I made a startling self-discovery recently. I’d been working through this series of exercises designed to help you break out of a rut of ingrained thought patterns. One of the tasks was to go to a local coffee shop and ask for a 10% discount. I dutifully followed the instructions, and was surprised that my request was granted. I walked home with a sense of accomplishment, tickled that I succeeded.
But by the time I got home I was disappointed—that I actually got the discount. I realized that not only did I expect to fail, I kind of hoped I would. Then I’d be off the hook for the rest of the assignments and wouldn’t have to do anything else because, you know, they don’t work anyway. I could then stay in my comfort zone with the way I’ve always done everything.
For all my preaching about thinking outside the box and trying new things, it looks like I need to take my own medicine. I talk a lot about how it can be fun to be bad at something and how it’s ok to fall flat on your face (metaphorically speaking). But I seem to have forgotten that it’s equally acceptable to get it right, win, or do something well.
These exercises were designed to help face the fear of failure but instead I learned about the fear of success. I imagine that’s harder to recognize because who really wants to admit that they’d prefer to crash and burn at something? I sure didn’t know I was prone to this until I realized that breezing through the one assignment would mean I wouldn’t have an excuse to get out of trying the other ones.
So what do we do with this amazing insight? For one, I’m guessing the key in this situation is the word fear—if it’s keeping us from stepping away from the ordinary, then that’s a problem. Fear can be so paralyzing, preventing us from doing anything. I imagine if we probe a little deeper then we’ll see that fearing success is still a form of fearing failure, but in disguise.
Think about it—if you’ve never done something before, and completely bomb, no big deal, right? But if you have a certain amount of achievement, especially right out of the gate, then the stakes are higher. You now have others noticing you and need to impress your audience. In other words, there are now expectations.
I recently started doing some stand-up comedy. The first time I just had fun with it. I was pleasantly surprised that I had several friends and co-workers show up. I also got a charge (and a $25 gift certificate) when I came in third place in the contest. I thought it was so awesome and was excited to think about when I could do it again.
But the next time I was nervous. Would I have as many supporters this week? Would those who came previously think I was as funny this time around? It’s probably good for me to address these fears early in the game because the comedy scene can be brutal and there will be much falling on backsides. Probably the best defense is visualize myself wearing an emotional pillow to cushion the blow.
That would be better than what I’ve done in the past, which is to stop the moment I start to get good at anything. I always thought it was because I was too lazy to work hard enough to gain proficiency. But it might be that I’ve actually been sabotaging my chances of success because I’m afraid of disappointing myself or others by falling from a higher rung on the ladder. Quit while you’re ahead is a great motto for a poker game but not so much for real world living.
Stef’s Nugget Of Wisdom for the week: The only real failure is to stop trying at all. As long as you’re making an effort, then you’re succeeding. So just keep on keeping on. They say you learn more from your mistakes so if you mess up a lot then you might end up as the smartest person of your acquaintance.
Bonus Nugget: Most people probably find stories of your epic failures way more entertaining than those of your amazing achievements so you will likely have loads to talk about and a ready audience wherever you go. Just try to guess how I’ve figured that one out.