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FIRST PERSON: Fear of Failure

It’s now normal to spend a fair chunk of your daily life worrying about things that you have absolutely no influence over. Whether it be the news, how other people view you, or how you fare against your friends in some kind of weird who-is-doing-best-at life competition.The things we say and do are judged and rewarded with likes and favourites, and we stare into our phones, absorbing all of this.

Facebook updates don’t represent the full spectrum of life – and I go on there as a reasonable human man with my logic intact. Yet when I close down the app, I’m too often made reflective by other people’s posts. At best I get a little jealous – at worst, I consider my life choices, and regret them all.

The internet is fantastic, but it also fuels anxiety. It provides these handy bite size nuggets of this and that, and you’re offered immediate relief with a 30 second video, a picture of a cat, a full day of news broken down into a series of tweets. It’s satisfying and addictive – but fleeting, and the way in which I use it is mirrored in the way in which I sometimes act in real life. I grab at happiness, determined to eek out as many moments of pleasure that I can. It’s pretty exhausting.

It seems like there’s a lot you have to do in life. There’s a lot expected of you. I’m currently clinging onto a fast moving bulk of admin with my fingertips. It drags me around, when it should be propelling me forward into success. Success means good dentistry, well behaved children in good schools, weekends away in the South of France, double glazing. I’m not sure where this idea of success has come from, but I’m pretty sure it would make me happy if I had all of that.

The assumption for me, is that everything will always go wrong. So I have a tendency to avoid things. I will not go out with friends in case there’s an awkward moment or I have to meet someone new and we don’t get on. Someone will send me an email with an offer of work, and I won’t reply in time because my response could ruin the opportunity in some way. I hang on to the potential. I work hard to either maintain things so they remain as they are, or avoid things so they don’t get any worse. Very rarely will I do anything because something good might come from it. Because if I do that, there’s always the possibility that I might fail.

A few years ago, a friend of mine opened a business which, six months down the line, he had to close because the numbers didn’t work out. He learnt some useful things from that experience, and went on to set up a different, successful new venture. Failure was never mentioned. It was never feared. It didn’t seem to be controlling my friend, at all.

This affected me. I began to wonder why some people have a prolonged period of introspection about failure and why some can just treat it as a call to action. Why do some people remain frozen, terrified at the prospect of failing, and some remain unsatisfied or unfulfilled?

Earlier in the year, I was researching a piece on fear. I was about to do a skydive, and I found it interesting that my worries were centred around how I might make a fool of myself on the day – perhaps I wouldn’t hear when my name was called, and that some official man might get angry with me because of that. I didn’t really give the actual jumping out of a plane part of it much thought.

This became a lesson in putting things into perspective. If something goes wrong, it doesn’t matter, because I have the resources to deal with it (obviously it matters if the parachute doesn’t open, but you get my point). I have always been confident to go into situations where I have prepared fully and I feel in control– I have no anxiety in presenting a lecture for example. Yet if you were to put me in a bar with a handful of people, I would find that incredibly demanding.

And this is the same pattern of behaviour – things that are out of my control, I will deal with by obsessing over them, and doing my best to avoid them. And in this sense, it’s impossible to be free. It might feel like I am, for a while, as I convince myself that things I cannot control do not matter, but if in doing so I am living in the shadows, then I limit myself.

For me, “failure” means anything from losing my keys, to becoming bankrupt. It encompasses, or at least it used to – every single facet of my life and involves things that have happened, things that could happen, and things that probably will never happen but I think about them anyway.

Putting things off or avoiding them entirely is a reasonable response to the threat of failure, but it’s not a helpful one. It puts you under a lot of pressure, and a natural response to this is wanting to remove yourself from it, and be in a place where you’re not expected to do anything or be anywhere.

But if you treat failure as a learning curve, and not something to be avoided at all costs, you free yourself up to try new things out, and even take a few risks. More importantly, you allow yourself the space to tackle those things you’ve been putting off. By being proactive and making reasonable and achievable plans, you can get back in the driving seat.

I try to do things now. Sounds annoying simple. I do the best thing I can do right now to improve my situation – without taking into consideration what other people are doing, or what the perfect outcome might be. It’s difficult to accept that sometimes things won’t turn out the way we want, but if that stops us trying, we relinquish a little bit more control of our lives, and perhaps even shift our focus back to the things we have no influence over.

Rather than pondering on where it all went wrong when things don’t work out, concentrate on how to make them right. If you go into experiences – not expecting to fail, but knowing that if the worst did happen, that you can deal with it – then there’s nothing to fear. Don’t rely on success, but rely on your ability to handle things not working out the way you had expected.

Just Do It” – Nike.


Read more from Mark Hendy on his blog HERE

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