Avoiding Failure, Avoiding Success

“Can I fail at this?” It’s like Raymond Chandler said: there is no success without the possibility of failure. Therefore, something I can’t fail at is also something I can’t succeed at. I can fail at conducting an interview, writing an essay or making a video. I can’t fail at meandering around the internet in search of “neat stuff to read.” In a recent tweet, I defined procrastination “the temporary displacement of tasks at which it is possible to fail with tasks at which it is not possible to fail.” I suspect I’m less far off the mark than ever, especially regarding why procrastination is not a productive tendency. – Colin Marshall via Ben Casnocha

I’m extremely failure-phobic. I’ve been fortunate to grow up being very good at very many things. From math to writing, from analyzing budgets to compassionately supporting rape survivors – I often feel like I can do about anything I put my mind to.

Except when I can’t. In my years of success, I’ve never learned how to fail, how to pick myself back up and try again until I’ve mastered something. I get easily overwhelmed with failure – even just the threat of failure – and often give up without even trying.

Learning Spanish has been such a struggle for me, despite having several native speakers in my life. When faced with speaking, my mind goes blank. I can’t think of any words at all, or the words I think of are in French rather than Spanish. My judging mind kicks in, “Why can’t you ever remember any words? You should be able to say something here. Just try, dammit!” Then I realize I’ve been staring blankly for a few seconds, and I’m embarrassed, so I say something in English just to start to fill the silence. And I fail again, and I don’t even want to try the next time.

Malcolm Gladwell makes a distinction between choking and panic in his discussion of “The Art of Failure.”

Panic, in this sense, is the opposite of choking. Choking is about thinking too much. Panic is about thinking too little. Choking is about loss of instinct. Panic is reversion to instinct.

Forgetting every lick of Spanish I’ve ever known is panic, or what scientists call perceptual narrowing. But I’m also terrified of choking while doing something I can actually do very well normally. Take writing this blog. When trying to write, I don’t have the problem of my mind going blank. Instead I second guess my writing, over think my strategy, and lose my instinct about what I know is good, engaging writing.

Whether it’s panic or choking that I’m afraid of, the only path to success is to get past this fear so I can fail and fail again. I must remember the questions I ask everyone else, from Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour Workweek: What’s the worst thing that could possibly happen if I do this? How likely is that really?

In the spirit of New Year’s Resolutions: What are you willing to fail at this year? For me:

  • Weekly blog posts
  • A daily meditation practice
  • Asking for too much time off of work
  • Working less, making more

The theme of the year? Consistently showing up for myself.

The Art of Failure, microchip-style
The Art of Failure, microchip-style PHOTO: Seng Hin Tan

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One response to “Avoiding Failure, Avoiding Success

  1. Pingback: Check-in: 2010.5 « Off Trajectory

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