Today, we explore a topic that, eventually and like a ton of bricks, will hit everyone at some point. I’m talking failure–the fear of failure, actual failure, and learning to suck it up, and accept it, and keep trucking past it (or at least try to).
Recently, classes started again, and this marks the first semester ever, out of all 7 of them, that I’m taking courses with a defined and set-in-stone major. It’s a novel feeling, to be sure, and a little scary, considering it took two transfers, more than a handful of changes in major, and a whole lot of soul-searching to get here. As I started classes this semester however, I was, well, sucking. The effort I was putting in was nothing to be proud of, and the work that resulted was definitely nothing to write home about. Somehow, though, I managed to feel perpetually stressed.
Something needed to change. I stopped and asked myself why I wasn’t putting forth the quality or caliber of work I could be proud of, and there the answer was: fear.
It’s a big one. So big, in fact, that the Stockholm’s Berghs School of Communication recently asked a group of famous designers, including Stefan Sagmeister and Milton Glaser, to discuss their experience and offer advice on the fear of failure.
They all had unique advice, but the message was the same: You’ll always have the fear of failure, but you have to let it drive rather than suffocate you.
There comes a point when the fear of failure becomes, if not self-sabotaging, then at least self-fulfilling. And that was the issue–by all accounts, these courses are the ones I’m most scared of failing in. Failing in an environmental studies class, while certainly not on my top ten list of most fun things I’d like to accomplish, wouldn’t be the end of the world. In the courses I’m taking now, however, I feel like I have much more to lose. A failure isn’t just a mark on a transcript; it feels like a step towards admitting that I’m not good enough, that this thing that I’ve decided on as my calling isn’t what I’m cut out for, that all the work I’ve put into figuring this out was for nothing, and that maybe I’m going to have to got to start over, again, for the fourth time.
It hurts. It is a physically painful thing to admit to yourself that you may not be good at something you want so badly to be good at.
But, it’s also a strong thing. Admitting to yourself that you may not be good enough can be the single driving force towards working toward closing the gap between where your talents are, and where you want them to be.
Because here’s the thing: With few exceptions, if you are truly passionate about something and want to do it, you’ll find a way to make it happen, simply because it’s what you want to do. And that’s one of the lessons I’ve learned this past year: things that make you feel something are worth pursuing. And if it doesn’t stir something within you, it’s probably not worth wasting time on.
There’s a stigma against admitting and accepting failure. But it isn’t an embarrassing thing to admit that you’re not good enough, because it isn’t a permanent condition. You may not be good enough at the moment, but there is always room to work harder, work more, and, ultimately, improve. And fear is a beautiful thing. It’s the basis of improvement and growth. The real worrying should come in when you find you don’t care about improving, and when mediocre or subpar becomes, well, satisfactory. When you find yourself willing to settle for the satisfactory instead of above average.
Ira Glass gave a wonderful interview a while back that’s worth revisiting as often as possible. In it he says that in a creative field, there’s always a gap when you start out. You know what good work looks like, but for some reason your abilities aren’t at the level you want them to be. You know how you want your work to look and what you want it to communicate, but it’s just not quite there yet. The only way to close this gap, he says, is to do work. Do a lot of work, as much as you can, and eventually, your mind will start to connect with the medium, and you’ll close the gap. (Watch below for the full clip.)
And that’s the tricky part–learning to see failure as a good thing rather than bad. Nothing that’s succeeded did so without its fair share of failures, but unfortunately most of those failures never share the spotlight with that one anomaly that was the success.
It’s also helpful to remember that the people we all look up to and admire for their quality of work, at some point or another, produced really, really, shitty work. No one, or at least a rare few, produced top notch work from the beginning. Just because we remember them for their best pieces doesn’t mean they never had a worst. But, and here’s the difference, they ended up producing great work because they worked past their failures.
And that’s the most difficult part: starting. First, there are all of the what-if’s: What if it doesn’t turn out the way I want it to? What if it just isn’t good? What if I spend all of this time on it, and in the end, it’s for nothing? And the big one: What if I have to finally admit that maybe I’m just never going to be good enough? It’s easy to let those paralyze you and keep you from moving forward, making the starting line seem that much more daunting.
But it’s those failures that keep you going and moving forward. Struggle propels, but success has a funny way of keeping you stagnant. If you don’t need to improve, then why would you?
In the past, my failures have led me to find creative ways to ultimately succeed, or at the very least, very creative ways to fail. Either way, it led to exploring, branching out in new directions, and, ultimately, away from taking the easy way out by standing still and learning nothing.
As someone who once easily won the title of “most risk-averse” in my high school psychology class, it’s not going to be easy. But it seems that the pay-off for failing (learning, improving, and the most appealing one–becoming proud of my work) is a lot more appealing than the pay-off for coasting by (see: the opposite of the above).
Accepting that I’m going to fail, multiple times, and probably more than I can even foresee, is scary, terrifying, and intimidating. But here’s the thing that’s easy to forget, and the key to putting it into perspective: I can’t get worse than I am now. There is literally only room for improvement. And, mercifully, failure is one of those things that does get a little bit easier the more you experience it. The first time it hurts, sure, , but eventually it begins to feel less like a personal attack, more like something guiding you in another and, honestly, probably better direction.
I had a few New Year’s resolutions, but I’m putting them on hold temporarily in favor of this one: Make mistakes. Sometimes we’re going to suck, and it’s okay. Just let it propel you forward instead of holding you back.
And with that, I’ll leave you with a video from none other than Milton Glaser for thought: