Failing to Even Fail
The title of this post might suggest someone who is perfect and successful and who has never made a mistake in their life. First of all: that person does not exist. Secondly, that’s not what this post is about. It’s about being so afraid to fail that you don’t even attempt something. You’re failing to even allow yourself the opportunity to fail (or to surprise yourself and find success).
The ever-brilliant J.K. Rowling has a quote about this that I love:
It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”
Call it perfectionism or anxiety or whatever else, but I’m afraid to fail. Like, terribly terribly afraid. I always have ten million ideas in my head for projects, articles, and essays and about ten million more ideas for how each one could go wrong. Maybe no one will like it or even look at/read it. Maybe it’ll be so poorly done that I become a laughing stock. Maybe people will talk badly about me behind my back. Maybe I’m just not good enough.
That last one is the biggest fear. As a writer I have a lot of greats to compare myself to. Comparison really is one of my biggest downfalls. I tell myself I’ll never be as good as so-and-so, so why even try. That line of thinking is obviously unhealthy and unproductive, but I can’t help myself.
The fear of failure and fear of not being as good as someone else has held me back so much. There’s so much I want to write, but I don’t because I’m afraid it won’t be good. I pull out my notebook and hover my pen over the blank page. I’m practically begging the words to come out, but nothing does. I’m afraid that whatever I put down won’t be worthy of anything.
Starting this blog was a huge challenge for me because I could only think of all the ways it would go wrong. Now that it’s up and running, I question every post I make and wonder if people hate it. I’m afraid that if in a month or a year I decide to quit the blog, I’ll be a failure.
There was an article in the New York Times a few weeks ago – On Campus, Failure Is On The Syllabus – that explores this fear of failure, especially among millennials and students. It talks about how young people have it so engrained in their minds that everything they do needs to be perfect and that when they do have setbacks or failures, it can be crippling.
Some people say that our generation has this “weakness” because everyone received a participation trophy as kids and now can’t handle criticism as adults. I don’t necessarily think this is true. I think, at least for me, that the fear of failure comes from social media. It’s definitely where the comparison comes from. On social media, everyone presents perfect lives. We know it’s not reality, but that’s hard to believe when you’re staring at a perfect picture of a vacation, a toned body, an awesome party, or a big work accomplishment. The constant barrage of perfection is hard to live up to, but it makes it feel like you have to. Social media also makes it feel like your failure is on full display.
The New York Times article focuses on Smith College and a program it started about teaching students to embrace their failures and not allow them to take over their lives. The initiative acknowledges that failure is a part of life, it doesn’t define you, and it means that you tried.
Before he was a famous writer, Stephen King received a lot of rejection letters – like, a lot, a lot. Instead of throwing them away or using them as an excuse to quit, he hung them on his walls. They practically wallpapered his room. They hung as testaments to the hard work he put in and to the fact that he was trying.
I want to try more. I need to push past the fear of failing and of not being good enough. Obviously the more I try, the better I’ll get. It’s so easy to write that, but I know actually trying more of my ideas for projects and writing will be a lot harder. It means that I’ll be inviting the possibility (and inevitability) of failure into my life. It also means I’ll be accepting the possibility of success into my life. Right now there’s no possibility for anything – failure or success. If at the end of my life I never have published a book or a big article or essay, I want to at least say I tried. I don’t want to “fail by default,” as J.K. Rowling says. I want to fail by trying.