Overcoming Fear of Failure is a Path to Happiness

*The following is a draft of a section for my next book on Happiness and College Life.  Feedback is appreciated.  I thought I’d include a bit of my experience with Cross Fit in the manuscript.

Fear of Failure

Let’s dismantle this idea of failure right away.  There is no such thing.  Fear and failure hold power over you if you allow it.  Failure is just a perception.  You have a choice:

  1. I’ve failed therefore I give up.
  2. This is a lesson, therefore I now know what needs work.

Which option will you embrace?  As I write this I am in the throes of an extraordinary exercise regimen called Cross Fit, and I am far outside the bounds of my comfort zone.  There are two moves in particular that have my stomach in knots: a tire flip and dead lift.  Both begin with a squatting position and then upward motion with the thrust of the thighs and glutes.  While lifting the weight, one’s back cannot round but must remain straight so that all of the lifting comes from the legs and glutes.  I cringe whenever these are listed as part of the routine for the day (or WOD for you familiar with Cross Fit).  I’ve even pleaded with the coach: “Can’t we do sit-ups or something else?”  They smile and point to the weight.  I stare down at it and know that I must try again to lift.  I have yet to accomplish this movement.

The difficulty for me encompasses more than the weight itself.  My struggle in this instance resides with confronting a weakness.  When I look at the bar (or tire) I am a bundle of frustration. A mental tug of war brews.  Part of me feels like unleashing tears and questioning myself for even joining Cross Fit.  I’m embarrassed.  What in the world am I doing here?  I’ve never been athletic.  But another part of me sees this as the potential to redefine myself.  Fortunately that voice seems to be winning the mental war.  Believe me, I want to pass the weight by, move on to an exercise  I can manage, and then head out for Starbucks and snacks.  But, what would that do for me?

When we step outside of our comfort zone and “fail” we are actually being alerted to an area of ourselves that needs work and attention.  If it weren’t for these “failures” we might not be aware of an opportunity for growth.  That is why I’d like to rid you of the idea of “failure,” because they serve as life sign posts and lessons.  Failure, if you let it, means stopping and resigning.  On the other hand, lessons entail awareness, recognition, and determination to reassess our approach.

It is not easy for a weakness to be highlighted in our trials for growth. It is extremely easy to avoid discovering them and running away.

The day will come when I step up to the tire or weighted bar for the lift and my legs will carry me up.  It will happen.  I’m determined.  But the only way for it to happen is if I continue to confront the challenge and build the muscle.

In Tips From The Professor I wrote about identifying weakness and making it your strength in the context of the classroom.  I’ve had students come to me with a deflated look due to a low grade on a paper or exam.  They’ll say things like “Philosophy isn’t my thing” and “I’m just not a good writer.”  A low grade on an assignment is not a definitive statement about your ability.  The grade addresses an area that needs more energy and time.  You haven’t failed.  You’ve learned!  Now, get a move on and try again.

This attitude translates to enjoying life itself. A few years ago I traveled to Poland, and before the trip I hastily studied a bit of Polish.  On day one in Krakow when entering a shop, I proudly greeted the cashier with “Good morning,” or so I thought.  After noticing how his eyebrows knit, I realized that I actually blurted: “You’re welcome.”   What a way to walk into a store! This must have sounded silly.  I chuckled at the goof and immediately made a note to self: practice “good morning.”

It’s okay to make mistakes!  What is important is our response to them.  Delving into the unknown means accepting ridiculous moments here and there but that is essential for growth, which in turn brings us happiness.

Find something new and challenge yourself.  All of the “greats” from musicians to scientists have stumbled. Keep in mind, happiness and excellence were not achieved in spite of stumbling but as a result of learning from mistakes and having the confidence to continue.  People who flourish do so because of their method in the face of obstacles.  There need not be a fear of failure.

If you try something and the result is not what you had hoped for then stop and observe.  Ask yourself: What is there to learn here?  What do I need to strengthen?

About unsolicitedtidbits

Philosophy, books, coffee, Mexican food enthusiast. View all posts by unsolicitedtidbits

2 responses to “Overcoming Fear of Failure is a Path to Happiness

  • broadsideblog

    I don’t envy being a professor these days — in an era of helicopter parenting and attention to self-esteem. I teach writing and have to keep telling people that a rejection of their work is merely one person’s opinion — and quite normal. They need to uncouple ego from work product.

    But if everyone rejects it, pay attention…they are giving you information, no matter how unwelcome.

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