The one thing you want more than anything else in the world but haven’t gotten yet, what if it was impossible for you to fail at it? What if you could do anything and you know you wouldn’t fail?
“The possibilities are endless! Or are they? Did only one or two ideas pop into your mind? Usually, this is the case because we all have one or two specific dreams we’d love to pursue, but we don’t…because what if we fail…then what? Where will that dream be? Going down the drain as history we’d like to forget. And we don’t want to face that so it’s easier to keep our dream on the shelf and just take it out once in a while to polish the idea of it – Alex Bratty
How many people do you know who tried, who really gave their all to achieve their dream, and failed to make it? I’m willing to bet it isn’t that many. How many people do you know who have a dream that they’ve talked about wanting to achieve, but haven’t really done anything because it is impractical or unlikely to happen? The number is far bigger.
Dreams aren’t great in a world of resource scarcity
One thing that is helpful to keep in mind basically always is this: our brains run on an operating system that was designed for dangers that don’t exist for most of us anymore. When is the last time you were attacked by a predatory cat? When was the last time someone you know was bitten by a poisonous spider or snake and died? And when is the last time you were socially ostracized so much you were completely unable to find food and water because there were no other humans willing to help you?
These threats might even seem funny to us now, nonsensical; but these are the threats our brains were optimized to deal with. Our brain is constantly checking our surroundings, ensuring that we are safe from these sorts of problems. And in lieu of no actual physical threats to fight against, these biases and design structures in our minds can create barriers and safeguards that don’t actually need to be there.
Our brains tell us that chasing the dream we have, especially if it is a dream that involves taking a financial or physical risk, is not worth the possible rewards because our brains are conditioned by evolution to protect us from failure. The reason for that is failing to hunt means failing to eat, so we tend to be cautious and anxious about things that are big, especially if they relate in some way to how we get money to buy food. But what is the worst that could happen if you chased that dream? You’d fail to achieve it and maybe you’d have to do something else.
And that would be painful, disappointing. But what would happen in the next immediate moment? You’d recognize things you learned about yourself and the world that you didn’t know before, and you’d probably find a new dream or a new angle to approach the same one. That puts you in a pretty fantastic company:
- Frustrated by the few roles he was getting as a struggling actor in Los Angeles, Harrison Ford decided to take up a side job as a carpenter. A prominent film director said of Ford “he has no future in show business.” A few years later he met George Lucas for the first time.
- Having incorrectly placed a fort, this strategic error caused a young George Washington to be defeated and captured. Not only that but many historians think that he was a major factor in the starting of the French and Indian War when he ambushed French scouts and lost New York to the British in the Revolutionary War.
Scores of people who are known as heroes and titans of industry might seem like failures if you only looked at the early part of their careers. They were able to weather these small failures (even if they couldn’t recognize them as small at the time) because they believed in their ability to succeed beyond the immediate moment.
I tried to make a sandwich but I couldn’t
It might seem arrogant to set out to achieve a dream with the expectation that you will absolutely succeed, that failure is impossible. But the truth is, we set out to do things with the expectation of absolute success all the time. We get up, go to our job, find food for ourselves, and we never wonder whether or not we will actually be able to do those things. I never worry that I will suddenly not know how to drive, I’m 100% confident that I’m capable of doing it and there’s no reason why I should fail at it.
What if you applied that same force of will to what you really want in life? Our lizard brains are scared of what it will cost us in terms of energy and the possibility of setbacks and failure. But remember, our lizard brain is only reacting that way because for most of human history failure was as likely to mean starvation or the sharp claws of a predator killing us as it was anything else. Our failures will not kill us, they will teach us how to try better next time.
What does it take to write a novel? Not publishing a novel, not becoming a famous author, what does it take to write a novel (the distinction is important because you can’t do either of those things without writing something first)? Honestly, mostly just this:
time to write
discipline to write regularly
We worry about spending a bunch of time and energy on our novel and it not being good, we don’t want to fail, so we procrastinate. But we really want to write this book so we feel bad about procrastinating and try to write every day, it doesn’t usually work but once a week at least we get our chapters in and eventually we do end up writing the book. And, turns out, it is pretty good. But because we were so afraid of failing we suffered a whole lot more and it took us a whole lot longer to get this done than it needed to.
Just like eating a bowl of cereal
What if we start with the baseline assumption that this dream, whether it is writing a novel or climbing a mountain or something else, is just as sure to succeed as eating a bowl of cereal. Eating a bowl of cereal isn’t difficult, we know the steps and we have no problem completing them:
Get a bowl, a spoon, the box of cereal, and the milk (or milk-like product for the dairy intolerant among us)
To be fair, there is a second way to do it:
Get a bowl, a spoon, the box of cereal, and the milk or milk-like substance
This seems ridiculous to write out, especially given the second option. You really can’t screw up eating cereal; what if we treated our goals in the same way? There’s nothing stopping you from actually achieving your dream other than knowing the steps and acting on them. So let’s say you really do want to write a novel. And you know that you are going to do it because failure is ridiculous, just as it would be to fail to eat a bowl of cereal. How might you approach this task differently?
