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The Fear of Failure

I recently had dinner with a good friend. We get together every few weeks to catch up on life, wax spiritual, and enjoy some good sushi (and sake).

At one point in our meal, my friend leans in and states that he has to say something just to say it, to own up to it, and so it can have less of a hold over him. He lowers his voice and states that he's so scared of failing on this project he's working on that he's using that as an excuse not to put effort into it.

This is not an unfamiliar sentiment - I have been down that road before. In fact, I know the owner of the motel that is located down that road, on the corner of Fear and Complacency. I've stayed there many a time.

It makes sense - if I feel I'm going to fail at something, why try? It's a waste of energy. Many a reasonable person has come to this same conclusion.

However, I have taken the time to look at this with a fine-toothed comb, because ultimately, this holds people back in life. This is the antithesis of personal freedom!

The fear of failure implies there is a test, a finite point where we will be judged. And there are only to outcomes - pass or fail. It's black and white. There's no room for nuance. Or flow.

Life flows. Our lives are journeys. They aren't made up of individual moments. Life is an endless flow.

Looking back on your own life, there may be moments that stick out - a wedding or childbirth, a death or breakup - but even those are inherently understood within the greater context of the journey of your life. If you were to consider those moments that do stick out in your awareness about your own journey, would you say that you "passed" or "failed" at them? Feels weird to say that when you consider them as part of a longer story.

So when my friend said this to me, I smiled. I may have even laughed. Not at him, of course, nor at the fact that he's experiencing fear.

However, I laughed because of the irony of it all. If you consider your life a journey, the only way you can "fail" at a journey is to not embark on it. The only "failure" of a journey is to decide not to take the journey.

If you consider the first time that you kissed someone, or drove a car, or had sex, would you call it a "pass" or a "failure?" You may not want to do any of those activities the same way again, but could you really "fail?" If it wasn't good, or fun, you learned from it and then let that guide you the next time you embarked on that.

There is great irony in deciding that you aren't going to put effort into something because you may fail. However, considering that life is a journey, then your inactivity is creating the very failure you're trying to avoid.

You, like me, like all of life, are perfectly imperfect. The black-or-white, pass-fail language is so rigid that it is inherently incongruent with life. Instead, when we remind ourselves that life is a journey, we will either, to quote Jason Mraz, "win some or learn some."

Failure is impossible if you are in motion. Just keep moving.

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