The following is a personal reflection on how my relationship with fear and failure has changed over time.
We’ve all heard the question “What would you do if you knew you wouldn’t fail?”
As I near my 28th birthday, I’ve been reflecting on the experiences and lessons that have brought me to where I’m at today. And I think there’s a more powerful question we can ask ourselves:
What would you do if you knew you WOULD fail?
Although we all prefer to be successful in what we do, the truth is that every now and then our fears come true. We get hurt and hurt others. We fail in our careers, our passions, our relationships.
What I’m coming to learn is that it’s not only OK for things to fall apart… sometimes, it’s exactly what we need.
Dare to be Uncomfortable
I believe that daring to be uncomfortable has ultimately contributed to feeling more empowered and satisfied in my life, whether or not I got the outcome I desired.
I try to take risks and face my fears regularly. To be fair, I’m also scared of a lot. So, lucky for me, I get to go out of my comfort zone on a regular basis! Teaching yoga, rock climbing, vulnerable conversations, performing, and publishing this article are all small things that scare me, and yet I do them anyway.
Then there are the larger discomforts: Moving away from my home state, even though I was a 4th generation Arizonan. Taking on jobs and roles that involve putting myself out there and leading groups of people, even though I’m secretly shy. Leaving friends and family and selling most of my possessions to travel to Asia on a one-way ticket, even though I crave security. Choosing my own definition of “success” even though it’s nearly the opposite of what society says I “should” do.
In pursuing each of these risks, I’ve felt discomfort ranging from low-grade anxiety to crippling self-doubt. As unpleasant as those feelings sound, I’ve come to understand them as an indicator that I might just be on the right track.
When we take risks, the payoffs can be obvious and immediate, like the rush of adrenaline of an adventurous activity, or feeling empathy from others when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.
But not always.
Sometimes, our fears come true. We express ourselves and receive judgment or criticism. We face rejection. Love ends in bitter heartbreak.
But we move through it. And we realize that our failures, too, have paid off, because now we’re stronger, more well-rounded, and have a deeper understanding of who we are and what’s important to us. Our values get solidified. And we realize that in taking that risk, we’ve opened the door to a life with more meaning and connection, even if what was on the other side wasn’t what we thought we wanted.
Why I Love My Fear
I have learned to love my fear because it tells me what’s important in my life. My fear of failure has shown me that I have high standards for myself and care about doing my best. My fear of loss tells me that I care deeply about my loved ones. My fear of physical pain tells me that I desire a healthy and able body.
For me, courage isn’t about transcending fear. Rather, it’s about getting intimate with my fear and acknowledging that I might lose something I care about… and taking the risk anyway. Because I’ve come to learn that the outcome of daring greatly always contains a gift, even if it’s not the gift I wanted.
When I’ve risked judgment and criticism by being unapologetically myself and choosing my own definition of success, I’ve learned who the supportive people in my life are (while living an exciting life that I love). When I’ve accepted the risk of saying the “wrong” thing and shared my true feelings, I’ve learned to communicate better and deepened my relationships with the people that appreciate the authentic me. By risking my physical safety (within reason), I’ve learned exciting skills like rock climbing and scuba diving. By risking my comfortable life to live out of a backpack, I’ve learned what I do and don’t need. Through the risk of romance, I’ve learned about boundaries, what kind of treatment I will and won’t tolerate, and which values are nonnegotiable for me.
Each of these risks brought about some combination of success and failure. Although the successes were great (and obviously preferred), it was the failures that reiterated my strength and resilience, and taught me indispensable lessons. And in that sense, they weren’t failures at all.
Take the Risk
Playing it safe means settling for less than what we know we are capable of achieving and experiencing, plus missing out on an opportunity to learn and grow. But how can we know when to embark on a risk when the stakes are high and so many thing could go wrong?
My idea for a calculated approach to risk taking has less to do with the probability of failure and more to do with asking myself these 2 questions:
- Will this risk increase meaning, purpose and connection in my life?
- Does it feel aligned with my values?
The truth is that many of the most enriching experiences in life are destined NOT to go the way we want them to, and that doesn’t mean we should avoid them. Take love, for example. Unless we die at the exact same time as our loved ones, every one of us will eventually lose them to death or separation. We all know this, and yet billions of us still dare to love every single day. Because the meaning love brings to our lives is worth the inevitable harsh ending.
When we pursue a life we love, success and failure hold less weight because we know we are living our truth and can revel in the process.
What if we could all give ourselves permission to pursue what makes us feel alive, even if it scares us? What if the satisfaction of learning, growing, and connecting with others and ourselves could be enough to make a risk worthwhile? What if the outcome we NEED isn’t the outcome we WANT?
In When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chödrön asserts that “Only to the extent to which we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.”
I love this quote because it reminds me failure is not only helpful for discovering our strengths, it’s essential! If only we could internalize this sentiment and embrace the necessary messiness of a life fully lived. Perhaps then we could give ourselves permission to dare (and fail) boldly.
So, go ahead. Take that risk. You know the one.
At worst, you’ll succeed. At best, you’ll fail and discover who you truly are in the process. Either way, you’ll emerge with deeper knowledge to carry with you through this strange and extraordinary journey we call human life.
What would YOU do if you knew that you WOULD fail?