Are you ready to play a game with me? I will give you a phrase in the next few sentences to read. When you read that phrase, I want you to immediately close your eyes for a few seconds and observe your body’s reaction to that phrase. Yes, I want you to observe your physiological reaction to the emotion triggered by this phrase. Ready? Here it comes. Read the phrase twice and close your eyes for five seconds or so. The phrase is ‘I will fail’.
Did you sense the fear in your body? Did parts of your body start to constrict? Did your body want to shrivel up? Most of us feel these similar sensations when we have the thought ‘I will fail’. Next, I want you to guess how many times the thought ‘I will fail’ crosses your mind on an average day. I consider myself to be a reasonably capable and competent human being. Although I make my own share of mistakes on a daily basis and have a limited appetite for risk and have my healthy dose of fears of different things, on an average day, the thought ‘I will fail’ does not usually cross my mind. That is because an average day is full of routine activities. But what I have discovered over the last couple of years is that when I set out to explore anything new, this thought rears its ugly head again and again. It turns up as a fear that, in the guise of protecting me, potentially inhibits me from living a more flourishing life. I bet you have had similar experiences as well.
So what does this fear of failure manifest as? Sometimes, it appears as a fear of meeting other people’s expectations. It may appear as a desire to not look foolish in front of our friends and community. Let me give you my example. I have recently started to blog. Every time I write a blog post, I think, “I don’t want to write another article for my blog because nobody really cares for my blog. ‘Everybody’ thinks what I write about is boring and banal.” In spite of all the personal notes, emails and comments that I get from friends and family about how my musings resonate with them, I always have this fear of failure of meeting imaginary judgments of imaginary people stomping around in my head. I have enough evidence that this fear is a piece of fiction, but it still haunts me. Even if there are enough people who may actually think that what I write is boring and banal, I don’t give enough credence to the evidence that points to the opposite.
Let’s take another manifestation of this fear – “I am not good at what I am doing. I need to be ‘really good’ at what I do.” This ‘really good’ is my subjective standard for what I need to create or produce. For me, it appears as, “I have never trained as a writer. I have never even taken a class in writing. For god’s sake, English was not even my first language as a child…ergo…I can’t write well enough to communicate what I think.” My fear of failure of meeting my own abstract standards is a stubborn knot that requires lots of my energy to untangle.
Once this fear of failure occupies enough space in our heads, pure physiology takes over and we can start to feel real nausea, weakening of our knees or get butterflies in our stomachs. To avoid these undesirable sensations, what do we do as a response? We surrender. We avoid. We run away from the task at hand. We refuse to try or experiment. And sometimes, we douse our senses with distractions of all flavors. We may take refuge in self-pity, or worse, play the blame game.
So what is a healthy way to deal with the fear of failure? Here is a trick that I have started to play with. In Hindi and Sanskrit, the word for failure is ‘vifalta’. It loosely translates into ‘a state of not being aligned with the result’. It probably comes closest to the word ‘mistake’. A little misalignment. Plain and simple. Nothing more serious than that. It seems so much less final than the word ‘failure’. So to trick my brain, I am starting to visualize any new attempts as a way to play with different results, fully aligned or not. Just like a four year old does. A four year old is not too worried about the finality of the results of her efforts. She may be disappointed with the results, but somehow, is not frozen in inaction ahead of time due to this fear. And if the results are not what she had hoped for, she recovers from her disappointments with a tantrum or two and moves on to her next set of toys. So I am going to take a leaf from a four-year old’s book and try to become playful, tantrums included.
Yes, I am going to make mistakes and take wrong turns. Yes, I am going to write stuff that makes sense only in my head. Yes, I am going to write blog posts that are boring and banal. Sometimes those fears will bear out to be true and sometimes they will be figments of my imagination. But I am still going to write and post my thoughts because it feels authentic to me. The act of sifting through my thoughts through writing feels like playtime for me. Just for that reason alone, I will become the four year old and play.
What do I hope to get out of it? First is confidence. I recently heard a great distinction between self-esteem and confidence. Self-esteem is feeling comfortable with your thoughts and ideas. But translating those thoughts and ideas into action is what creates confidence. The act of taking action – from starting a new business to writing a play or designing a new building or writing a blog post – is what creates confidence. Kids are usually more confident than adults about their capabilities because they step into the arena all the time. The fear of failure has not turned into a fully-grown monster for them yet! The second benefit of repetitive action is mastery. Slowly, but surely, one hones one’s craft to graduate to the next level of performance. And as we step on the ladder of our actions, the monster image of fear of failure vanishes and the new skill becomes a doorway to the next universe of growth and fulfillment.
Just like a four year old, I invite you to come to the playground with this quote (with slight modification) by Spencer Johnson, “What would you play with if you were not afraid?”