My six-year-old son was home from school yesterday, so we had a son & dad day. Woot!
As I was sitting at the dining table writing my Morning pages—or Afternoon Pages as it was 12:15 already—my son was doing a "study" about the Black Mamba while sitting next to me.
Why a black mamba? Well, he likes predators; this one is especially ferocious, one of the deadliest snakes in the world!
In any case, my son—kinda new to writing whole sentences—was, for the first time in his life, taking notes on something while watching a video. Of course, the video was an episode of our latest Dutch Steve Irwin, Freek Vonk, catching snakes in Africa.
I told my son to pause the video to take notes, but because his writing is so slow, he forgets the remainder of the sentence that he wanted to write down. Panic building up while trying a few times to playback the video and not finding the right spot, he finally got highly frustrated. Thinking of himself as a failure, "I can't do anything right!" he screamed.
Internally I sighed...
Now, this, for me, was such a familiar feeling. That feeling of failure. These days, it's not as severe as I see in my son, although in my younger years, it was like that.
It's really unhelpful to feel that whatever I try to create isn't good enough. This constant battle against the sense of failure. A struggle against myself, really.
Of course, I know it's a voice in my head saying these things. And I know the voice is mostly wrong, basing what it says on the fear of failure rather than actual failure. But still, it's not something to easily ignore.
So I tried to help my son out while also noticing that he usually eats lunch at 11:30 on school days—it being 12:15 now probably exacerbated his frustration.
As I made lunch—while my son just drew everything about the video, like a potion of anti-venom, instead of writing it all down—I figured I could definitely write about this fear of failure. If I dared.
So this is it, a shot at answering the question of how to deal with the fear of failure. And ironically, I'll be using public writing as an example since I fear failing at that most.
Let the fear of failure flow through you
An apt poem from Frank Herbert's Dune fits here neatly. It is the Litany Against Fear:
"I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing. Only I will remain."
When you stop resisting the fear—let it pass over you and through you—you'll come to find that there is nothing left but you. You're letting your subconscious know that it's OK to feel the fear. It's like saying to yourself, "See? You let it flow through you, but nothing bad happened!"
It's also taking a stance of courage because you're facing your fear. You acknowledge that it exists instead of letting yourself escape into distractions (like learning about writing instead of writing... looking at you Jibran).
Reward yourself for doing the thing you fear
Another method of dealing with the fear of failure is rewarding yourself for doing what you fear to fail at. Like I said, let's take writing as an example. Say you fear writing publicly—which I sometimes do—an excellent way to help you write is to say to yourself, "OK, if I write for 25 minutes today, I get to watch the next episode of The Witcher."
This way of rewarding yourself can seem kinda childish, right? But it's pretty powerful. You can even create a whole ladder of rewards—from small to large—rewarding yourself with a new book if you publish three articles or to a new MacBook if you publish fifty articles!
Make the steps so small it's almost laughable to fear them
What if you write just 15 minutes each day? What about one minute? What about one word? That sounds laughable, stupid even, right? Well, it might seem like that. But anything that helps you lower the bar sufficiently—so much that it actually gets you to do the thing you fear doing—is fantastic!
Say you have a daily writing goal of writing for one minute. That's manageable, hmm? Sixty seconds is nothing over the course of a day. You're very likely to do it. And when you start, do you think you'll stop after sixty seconds? Probably not! So maybe it turns into two minutes or five or even 30 minutes!
You'll have written way more than if you said to yourself you're going to write for 15 minutes each day. Because 15 minutes might still seem too daunting, causing you to not do it at all.
Then, when you do that for a while, you'll see you write an average of, say, 10 minutes each day. So now you know you can up your daily goal without fearing you can't do it. You make your goal 5 minutes each day—not 10 minutes right away; you need to keep the bar low—then rinse and repeat.
Every day do one piece of the thing you fear failing at
Tying into the previous point, making the steps so small it's laughable, you can make a personal challenge out of what you fear failing at.
Create a small and achievable daily goal, like writing a hundred words. Keep the bar for quality really low; only focus on quantity for now. Then say to yourself you will stick to that goal for the next 30 days.
Even better, let other people know about your challenge. Have them as accountability buddies. Ask them not to question the quality of what you put out, just that they help you make sure you put out something.
Now at the end of those 30 days, or 100 or even a year, you'll have built up a big stack of the thing you feared doing. It's right-in-your-face evidence that you can do the thing you fear you fail at.
What is so powerful in creating a challenge is that it stops your mind from questioning itself. There is no excuse for not doing the thing that day. And when your mind unconsciously knows no excuse is going to work, it stops making them up.
Realize that what you should fear most is the regret of not doing the thing you fear
Now the last tip is last for a reason. It's the one thing that usually works very well but can also be paralyzing to some. So definitely do reflect within yourself if this next tip is one you want to use.
Ask yourself the question, "What will not happen if I don't do the thing I fear to fail at?" Won't you write that book about your father's life? Won't you share your message with your kinsmen, your fellow humans? How does that make you feel?
In my case, I fear future regret. So in this instance, we're essentially fighting fear with a more significant fear. The fear of failing now vs. the fear of regret. So this is more a stick-method than a carrot-method—regardless, it can work very well for short moments.
The fear of regret is big, and if you go deep into that feeling, you might come out with a renewed courage to take head-on the fears of failure you feel now.
To summarize how to deal with the fear of failure
You can deal with the fear of failure by:
- Letting the fear of failure flow through you and pass over you.
- Reward yourself for doing the thing you fear.
- Make the steps so small it's almost laughable to fear them.
- Every day, do one piece of the thing you fear failing at.
- Realize that what you should fear more is the regret of not doing the thing you fear.