seen this affliction in the minds and hearts of men, women, and teenagers – even children. Like resistance, our perception of failure has crippled some of the most creative people I have met. Some have given up their pursuit of long-held dreams, creative projects, and vocational ambitions. When we unpack some of the beliefs, I hear things like:
“I will be judged, or criticized, or humiliated and shamed;”
“I am not good enough;”
“I will make too many mistakes;”or
“I will never succeed.”
There is something in our collective psyche where failure, or making mistakes along the way, is wrong – very wrong. It is perceived as a weakness, or some sort of character flaw if we try something and do not succeed at it. Weakness is something that many of us do not want to be, or feel, or even associate with. I have been through this myself. I can’t count how many times I have given up on something because I couldn’t bear to fail at it.
“Better to not even try than face the humiliation of failing,” was my motto. I was afraid of being judged and, I believe, that our fear of failing comes down to a fear of being judged, harshly, by others.
But something changed in me when I came across some quotes by Thomas Edison (1847 – 1931), the American inventor who invented many things, most famously the light bulb and phonograph. When he was asked, by a reporter, how it felt to have failed 1000 times, Edison replied,
“I didn’t fail 1000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1000 steps.”
I was pleasantly surprised to read this considering our over-arching perception of failure, and failing. Where we may feel deflated, even defeated, when a failure or mistake occurs, Edison claimed that it was part of the process. Where we become attached to our failure, and judge it as a weakness, Edison learned from it, and saw it as a step towards his ultimate goals.
When I reflected deeply on this, Edison’s mindset on failure reminded me of the great Taoist teacher, Lao Tzu’s writings in the Tao Te Ching. Edison stated:
“I failed my way to success.”
Lao Tzu wrote:
“Weakness is the means the Way employs.”
Now, I am not stating that Edison was a Taoist, but his views on failing, and Lao Tzu’s explanation that weakness is the path taken by the eternal force, seem similar in tone and belief. Lao Tzu tells us that this is how the Tao, or eternal force, works. It is through weakness that we learn and grow. Edison appeared to embrace this and knew that when we fail, we can learn something new each time, like a stepping-stone towards our goals. Both Edison and Lao Tzu make failure and weaknesses seem acceptable, and part of the process of Life. They don’t judge it – it just is! And from this place of non-judgement, anything is possible.
The last time I came face-to-face with my fear of failing was when I shared a piece of writing and received some feedback, which I found painful to read. I could feel those old fears coming up, but I decided to accept the wisdom from Edison and Lao Tzu, rather than give up. I asked myself 3 questions:
- What can I learn from this?
Life can give us feedback in many ways; sometimes pleasant, sometimes not. In the past, I would have taken it to heart, but this time I searched for a “nugget of gold” and looked for the essence in the feedback. I found it, and I learned something new.
- Am I failing, or is it my perception of the situation?
I know that I am my harshest critic, and I can spiral downwards when a setback comes along. Most of the time it is how I perceive a situation, so now I do a reality check. For example, I can’t expect everyone to like my work, but that doesn’t mean I should stop. Like Edison, we can learn from every experience – positive and negative, if we choose to do this.
- Is there something I can do about it?
There are times when setbacks take time to process, or work though, and patience is required while we wait. Other times, there are small steps that we can take, like a slight change in direction, or integrating a piece of learning; nothing dramatic, just a nudge to get us moving along our path. I was able to take the essence of the feedback given to me and edit my work. I didn’t make big changes, or throw the original piece away – I just reworked it.
These three questions have helped me to work on my fear of failing and I have seen change in my attitude and actions because of the wisdom I learned from Edison and Lao Tzu. If we can adopt their mindset, and learn and grow from our failures or weaknesses, and our mistakes, we may end up creating the life we want, and the dreams we are pursuing.