Building Your Perfect Life: the Fear of Failure

There’s a lot going on in today’s post, including the underpinnings of our fear when we strike out on our own, AND a solution that works really well for me. Before you read, however, take a few minutes to watch this absolutely incredible speech by Jim Carrey. If you don’t have time to watch it now, bookmark it to come back to later – it’s worth it. It carries a powerful, if heartbreaking, message: if you refuse to put yourself on the line, if you shrink back from your most deeply-held dreams to protect yourself, you can still fail.

Why is this important?

Because the fear of failure governs us. We are social creatures, a fact that is not given the true weight it deserves. Humans often quite literally prefer violent death to losing face in front of one another, and when it comes to failure, however small, that instinct sinks its hooks into us and won’t let go. We won’t try, because we don’t want to fail.

Failure Quote 1

When it comes to striking out on your own, you may find yourself – as I did, and still often do – avoiding working on your own projects. It’s really remarkable how good you are at doing this. Your brain likes to avoid uncomfortable thoughts, so it rarely feels as if anything is happening when you’re avoiding your work, except that it’s then the middle of the afternoon and you have not done a single piece of work (you have, however, checked your email, played a round of something on your iPhone, stretched, checked your email, gotten more tea, played another round, stretched, responded to a few more emails…you get the idea).

The truth is, whether you articulate it to yourself or not, you are terrified that you have struck out on your own, only to fail at the thing you want most. If you don’t try, you can’t fail – or so you tell yourself. Better not to have the world see you fall flat on your face, right? You become so overwhelmed with the possibility of failure that you are completely paralyzed.

Failure Quote 2

So I’ll take all of the uncertainty out of it for you right now: you’re going to fail. You’re going to fail a lot.

What do you mean, that doesn’t make you feel better? Okay, okay, I get it. Your cursor is now hovering above the “close tab” button on the screen and you wish you’d never found this page. You’re rethinking this whole small business plan. After all, who wants to play a game where they lose all the time?

So…let’s reframe it: if you do everything right, you’ll end up failing a lot.

Failure Quote 3

How’s that, now?

Much like the road to hell being paved with good intentions, the road to success is paved with good intentions, wild optimism, and a bonus of failed projects. If you want to run a small business in this day and age, you’re going to have to build a website; create a social presence online, in your community, or both; handle accounting; have occasional meetings and business correspondence; manage to keep yourself fed and clothed; do whatever it is you need to do to make ends meet while your business gets up to speed; and, oh, yes, do the thing your business is centered around. It is absolutely, completely inevitable that you are not going to do every one of these things perfectly on the first try.

And here’s where the truth is, really. It’s that you don’t just get one try. The vast bulk of life is second (and third and fourth and tenth) attempts at things. I beat my head against the same projects for days at my corporate job and never thought less of myself for it. Suddenly, however, working my dream job as an author means that I expect my books to come out perfectly. On the first try. Not only that, I harbor the secret hope that they will be all things to all people: deep and profound, sarcastic and irreverent, filled with lush, gorgeous prose but not too over the top…

How can I possibly live up to that? I can’t.

Failure Quote 4

If you’re running a small business, if you’re living your dream life, you are sending yourself through a veritable gauntlet of first attempts – or, if you want to remember the way you felt when you first contemplated starting on this journey, a wealth of new experiences. You’re going to fail. You’re going to fall flat on your face. But that’s because really cool things, the very coolest things, can’t be done in one shot.

Keep going.

Uh, but how? Moira, I am seriously terrified, maybe you don’t understand. I swear to you, I do. I spent all of a recent day huddled in a little ball, trying to drag a single sentence out of myself to try to salvage a week of working on my manuscript and getting nowhere. Telling myself to ignore the fear did absolutely zip.

What did work was trying a technique from The 4-Day Win (sooooo much more than a diet book; highly recommended!) – I gave up on trying to write three chapters, or even two, or one. I didn’t even set a number of words. I made my goal so easy that I could pretty much do it accidentally by tripping and falling down: all I had to do was write one sentence, and then I could go upstairs and put on my favorite perfume and have the rest of the day for other projects. All I had to do was be brave for as long as it took to write one sentence.

And it worked. One sentence isn’t scary. A few days later, I upped it to 50 words. Probably about a paragraph. One paragraph became two, which turned into 1,000 words, and now my brain has come to realize that it doesn’t need to be terrified as hell when I start working on my own projects.

So, today, if you’re paralyzed by your own goals, give yourself a little break: make an absolutely teeny-tiny goal, give yourself a reward after, and spend the rest of the day on work that doesn’t terrify you. Build up. Don’t expect to go from 0 to 60 in nothing flat.


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