The Meaning of Failure

Published by Nela Dunato on in ADHD, Mindset, Thoughts

The Meaning of Failure

Fear of failure is probably the single biggest thing that stops people from doing what they love and achieving success.

One of the most common creative blocks I’ve found by interviewing people is perfectionism or self-criticism. As I explained in my video/article Using Art Journaling To Beat Perfectionism, I see it a symptom of fear of failure.

So why is fear of failure so prevalent?
Why do we allow it to govern our lives and prevent us from having what we want?
What is the difference between people who embrace failing often as a part of their success strategy, and those of us who don’t (and hence don’t succeed)?

The answer is: to some of us, failure is not “just failure”.

We see failure as proof that we’re worthless.

(pause for reflection)

We were not born fearing failure. If we did, we would still be crawling around because we would have never learned how to walk.
Learning how to walk includes a lot of falling on your ass.
Imagine the first time you fell on your ass you just gave up and said “You know what? Crawling is fine. I don’t need that fancy walking thing, I’m good” and kept crawling around until you were 6. Your parents would take you to a doctor because that’s not normal human behavior.

But somehow, somewhere along our emotional development fear of failure became normal.

And it’s normal because we have been told, over over again by so many people in so many ways, that failure is wrong.

I don’t have to tell you how it happens. You’ve been through it. In your home, in school, in that sports club, anywhere where results are measured and scored.

It’s the disappointed or scornful reactions of our parents, teachers, coaches and peers that made us first give meaning to failure.

Peek behind the fear of failure

“Fear of failure” is a blanket term we use for so many different things. It doesn’t mean anything objectively, because each of us has a different vision of what counts as “failure”.
One person’s failure may be another person’s success.

One person’s greatest fear may be having to rely on other people for support (that would be me), while another person may see it as a wonderful opportunity to feel connected to others, loved and supported.

Your definition of failure may change over time, too.

We’re not afraid of failure itself. We’re afraid of what the failure is saying about us. [Tweet this!]

To a lot of us, failure means we’re not good enough.
It means we’re not worthy of success.
It means we got proven to be wrong and faulty.
It means being publicly humiliated.

What do all these things have in common?

One word: SHAME.

When we’re avoiding failure, we’re actually trying to avoid shame.

(I’m certainly not the only one to bring this up. If you still haven’t watched this talk by Brene Brown, go watch it after you read this. No matter how many times I watch it, it always make me cry.)

When this burden of potential shame is hanging over your head like a crane holding a load of manure, it’s very difficult to find enjoyment in the process.

When every single step you take can potentially lead you to what you identify as your worst case scenario, you weigh every step with such scrutiny that you barely move forward at all.

And since shame is one of the most painful emotions for people to experience, we hide it behind a huge wall we call “fear of failure”.

And because I love turning serious subjects into simplified pictures, I made this little graphic to explain how this works.

What's hiding behind the fear of failure

On the opposite sides of the picture are you, and your goal.

Between you and your goal are a few things:

  • The Great Wall of Fear, which creates a huge barrier that can prevent you from even seeing what’s behind it.
  • The Rope of Hope, which is dangling seductively and if you stand back from the Wall, you may be able to see it. Once you’re over the wall, you can use this Rope of Hope to fly over the dreaded…
  • Pit of Shame. The pit is the lowest possible point of this journey. Some people never really recover from falling into the pit. But those who do, have only one obstacle left on their way to the goal.
  • Mountain of Effort. Effort is required. Nothing happens on its own, and you’ll need to sweat a little before you get to the goal.

I know this is very simplified, and in real life we have an entire chain of walls, pits, mountains and summits, before we get to the big prize at the very end. It’s like a Super Mario game with fake princesses at every level.

What matters is that a lot of us would far rather stare at the wall for years then climb over it, because the very sight of The Pit of Shame triggers all the self-worth issues we managed to accumulate during our life.

The secret of success

People we now consider successful have endured through many failures. No self-made millionaire, brilliant artist or inventor came to the top of the mountain without a few bruises and scars. They were not deterred because they managed to separate the failure from the story that surrounds it.

Some did it the hard way: using their willpower to burst through the fears and get up over and over again, every time they fell into the Pit of Shame. They built their resilience.

Some may have been a little more introspective, and realized what was happening in their minds as they were going through the emotional rollercoaster, and decided to change their story about failure.

A few lucky ones were raised in a healthy environment that supported failure as a learning tool, and not as something to avoid and be ashamed of.

Sadly, it’s too late for you to choose to be in the third group — that choice has been made for you.
But you can choose whether you’ll use your willpower, or change your story.

Or stay where you are forevermore.
(Don’t do that. Nothing fun ever happens there.)

Dig deep

What stories are you telling yourself about failure?
How does your upbringing and the stressful events you went through affect you now?

Being aware of these stories helps you deal with fear of failure when it appears again.

When you’re having that fearful moment, take out a journal, a sheet of paper, a blank document or whatever you enjoy writing on.

Do write it down, because you need to get very clear. When things are just floating in your mind, they tend to be foggy, no matter how much you’ve thought about them.
I’m really big on using words and graphics to put your mental concepts on paper and understand them better.

On your paper/document, answer the following questions:

  1. What are the specific worst case scenarios I’m afraid of?
    List them all, and let your imagination run wild.
  2. How do I expect I’m going to feel when one or more of these worst case scenarios happens?
    Imagine this event like it’s really happening and see what emotions arise.
  3. How do I expect other people will react when they find out that it happened?
  4. What will this failure prove about me?