If you know you couldn’t fail you probably wouldn’t procrastinate on it so much and you’d get a lot more writing done every day. If you were a mountain climber you wouldn’t worry about whether or not you’ll die trying to climb whatever mountain you really want to stand on the peak of, you’ll just set to the steps of preparation like you were grabbing a bowl from the cupboard. And if you were a freelance writer trying to make 100% of your income by writing in the next year, you wouldn’t have any problem telling your day job to schedule you less so you can write more articles.
The reality is, most of the reason we’ve never chased our dream is the psychological dissonance we feel in our heads. Your subconscious brain wants you to focus on just what will keep you alive, not help you to live well. Let’s start with a goal, let’s start with knowing that there’s no reason we would fail at it, and learn to approach everything this way.
If you set out to write a novel but spend most of that time trying to avoid failure or procrastinating because of the fear of failure, you might get the book written but you’ll have wasted a lot of energy and been a lot less happy in the doing of it than you might have been. But if you can approach this with 100% certainty, knowing that you will succeed, you can chart out the steps as we did with the cereal above, break it into manageable chunks, and do the work.
The amazing thing about this is, since our brains are adaptable to their circumstances, this will get easier to do! You will learn to love this process, the challenge and the reward of getting the steps accomplished towards a goal create momentum in your mind, making success more and more achievable. Even with lofty goals, like becoming a famous writer or climbing a difficult mountain, that far off peak isn’t so hard if you can break them down into doable chunks of work. Just get the bowl out of the cupboard, then hit the next step.
Paralyzed in the kitchen; signs of a fear of failure
Guy Winch holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and has written a number of compelling works on the human mind. He wrote an article for Psychology Today called 10 Signs that You Might Have Fear of Failure, and we’re going to go through a few of his points and look at the solution he presents for them.
He includes this caveat which I think is important: “The following are not official diagnostics—but if you feel that these criteria are very characteristic of you (very being an important distinguishing marker, since as we all feel these things to some extent), you might want to examine the issue further, either by doing more reading about it or talking to a mental health professional.”
It is important to note that this approach to our dreams as something we can’t fail at doesn’t actually mean we won’t ever fail, as Dr. Winch said we all experience failure to some extent, and the negative feelings that go along with it. But if our relationship to these moments of failure is unhealthy, we won’t be able to learn and move past them. Here are four of the signs that Dr. Winch outlines in his article:
Once you fail at something, you have trouble imagining what you could have done differently to succeed.
You often get last-minute headaches, stomach aches, or other physical symptoms that prevent you from completing your preparation.
You often get distracted by tasks that prevent you from completing your preparation which, in hindsight, were not as urgent as they seemed at the time.
Also, you tend to procrastinate and “run out of time” to complete your preparation adequately.
Fear of failure
It typically takes place in the realm of the subconscious, and it can be difficult to notice when it is happening. The example Dr. Winch gives is of a student hyper-focusing on writing out Christmas cards they said they would have mailed out by today, even though the reality is that they should be studying for the final exam they have the next day.
It isn’t wrong to finish a task you set for yourself like Christmas card writing, but in that case, finishing the task wasn’t really the goal, avoiding the studying was. The student knows is powerfully consequential for their grades in the class, and that might feed into their hopes and fears about the future following graduation and whether or not their education will adequately prepare them for a career in their field of choice. All that might bubble up into the conscious mind once or twice that day, but mostly it rests in choosing to do other things and to have dramatically misaligned priorities.
The way to manage these emotional stresses is to 1. recognize them and 2. engage in the parts of the fear you can respond to. Dr. Winch again, “It is important to accept that failure makes you feel both fear and shame, and to find trusted others with whom you can discuss these feelings. Bringing these feelings to the surface can help prevent you from expressing them through unconscious efforts to sabotage yourself, and getting reassurance and empathy from trusted others can bolster your feelings of self-worth while minimizing the threat of disappointing them.”
We’re all afraid of failure, we all feel fear and shame when we experience it. Taking the pressure off of yourself by talking about it with others is tremendously helpful. This self-sabotage might happen far less if we are able to look our fear in the face instead of bury it down.
We can’t prevent these feelings from happening, but if we can recognize them we can engage with them in a healthy way. What problems are in the way of you reaching your goal, what is scaring you? Find a way to make the solving of that problem tangible in some way, and make that an actionable task you can do regularly. If your problem is lacking money to invest in a new endeavor, mark off time to go to the library or to meet with a financial planner to discuss options for making this work. Resources can help us to break these massive scary (but ethereal) ideas into addressable problems that we can create a sense of progress on, lessening our fear.
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