The Myth of Failure
One of the most challenging obstacles of delving into any new project is the starting point.
From a very young age we are conditioned to fear failure. Our very own western education system is based on the notion that failure is punishable, intolerable, and frowned upon. In sports, at work, in relationships, one’s own failure to perform reflects the character of that person. Even historically, mankind has been conditioned to fear failure in terms of survival, reproduction, and safety from the very beginning. Though we have moved out of the Paleolithic period into today’s modern world, it is clear that this fear has evolved as well.
This notion of “failure” isn’t separate from the individual, but usually a defining characteristic of who they are. For example, if a business owner’s store went bankrupt, the business owner is more likely to view themselves as a failed entrepreneur instead of viewing the business project as a failed business attempt. Another example would be a basketball player whose career plummeted after they were injured. If the athlete cannot perform, the media is likely to describe the aftermath of this injury as a failure of the athlete or “the downfall of their career”, instead of discussing the athlete’s failed arm or leg. When we experience failure in our personal lives, the same kind of process happens where we see failure as defining who we are instead of viewing it as mistake we’ve made. As we grow older this process tends to repeat leading to negative self talk and essentially re-affirming to ourselves that “I am a failure” every time something strays from our goals.
Much like this first blog post, the pressure of perfection is a complicated mind game. I don’t know if my words will be interesting or easily understood, I am competing with millions of other bloggers, and I’m afraid of coming off a certain way. Yet all of these worries I carry with me were taught, not inherent. For example, my fear of not seeming interesting possibly stems from not feeling adequate in middle school or high school. My fear of competition likely stems from competitive writing in school and having my works judged and scrutinized by a teacher. My fear of coming off a certain way probably results from observing others who have had their character called into question because of something they said or did that was unintentionally hurtful. However, as a child, prior to all these negative experiences, I didn’t fear these sorts of judgments. Maybe I feared going down the tunnel slide or riding a bike without training wheels, but never questioned my self-worth.
I think it is important to reflect on why we procrastinate on our goals. Is it finances? Is it resources? Is it timing? Or is it because we fear that we are not good enough? Do we believe we are a compilation of our past failures?
The fear of failing at anything is taught. It is enforced through circumstances, it is encouraged by people around us that share the same fears, and it is broadcasting throughout our capitalist, highly-competitive, society. Think back to when you were in third grade and your teacher asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up. Most likely you were open to all sorts of ideas, you didn’t think about how people might view you if you choose one field or another. You didn’t consider how anxiety inducing it might be to try out a job you’re uncertain about or switch jobs later in life. Yet when these fears are integrated in the ways we define ourselves, it is easy to view new projects as risky, stressful, and threatening. Why? Because micro-damages to the ego over time have resulted in us assuming we are:
A) going to fail
B) we are unworthy of success
C) If we do fail (which is always a possibility) we are not adequate
D) we will not recover from failure
As humans we have a tendency to let this fear dictate our choices and actions yet, by recognizing that the fear of failure is taught and not inherent, we can un-learn and redefine the way we view failure and ourselves. I think it is important to recognize that failure is unavoidable, however true failure is never attempting to do anything. We fail the greatest when we give up. How can we possibly cultivate any kind of result without taking some sort of action? This is not to say that you should keep pushing for something in your life that no longer inspires or brings you joy. But rather, if there is something you want, something that keeps you up at night, something that you think about on daydreams during long car rides, the biggest disservice you can do for yourself is allowing fear, fear that is taught, fear that does NOT define you in any truthful way, to dictate your course of action.
By not acting you automatically fail. Every failure is a learning opportunity, every failure is the result of mistakes, failure is not who you are, it is what you have done in the past which you can utilize to bring you a better and more aligned future. You are worthy of success – failure, as a self-defining characteristic, is a social construct, it is the way in which we handle mistakes that will ultimately help us to reach our goals.