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Don’t let the fear of failure hold you back

By Jessica Allen | Grief

Feb 07
failure boat

How’s this for a little pep talk for your morning?! Yep, we’re gonna talk about it – fear. Specifically our fear of failure. Everybody has it, or had it at one point and learned how to overcome it. If you learn to master it, or at least make peace with it, then you’ll feel limitless.

Last year on a family trip to Disney world our 6 year old decided he wanted to ride all the roller coasters. This is what fear looks like in real life:

I will never not laugh at this.

The short story: the first coaster scared the pants off him, and after that he rocked every single gnarly ride in the parks. It was glorious.

I’m not saying you have to love thrill rides to overcome fear of failure or grow your confidence but it’s certainly a good reminder to our son if he ever voices fear (he’s a perfectionist) – hey, remember that time you crushed Expedition Everest? He’s a lot more eager to try the whatever thing he shrunk over when he remembers the hero he was in Orlando.

Some of my favorite affirmations are, believe it or not, quotes on overcoming the fear of failure. 

Everything you want is on the other side of fear.

Jack Canfield

Pain is temporary.  Quitting lasts forever. (personal favorite)

Lance Armstrong

You always pass failure on your way to success.

Mickey Rooney

Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.

Henry Ford

What is failure to a person who is not afraid to learn from it and try again?

Edmond Mbiaka

Thomas Edison discovered 10,000 ways how not to make a lightbulb. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team and missed over 10,000 shots in his career. Google “sports fails” and you’ll be busy all day. (This is a creative way to boost an energy slump on your lunch hour, btw.)

Aside from that one ballet class I took, most of my failures have a little more lasting impact than a sports blooper. I have some pretty astronomical, royal blunders to my name, and while I certainly never enjoy them in the moment, looking back they’ve brought me some powerful self-discovery and growth. 

Flat on your face is a good place to start completely over.  You’ve had your dignity stripped, ego crushed, plan derailed, and maybe even your reputation blemished.  It always feels like it’s going to show up on the front page of the newspaper, or splattered across the internet, and there’s always someone sick-in-soul out there who wants to make sure you never forget that horrible thing you did or how ridiculous you looked.  (As if they’ve never blown it too.)

Blowing it – big time – has an uncanny way of kicking your ego to the curb.  And the bigger the ego, the bigger the fall.

And ironically, the most massive faceplants are always in the areas where God is trying to use you most.  WHY??

Two reasons we fail and fall hard

  1. If we’re doing anything of substance, purpose, intent, or lasting impact, with all our guts, we build up momentum and attention, and when mistakes happen, big things fall hard. And…
  2. The enemy is going to attack you when you show the slightest sign of making a dent in the world for good.  This is a guarantee. 

Fear of failure keeps you stuck in the comfort zone

If you’re never up to something important, never taking a risk, never sticking your neck out or stepping out, your footing stays firm.  As a result, it’s easy to look back and realize you’ve spent far too much time (maybe even a lifetime) in your comfort zone.  It’s safe there. 

A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are for.

John A. Shedd

There’s a fine line between “healthy boundaries” – which are essential – and missing out on meaningful connection with people.  There’s also a fine line between “self care” and hiding.  This could be hiding from people, from purpose, or from being useful and used in a way that God intends for your life.

Stepping out of your comfort zone takes risk.  Risks are scary and the path is rocky and steep.  It’s hard to find sure footing.  Even when you have a great plan in place, strong mentors to model, and a solid support team, missteps are inevitable.  So in our world where judgement is off the charts and social media shaming reigns supreme, it feels daunting to try anything and risk failing.

Fear of failure becomes powerless when you realize failure is guaranteed to happen.

I have failed in business, I have failed in my marriage, I have failed as a mother, as a friend, as a daughter, as a sister.  I have failed because I have SHOWN UP and TRIED.  I have taken my shot at something significant.

Looking back at some of my most notable bust-ups, they’ve stemmed from honest trying.  Trying to communicate, trying to understand, trying to change, trying to improve, trying feebly to defy my own flawed human nature.  Taking a big step on the path and realizing it was slightly off course.  Dusting myself off and realizing I was on the wrong path altogether.

Interestingly, it’s when I finally waved to failure, thanked it for its service, and said, “see you next time,” that I really felt strong. Like I knew I could take the fall, any fall that came my way, and come up better and smarter because of it. Contrary to the way we feel in the moment, nobody ever died from embarrassment.

There’s learning in failure.  Nobody’s learning anything on the mountaintop. The mountaintop is for celebrating and reflecting.  Rather, where we’re learning is on the side of the mountain, taking our lumps with wet socks and frostbitten toes.  What you learn flat on your face is how to do it better next time. (Bring extra socks. Or be nice to the person that has some.)

Sadly it’s really easy to fall apart and just stay there.  That’s when my confidence tanks, I start hiding again, and begin justifying why I’m not going to take any more chances.  It hurts to fall, even more so if it’s public. 

