Shifting Our Fear of Failure Space Mural

I love the idea that I’ve heard from a lot of the major players in the space program: if you fail at something, it’s not a bad thing, it’s all part of the process of learning how to do it better. We often view failure as an end to our process, as a point to give up and stop trying at all, but when we fail, it’s more often the time when we need to learn from what has happened and use those lessons to propel us forward. Having a fear of failure is normal for most of us, but it doesn’t have to stop us. What if instead, we could learn to see any failures as a new beginning, or a chance to shift our direction?

Think about it like this, when we were first learning to walk, the vast majority of us fell down many times. If we had given up at that point, we would all be floating around in chairs like the people in the Wally movie. But, falling down was part of the process of learning how to walk. In much the same way, failing at something can be seen a part of the process of achieving success. If we allow ourselves to see it that way.

Thomas Edison famously said: “I didn’t fail. I simply found 1000 ways of how not to make a light bulb.

This idea of failure is so prevalent that it often keeps us from even starting something. We get so bogged down with the idea that we might fail that we are paralyzed into inaction. This is especially true if what we’re doing is something that is near and dear to our hearts. We don’t want to pour our heart and soul into something, just to see it fizzle out in the end. At some point in the preparations, we convince ourselves that doing all of that work, and spending all of that time, isn’t worth it if it’s going to fail in the end, so we stop before we’ve even started.

Or, if we do start, the fear of failure shows up in the way that we set goals for ourselves. To keep from being disappointed in the end, we set the bar low from the beginning. We think that if have low expectations from the beginning, we won’t be as disappointed when things don’t work out.

Having this mindset doesn’t help ease the pain of failure at all though. It still hurts if what we’re doing fails, but we also have the sting of regret added to it because we didn’t go all out. Not to mention, if we had set our goals a little higher, if we hadn’t limited ourselves, could we possibly have accomplished what we set out to accomplish in the first place? Instead of protecting ourselves from the hurt of failure, did we end up creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by not trying as hard?

It’s not easy to fail at something; especially when you fail miserably, or you fail very publicly. It hurts. Even if we try to shield ourselves by saying we don’t expect much, it still hurts. Because really, we do expect a lot or we wouldn’t be doing it. What we’re really doing is not being honest with ourselves and others about how important the thing we’re doing really is to us.

Viewing our supposed failures as part of the overall process, gives us the chance to take them a little more in stride, rather than being stopped dead in our tracks.  

Even if we choose to change course entirely, those things that we consider failures can help us get to that decision point. Those things can become a catalyst for change if we allow them to.

This isn’t just true of a business situation, or when you’re creating something, it’s also true of life in general.

If you have what you consider a failed marriage, why look at it in that manner? Yes, the marriage didn’t work out like you thought it would, but what did that major shift point in your life bring you to realize? What have you gained from no longer being in that relationship?

If you weren’t happy in the relationship, or even if you were and things didn’t work out for whatever reason, this becomes the point that most of us turn on ourselves. What did I do wrong? Why am I not capable of being in a relationship? Will anyone ever love me? What’s wrong with me?

It hurts. Even if the marriage wasn’t a happy one, it’s hard to admit that you were wrong about someone. It’s hard to feel like you weren’t enough. It can be hard to learn how to be on your own again.  

But, this is the exact time when we can choose to wallow in our pain, to say that we aren’t fit to ever be in another relationship, and to go down the road of sabotaging any other relationship that we may have because we’re afraid it won’t work out again, OR we can take a hard look at ourselves, and a hard look at the relationship, and do some inner work to make things better later. Whether we actually do enter another relationship or not, we can make life better for ourselves by seeking to learn from what happened.  

What was great about the relationship? What aspects would I like to have again?

What was wrong with the relationship? What do I need to change about myself, or change about how I interact with others, etc.?

I’m not saying that you have to become a different person to find someone, or that you have to be something that you’re not to make someone else happy. Please don’t go down that rabbit hole. You should always try your best to be your most authentic self in anything you do, in any relationships you have, including the one with yourself.

But, that doesn’t mean refusing or resisting improving ourselves in ways that enhance what is really great about us to begin with.

We all have things that we could do better. We all have those automatic reactions that, if we’re not careful, can cause arguments. All of us, at some point or another, could do a little more to consider other people’s feelings, or to help someone else out, than we do.

This is a touchy subject I know, because there are a lot of nuances to be considered. I’m not diving too deeply into the relationship aspect of things, but I’m using this as a general example of a major event in a lot of people’s lives that some consider an ending, a failure.

I simply want to point out that it doesn’t have to be an ending, but rather a new beginning.

This could also be said if you lose your job, or even if you lose a loved one. (Again, a touchy subject because of everything involved. I know.)

I recently listened to an episode of Jay Shetty’s podcast, where he talked with Matthew McConaughey. Matthew spoke about how losing his father caused him to really become more of his true authentic self. (He talks about it in his book, called “Greenlights”.)  

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He relied heavily on his father to handle things for him. When his father died, and was no longer there to do the heavy lifting emotionally, it fell on Matthew’s shoulders to do it himself.

In my own life, losing both of my parents when I was young, was hard. It caused a chain reaction of things to happen that weren’t always pleasant for me to go through. But all of those events have led me to becoming the person that I am. If I hadn’t had those experiences, then I may not have developed the ability to think for myself. I may never have realized that I can take care of myself, and I don’t have to have someone to do that for me. I want someone in my life who can stand beside me, love me, help me along the way, and be a companion, but I don’t HAVE to have that person. I’m just as capable of taking care of myself.

Sometimes though, like I was talking about above, that independence can sway a little too hard and I refuse help from people. This is something that has caused other relationships to end, that I know I can improve upon. Not to get those relationships back, and not because I’m not enough, but because there’s always room for improvement.

On another episode of On Purpose Jay had a conversation with the author of a book called “Think Like a Rocket Scientist”, Ozan Varol.

Varol was talking about this concept of seeing our failures as lessons, but also, he talked about viewing our successes in much the same way.

He and Jay talked about this idea that we need to always analyze failures to see what we can learn from them. But also, we should analyze our successes as well. Varol suggests asking two questions whether we’re talking about a failure, or a success:

What went right, and what went wrong?

Because even when we succeed in doing something, things still likely went wrong along the way. Those things may not have led to an ending, they may have just been bumps or frustrations, but still, they are points in our process that can be improved upon.

Varol said, just because we did something and it worked, doesn’t mean that’s how we have to continue doing it. There’s always something we can do better, that we can learn from.

It’s scary to think about failing at something. Especially if you’re planning to put a lot of time, money, effort, and heart into that something.

The fact of the matter is though, things happen. Sometimes those things are out of our control; sometimes there are things that we can’t see coming, or we refuse to look at. Sometimes we think we know what we’re doing, and we find out that we don’t. Which ever way it comes about, our plans don’t work out and we’re left with a choice. Are we going to abandon everything, cut our losses as it were, and stop any forward progress? Or are we going to use these setbacks, big or small, as an opportunity to adjust our way of doing things, and move forward?

In addition to the above quote, Thomas Edison also said this: “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up”.

Without failure, we wouldn’t have the ability to flip a switch and have light in our houses. We wouldn’t have a space program, or any of the great findings that have come along with it. You wouldn’t be holding that Apple IPhone, or that Android phone, in your hand. So many things that we use in our daily lives wouldn’t be there if their creators had just abandoned all hope after failure.

For this very reason, instead of thinking about what will happen if you fail, think more about what will happen if you give up.