What is Failure?

As long as I can remember, I have had a fear of ‘failure’.

Not about anything specific, mind you. Just about ‘failing’ in general. The fear of not accomplishing something after proclaiming that I would, has seemed to me to be one of the most terrifying things in the world.

I think the fear of failure is up there with fear of death, fear of loss, and fear of physical pain. 
(It’s closest companion is probably fear of rejection, which I will write about another time.)

The strange thing about a fear of failure is that its not overt. It’s not directly in front of me most of the time, it’s more of a quiet whisper that sits next to me, causing me to hesitate in moments of courage and risk.

Where does this fear of failure come from? And is it real? Is it useful?

Previously I wrote about the concept that fear is a fickle friend; one that protects you and also limits you. You have to know when to listen to your fears, and when to ignore them.

For me, the fear of failure has come up hundreds of times, and yet that fear has not actually killed me, made me lose anything, or caused me physical pain.

That’s not to say I haven’t ‘failed’…

I remember the day I was driving to the divorce mediation office to sign the papers to end my marriage. Above all else I keep thinking how sad it was that my marriage had ‘failed’ and I couldn’t save it. I was worried about having to tell everyone I knew the reasons why it didn’t work out, and what they would say. I can honestly say that is one of the times in life I felt like I truly failed.

That first few months were very tough, as I held tight to my idea that I’d ‘failed’ at marriage. My fear of failure had come true.

Yet as time went on, and I gained new perspectives, I saw that perhaps this ‘failure’ I’d been through had some benefits.

– I learned a lot about not staying in a relationship that wasn’t serving either person. 

– I learned how it felt to have to walk away from something that I’d once committed to.

- I learned that no matter how bad it seems, the sun rises tomorrow, and you get to start over.

These crucial lessons have served me in countless ways since, and I am stronger because of them.

Over a few years, I eventually started to change the label I had created about having a ‘failed marriage’ to call it ‘having been married once’.

This slight, subtle change of frame created a different view. I had experienced the highs and lows of a committed marriage, and even though it wasn’t still a part of my life today, it had been once, and would ever inform my experience in the future.

Another time I felt I’d ‘failed’ was late last year…

I competed for the second time in the semi-final rounds of the Toastmaster International Speech contest. For the second year in a row, I was among the Top 90 contestants remaining out of a starting 30,000. I got to compete and share my speech in front 1,000 people at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

I truly felt as I walked off the stage that I had the potential to be in the Final round. But, the judges saw it differently, and for the second year in a row, I walked away from the contest with a 3rd place trophy, and a sense of having ‘failed’.

From an outside perspective, not many people would see this result as a failure.

But I did.

I beat myself up for the next 3 months feeling like if only I’d done something differently, I could have avoided the ‘failure’ that was placing 3rd once again.

I share this, not to gain sympathy, but to show the stupidity of the concept of ‘failure’.

Failure, I’ve finally realized, is made up. It doesn’t really exist.

Same as we can choose to label ourselves as a success, we can also choose to label ourselves as a failure. In fact, all fear of failure does is pre-label you in a way that you think is unfavorable.

Like a young child fearing a monster under the bed, we first imagine a scenario we see as a failure, and then we begin to fear it.

I realize all this could just be dismissed as word play. No matter what you choose to label something as, the reality is that life goes on. We do things, we get results, we choose to see those results as either a success or failure. Nobody else really cares deeply about our successes or failures, mostly because they are so preoccupied with their own.

The fear of failure is not real. It can’t hurt you. That’s because ‘failure’ itself is not real.

The only way you can ‘fail’ is if you choose to hang onto the belief that it’s real.

‘Failure’ is simply a label. You get to choose whether you apply it or not.

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