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#15: Fear and Failure

Copyright © 2014 by William B. Irvine


Fear can be a good thing. A fear of snakes, for example, can prevent you from picking up a rattlesnake and  subsequently getting bit.

Fear can also be a bad thing, though, since it can prevent you from doing things that would benefit you and maybe other people as well. A fear of rejection might prevent you from asking out a person to whom you are attracted and prevent you from finding your soul mate. A fear of public speaking might mean that the world will never benefit from your ideas. And in your career, a fear of failure might be the principal obstacle to your success.

If you are to thrive as a human being, it is important that you overcome your fears—not all of them, but many of them. The Stoics realized as much and as a result took an interest in courage. We ought, they said, to become more courageous. This raises two questions: Can courage be developed? And if so, how?

To develop your courage, you must overcome fears, and the best way to do this is arguably the same way as you might overcome an allergy. By exposing yourself, in ever-increasing doses, to the thing that makes you sneeze, you can overcome an allergy—or at least this is the thinking behind allergy shots. In similar fashion, you can become more courageous by exposing yourself, in a measured way, to things you fear.

Psychologist Albert Ellis was a pioneer in cognitive behavioral therapy, the branch of psychology that is most in tune with the advice on living given by the ancient Stoics. As a young man, Ellis had a fear of women.

He conquered this fear by giving himself the assignment of hanging out at the Bronx Botanical Garden and introducing himself to a hundred of the women he encountered there. No lasting relationship resulted from this experience, but he overcame his fear of talking to women. He taught himself that being rebuffed by a woman isn’t the end of the world.

A fear of public speaking can be overcome with a similar strategy. You start out by offering a few words before a small and friendly group. Thus emboldened, you move on to bigger audiences. Then the day comes when, as you are speaking before a large and important audience, you realize, much to your amazement, that you are not afraid! (This, at any rate, was my experience.)

In some cases, we fear something because we fear for our health or life. In other cases, what we fear is failure. It is a fear that many people are haunted by, and it is a fear that can severely limit their ability to succeed in life.

People often make the mistake of thinking that successful individuals owe their success to their ability to avoid failure, when in fact the opposite is usually the case: successful people succeed because they do not fear failure and therefore can embrace it. In other words, it is their tolerance for failure that enables them to succeed.

Along these lines, consider James Dyson, inventor of the famous Dyson vacuum. To get to his final design, he had to work his way through 5,127 failed designs. When a prototype failed, Dyson didn’t respond by quitting. He instead learned from his mistakes and thought up ways to overcome them.

His story is not unusual. Most successful people not only admit their own failures but become, in a way, connoisseurs of them. There is such a thing as a “wonderful failure”; this is one that although it cost them dearly in terms of time and effort, enabled them to make a quantum leap forward in their creative endeavors.

Any work of art is likely to be the end result of a long series of failures.  Painters might repaint a canvas or parts of it many times until they get it right. Novelists might rewrite a chapter dozens of times before they find the version that works. These failed attempts, I should add, are not evidence of artistic incompetence; indeed, just the opposite.

If your endeavors never fail, it could be because you are very good at what you do.  It is much more likely, though, that the reason for your “success” is that you are afraid to fail and are therefore systematically avoiding doing difficult things.

Stoic advice: try to do something difficult!  And by difficult, I mean something that is difficult for you; other people might find it easy to do the thing in question.  As you undertake your chosen task, remember that it is better to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all because you feared failure.

Remember, too, that by desensitizing yourself to failure and by learning from the failures that will accompany the desensitization process, you can dramatically increase your chances of success.

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