Since I first understood the concept of failure, I’ve been afraid to fail. That fear’s strength has ebbed and swelled, and its definition has waxed and waned like the phases of the moon, but in some form or another it has always been with me.
I have a recurring fear of failure—recurring because while my definition of failure is fluid, my fear of it is not. My conception of what failure looks like has changed, matured, and regressed with me. However, regardless of what I visualize when I consider the word, I have never stopped seeing it as a fate to avoid at all costs.
I used to be afraid of failing at school. Academically speaking, failure was literal. It meant getting an F grade—whether for a test, paper, semester, or term. (Actually, I was disappointed by anything below an A-.) And although I was never really at risk of being held back in grade school, I always breathed a sigh of relief when my parents received the letter stating that I’d advance the following year.
Fear of failure touched my recreational exploits as well. I was afraid of failing my teammates on the volleyball court—afraid of making too many mistakes—afraid of being responsible for a loss. It got to the point where my fear of failure made me less willing to try. Fortunately that fear diminished with exposure to great competitors and time.
No matter the arena (school, sports, work, et cetera) I have always been afraid of not being good enough. As a teenager, I was afraid of being too insecure to succeed—believing that confidence would breed success and that doubt would pave the surest path to mediocrity.
Gradually I learned to put less pressure on myself. My parents had always reinforced that I couldn’t do better than my best. Eventually that truth started to affect my thinking. My goals ceased to be grounded in perfection and rather in improvement and my top effort.
As an adult, failure’s meaning has changed for me yet again. Now I define it as neglecting or disowning who I really am. Now I see failure as refusing to be myself or pursue my dreams. Now, I view failure as being unwilling to work hard for what I want—and not giving enough attention and effort to faith, hope, and love.
I routinely entertain fears that I’m not as good as I’d like to be at the things I’d like to be good at—especially writing. Oddly enough, I also manage to be afraid that I’m better than I think, but that my fear is holding me back.
I’m also afraid of failing to stop being afraid. Some fears are prudent, but others just get in the way. I don’t want to fail because I was too afraid to try. I shouldn’t seek to stay low because I’m afraid I’ll fall if I climb too high.
For me, at this time, conquering fear simply means not letting it conquer me. Defeating fear is living as if it isn’t there. It is moving forward with the hope or dream even if success isn’t certain. It’s turning the key on the shackle of doubts. It’s beginning the journey that may take me through the dark and formidable forest.
To be fair, there are things that are worthy of fear. To quote the BBC’s Sherlock, “Fear is wisdom in the face of danger.” I wish to experience fear only in appropriate portions. But let me not fear failure. Let me not fear disappointments. Those are inextricable parts of life. They are teachers, strengtheners, catalysts, and fertilizers.
A fear of failure can be a savage taskmaster goading you on beyond your limits or an invisible prison that hems you in. I need neither. One form of failure is letting the fear of failure win.
Not all failures are tragedies. The only useless failures are those that teach us nothing. If I’m going to fail, and it’s impossible that I won’t, after my disappointment dissipates, I hope I’m wiser for it.