Slapping the Fear of Failure

by Tim Arendse on August 17

slapping fearI am going to die. That’s all I could think in the days leading up to the Spartan Sprint. At 5km (3 miles), it wasn’t exactly a long distance, but the odds were stacking up against me. It was going to be unbearably hot. The course sounded more hilly than I expected (it was a motocross course, after all). To top it all off, I’d done zero training.

I’d done numerous web searches for “Spartan race no training.” The results were always the same: people talking about how they hadn’t trained at all but casually mentioning that they go to the gym three times a week. The most exercise I’d had in the months prior to the Spartan race was chopping wood and running from angry bees who didn’t like the sound of my axe. I was doomed!

I found every excuse not to go, but thanks to an unyielding friend, who simply would not give me permission to quit, I ended up there anyway.

What is it about the prospect of failure that holds us back? I knew that I would perform poorly at the race, but I also knew that in the grand scheme of things, it wouldn’t matter. True failure would’ve been to stay home, while my just-as-out-of-shape friend struggled through the course alone, cursing my name. How can we stop disqualifying ourselves, before we even begin?

Risking Failure is Hard

Anytime you try something new, you risk failure. It’s practically a law of the universe. While learning to walk, you’re going to fall. A lot.

I have a long history of disqualifying myself. I’m not going to demotivate you with the details, but it’s practically part of my identity. My motto as an adolescent was, “If you suck, you quit.” For shame. Why would I repeat such a horrible mantra? Simple: I was trying to avoid pain. Failing at something was worse than simply not trying.

As a 31 year old man, I’d love to tell you how I have it all figured out. I now tell myself that if you suck, you’re human. Even that mantra doesn’t always ease the pain. Risking failure is hard. Irrationally hard.

We live in a culture that puts shame on failure. If you fall behind your peers, there’s something wrong. This is instilled on our children from a young age. Grading systems and deadlines make it painfully obvious where you stand in comparison to someone else. You get awards and privileges for doing well and punishments for doing poorly. If you don’t meet the learning deadline, you get left behind in class. For our ancestors, developing too slowly meant you probably weren’t going to survive. Ouch.

Expectations versus Reality

It’s no wonder that many people struggle with failure. It’s a deeply ingrained fear. These days, however, consequences following failure are rare.

After years of deliberation, I finally decided to join jiu-jitsu. I have the coordination an inflatable tube man that occasionally appears on used car lots. It should come as no surprise that I quickly fell behind my peers.

When I tested for my yellow belt, people that started around the same time as me were testing for orange. Shortly after getting my yellow belt, I got hung up on the hip throw and gave up forever. Most of my former peers went on to get their black belts.

In that entire season and a half of being terrible at jiu-jitsu, no one tried to make me feel crappy. There were never any gawkers, hoping to see something go wrong. There was just a bunch of people looking to move ahead. Some moved more slowly than others, and no one cared.

Except me. I was so ashamed that I once again walked away from an activity I once loved.

Warding Off the Fear

Learning to ward off the fear of failure is essential to success in anything. Stephen King, one of the greatest writers of our time, was not born with the ability to read and write. Can you imagine a young Stephen King writing his first piece and after being unhappy with it, calling it quits on writing for good? We wouldn’t be associating his name with great writing. We also don’t associate his name with failure, even though he’s probably experienced more of it than most people. If failure is such an irrelevant thing, why are we so scared of it?

That’s what I asked myself after I walked away from jiu-jitsu. I couldn’t come up with a good answer and that made me angry. I think anger can be a positive force if directed properly, and I directed it at my fear of failure. I gathered up all my fears and projected them onto a new activity: judo.

Judo had it all: social awkwardness, throws, fighting, tournaments, tests, and the possibility of real pain (the least of my concerns). I decided to commit for one month (eight classes), and if I really hated it, I would quit.

I signed on for the season after the second night.

Commitment and Immersion

A solid plan for beating the fear of failure has two elements: commitment and immersion.

Commitment gives you time to be terrible. Say to yourself, “In four weeks, I’m going to be better than I am today”. That’s it. It doesn’t matter if you come out 1% better. You’ve proven that you can do it.

Immersion gives you a playground. Decide how frequently you’re going to be face to face with your fear and make it happen. Try to choose a playground where you’re expected to be bad (don’t take a class in advanced salsa dancing if your default move is the “White Guy Shuffle”). Show up as often as possible and allow yourself the time to learn.

One thing that’s worth noting: the commitment/immersion idea is not magic. It’s great for chewing through some barriers but frankly, some things are scary. As far as my body is concerned, Judo is defined as, “Fight. Get ass kicked. Repeat.” No wonder my stomach always goes into red alert prior to entering the dojo.

Commitment and immersion get you to your destination and keep you coming back. I showed up for all eight classes the first month. I fell behind in class workouts, made bad throws, made bad falls, got destroyed in randori (free practice), accidentally hurt people, made social blunders… the list goes on and on. Despite all that failure, it’s no longer enough to make me quit.

Lots to Gain, Little to Lose

I don’t think I’ve ever gained anything from giving into the fear of failure. I’ve gained a lot from ignoring it. It’s kind of like the Seinfeld episode where George Costanza starts going against his instinct and everything in his life starts to improve.

My instinct with Spartan Race was to hide. I would let my friend sit in his car outside my house, honking until finally deciding I must have slept in. I trudged out the door anyway and went to the race. Spartan turned out to be hard but not impossible. I finished at 702/874, with a time of 1:24:58. I wasn’t dragged off the course, nor did I pass out from heatstroke or humiliation. If the race is on in my area next year, I’ll do it again.

As with jiu-jitsu and judo, no one gawked or tried to make me feel miserable. People were concerned with their own times or simply finishing the race. Of the 701 people that had a faster time than me, not one of them cares who I am. Hurray!

There might have been the occasional heckler somewhere in that crowd. As my best friend so eloquently put it, “If you don’t like what you’re looking at, look somewhere else.” Words to live by.

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Tim Arendse

When he’s not playing with his kids, Tim is finding new ways to make his life more efficient. He likes to draw inspiration from unlikely sources, like Minecraft, and is willing to explore almost any paradigm if he thinks there’s something to learn. He also hates bananas, loves candy, and holds strong opinions about the best brand of beer.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Sue Rawlinson August 18, 2015 at 12:24 am

I really enjoyed this article, Tim, and I must say, I enjoy all your entries and comments. The fact that you share your personal experience in learning some hard lessons is generous and helpful. And I enjoy your humour. It has encouraged me to persist with my own personal challenge at the moment which is boring, tedious and very, very slow.
Thank you,
Sue

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Tim August 18, 2015 at 3:09 pm

Thanks Sue! I appreciate your kinds words.

Sometimes it’s fun to throw yourself into a challenging situation, just to come out with a good story and a handful of life lessons. Life is going to ping-pong us from one challenge to the next anyway, so we might as well get good at them.

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