The Embroidered Truth

An ongoing search for inspiration and the good life.

The F-word: Failure

on April 18, 2012

The F-word means different things to different people.  If I’m talking about food, it stands for feta cheese – I think I am the only person in the world who hates feta. The most common meaning of the F-word is pretty much understood, but there’s one that is more personal to me: failure.

Fear of failure is one of those cute little attributes of perfectionism that makes it very hard to try new things and explore creativity. (Ooh, fear is another F-word. I notice a trend.) It makes it hard to stand up and audition for shows, particularly if you really want a certain role. It makes you stay close to the edge of the ice-skating rink – well, that and the fear of bodily harm.

But if we don’t risk failure, how do we learn? Isn’t falling down part of learning to walk?  Everything  we’ve learned in our lives probably didn’t work perfectly the first time, so why is failing such a big deal?

I think it’s because we tie the idea of failure to our identities. If I fail, I am worthless as a person.  I’m not smart, I’m not creative, I’m not skilled enough, I’m not worthy to be loved because whatever I am trying to do did not turn out the way I wanted.  There’s clearly something wrong with me.

This excites my little shoulder dragon immensely. (If you don’t know about shoulder dragons, you should read Martha Beck.  Your shoulder dragon is an imaginary embodiment of the lizard brain, which feeds off fear and anxiety. It also serves to separate your fear from your self.  I named mine Snort.) Fear of failure is just the kind of thing Snort loves. “You’ve known since you were a kid that failure’s not an option!” he whines. “Nobody will love you if you can’t prove you’re good enough!”

Don’t get me wrong.  Snort’s anxiety comes from a place of love, really; he wants to protect me from getting hurt.  But, as Martha Beck points out, the lizard brain relates to the concepts of “lack and attack”: needing something to survive, or survival being threatened by physical circumstances.  In most situations in my life, neither of these is true, so worrying about lack of failure in a creative pursuit is kind of ridiculous.  Still, it remains, because I’ve tied it to my identity.  If I fail, I won’t be me and I won’t know who I am. (Eckhart Tolle would probably say this is exactly what needs to happen!)

The good news is the world is full of examples of failure giving way to success:

  • Thomas Edison, who reported went through scores of trials while inventing the light bulb.  He’s quoted as saying, “If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”
  • Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor because “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” He started a number of businesses that didn’t last and ended with bankruptcy and failure before – well, you know the rest.
  • Colonel Sanders, founder of KFC, was fired from a dozen jobs after he left the army, and was practically bankrupt at age 65 before taking the risk that made his fortune.
  • Michael Jordan, one of the most celebrated athletes of all time, said, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career, I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over in my life. And that’s why I succeed!”

And the list goes on to include Henry Ford, R.H. Macy, Bill Gates, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Oprah Winfrey, Fred Astaire, Lucille Ball, Vincent Van Gogh, J.K. Rowling – who knew I would have anything in common with such luminaries?

So I guess failure isn’t a terrible thing, no matter what kind of heart attack it gives Snort. (Trust me, he’ll live.) That doesn’t mean getting comfortable with it will be easy.  In fact, I’ll probably fail at that, too!  I just have to view each failure as a learning experience that gets me closer to where I want to be, and that doesn’t sound so bad at all.

How do you feel about fear and/or failure? How do you overcome them? I’d love to hear success stories!

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