Pain will either grow you or break you, and that choice is absolutely and only your own.

If you choose to be governed by fear of failure, you’ll never know the exhilaration of purpose.

From the very beginning of my adult life roller coaster, it has been important to me to find meaning and purpose for my heartache. 

I went to a support group once after my son died.  There were many lovely things about it – I highly recommend it – and the community and strength I felt there were life-bringing.  However, what scared me was how ensnared some mothers were, still 10, 15, 20 years down the line.  (OH HOW I NOW KNOW that grief has no timeline, no reason, no logic, no limit.  We’re coming up on the 10 year mark and that’s bringing a fresh set of grief about my grief.  COME ON NOW. #therapy)

Anyway, the whole point here is that I got scared because I couldn’t imagine my life in 20 years still consumed by this profound darkness.  And it was like a spark set off in my spirit.  A hot burn, one I still can’t really understand or control, that mostly makes me want to make my life really mean something.  Because the one person I want to really be here to live it with me, can’t.  He doesn’t get a shot to keep going and continue to shape the world with his life.  But I DO. 

So this unpredictable fire makes me do crazy things sometimes.  It pushes me to take leaps of faith.  Some of those leaps grow me wings and I get to soar, but some of them land me in the mud where I have to learn.  One leap forward, one flop back.

When I choose to learn is when I can start using that failure for something good.  If nothing else, it smooths rough edges of my character and teaches me how to be more like Jesus.   When I’m lucky, it gives me the confidence to grab other people by the hand and whisper, “I’ve been there too and it’s not okay right now.  But someday it will be.” 

What failure taught me

So, the good news is, when you’re flat on your face, you’re not laying in a fear of failure anymore – you’re just laying in failure. And now with fear out of the way, you can actually do something about it.

My most recent epic failure taught me that I really did not know myself at all.  I knew the parts of me that I liked – the happy parts, the successful parts, the confident parts.  That girl likes to serve and care for people and make good things and put light out into the world. And although she can be pretty full of herself, she is a delight.  (if I do say so myself.)

I did not know the parts of me that weren’t so likeable – the needy parts, the insecure parts, and the arrogant parts.  I had to spend a lot of time with that girl face down on the ground.  And she’s not so lovely.  She’s full of excuses and bad self-talk and prone to laziness disguised as too much self care.  She has a massive fear of failure. She feels great with a chip on her shoulder and she can dish out judgment like free queso.  But she is willing to learn.

So what did I learn?  This whole blog, that’s what I learned.  That what saves us is being real; opening up what hurts and looks scary to shine a little light inside.  It’s hard work to clean up the mess but with enough pressure, coal becomes a diamond in the cave and so will I.  So will you. 

In some of my darkest pits, I never even knew I needed a flashlight until someone else showed up with one.  So I also learned that there’s peace, redemption, and purpose in shining light in those dark places for other people.  We were made to help each other. 

I learned that marriage is hard, and worth every ounce of work. Love is hard and also worth the work. (It’s simple in theory but so unbelievably hard in practice.) I learned, and am still learning, that I do not know everything and that it’s really hard to admit it. Also I learned that people are inherently good but tragically flawed, and that the dearest ones you can trust are worth their weight in gold.

I learned my priorities are different than I thought they were. And then I learned it was really hard to adjust my lifestyle to get myself in alignment with those priorities. I also learned not everyone likes it when you do that. I’ve learned to stay true to what I know is right and true, and keep my eyes focused on what is lovely and pure (Philippians 4:8) – check out the book The 4:8 Principle if you’ve never read it.

Another one’s coming

I haven’t had a face plant that big in awhile. So I know that I’m probably due one soon. There are things I’m trying, and putting out there, so inevitably I’ll have a misstep at some point. (Thank you in advance for your grace.)

I’m not living in fear of failure.

I’m just trying to keep any inevitable future failure in healthy perspective while I charge ahead into the stuff I believe God is calling me to do, and the person I believe He’s calling me to be. That’s the beauty in befriending failure – you can finally throw yourself all in to what you’re pursuing. When that fear is gone there’s room for big magic.

So here’s a challenge: what was your last epic failure?

What did you learn?  Or are you still hiding from it?

Are you allowing that failure to grow you and give you influence, or are you letting the fear of failure cripple you from making the impact you know you’re made for?

And if you haven’t fallen on your face in awhile… what are you waiting for? Stick your neck out and try at something that matters.  We’re all cheering for your next bold step, and we’ll be here to catch you if – and when – you fall.

HP,

J

I’d love to know what failure taught you too. Drop a comment below!

About the Author

Jessica is a writer, musician, entrepreneur, wife, and mom. Jessica's mission is to write "real" - shining light into the dark places of the tough stuff we all experience. She and her husband Jack live in Houston, Texas and have weathered the storms of grief, infant loss, adoption, and a marriage that almost fell apart. Jessica and Jack have 4 children, LJ in heaven, Grace, Jackson, and brand new baby Elisha.

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