Take these notes, and we’ll confront each of them in the rest of the post.

Confront your worst case scenario

We tend to overestimate our discomfort when we think about our worst case scenario.

When people actually live through the “worst case scenario”, they recover from it much quicker than they anticipated.
(While I’m plugging TED talks, check out this one by happiness researcher Dan Gilbert who explains the concept of synthetic happiness, and how it helps us cope with loss.)

In our imagination, the worst case scenario is so terrible because we focus on a single, most painful moment and keep replaying it in our mind like a broken record (we tend to do that with our past experiences, too).

What happens in actual life is that the terrible moment passes, and then we move forward onto other, less terrible things.
The initial shock may very well be painful, but after hours, days or months (depending on how bad it was), it’s water under the bridge, gone with the wind, and other analogies that signify how things fade with time.

After we get out of the rumble and dust ourselves off, we say “Well that sucked, but it wasn’t as bad as I feared.”

When I was preparing for the shift from my job to self-employment, I had high hopes of how it was all going to turn out. My faith that everything will turn out better that I expected was what kept me going.

Fast forward a year, I’m living my “worst case scenario”. Things have not turned out the way I hoped they would. But honestly? Being here, living this life, it’s not so bad at all. I actually enjoy my life much more than I did before. Weird, huh?

I thought this would be a bad experience to have, but it’s not. I overestimated how bad I would feel about the difficulties I’ve had.

Yes, sometimes it’s hard and it sucks, but I’d still rather have this than being stuck in a place where I didn’t belong.
For me, there’s no going back — only forward.

If I knew in advance what was going to happen, I would have jumped onto the first good job opportunity that was offered to me.

The moral of this story? It’s a good thing that we can’t predict the future. If we could, we probably wouldn’t even want to get out of bed.

You don’t know what you’re capable of enduring until you live through it. [Tweet this quote]

You don't know what you're capable of enduring until you live through it.

In the grand scheme of things, even if the thing that you feared the most happens, after some time you’re going to be okay. Really.

Reframe the meaning of your failure

Not only do we overestimate how bad we’re going to feel about our plans falling through, we also tend to project other people’s reactions.

In truth, people don’t care as much about us as we think they do. They’re too concerned with their own successes and failures, and don’t really have the energy to devote to judging us.

Those who do have the energy to judge others have much bigger issues than you do, so if someone is mocking you for your failure, they probably need to do that in order to feel better about themselves, and you should pity them, not consider their opinion relevant.

Since we all tend to be so bad at predicting, what can you do to get a more or less objective assessment of your situation?

Play an neutral party

If a person you never met were to go through what you identified as your worst case scenario, how would you feel about that person?

Would you think she was a loser?

Would you think she was worthless?

Or would you think she was brave and admire her because she’s following her dreams no matter what the cost?

Personally, I love hearing about other people’s blunders and hardships, because it makes them seem more relatable to me. I don’t think a person who didn’t succeed on the first try is a loser. I don’t see them as someone who should be ashamed of anything.

I see them as wonderful brave people I should look up to.

But it’s interesting that we’re often not treating ourselves with the same understanding.

What we tolerate and value in other people is something we don’t allow ourselves.

So pretend that your worst case scenario happened to another person. If it makes it more realistic, you can give her a name and rewrite the whole story in the third person. Now read this story and see how you feel about them.

Unless you’re an insensitive jerk, you probably feel a mix of compassion and admiration.

If you, as a stranger who doesn’t even know this person, feel that way about her, how do you think your friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues, customers, and internet followers would feel about you?

Probably much better than you projected on them.

Talk to other people

You can pay a coach or a therapist to talk some sense into you, or you can ask your friends and mastermind buddies to help you for free.

Friends that are best for this kind of work are those that a) know you, your ambitions and your strengths very well, b) believe in you (maybe even more than you believe in yourself) and c) want you to become successful on your own terms.

Those who don’t know you, don’t believe in you, or don’t want to see you succeed (because it would cause them to feel bad about themselves), or are conditioning your success with what they think is best for you, are not the friends you want to talk to about your goals.
They’ll only say things that will make you second guess yourself even more. You don’t need that.

When you’ve identified your friends that will support you, start talking to them about your situation, and be completely honest.
Express those concerns you wrote down earlier. Be raw and vulnerable and honest.

Go through the meaning you gave to your failure with them, and allow them to give you their perspective on the issue. It will likely be much different than your own.

When I talked to my friends about my fears, not only did I get their emotional support, but they generously offered to help with giving me a place to stay or lending me money if things get really bad. I would have never asked them that, but knowing that there are people who are ready to jump to my aid when I need it most, is what makes this journey so much easier.

Getting other people’s perspective is very, very valuable.

You’re in your head most of the time. Getting the feedback that shows you that things aren’t nearly as bad as you thought may help you muster the courage to jump over the Wall of Fear (and either land into the Pit of Shame, or not. Either way, you’ll be fine).

What’s the alternative?

If you decided to wait and not pursue your dreams until you get your act together, what will happen if you never get your act together?

What if no matter how much you learn, think and plan, you never feel ready?

This is not a hypothetical question. You will, in fact, never feel ready. And it’s not because I say so, it’s because thousands of successful artists, writers, entrepreneurs, inventors and other noteworthy people said so. They didn’t feel ready, but they went for it, and they lived to tell the story.

If you wait until you feel ready, you’ll be waiting a looooong time.

You might find that giving up on your dreams is more painful than the worst case scenario. [Tweet this quote]

Yes, shame is painful.
Yes, you don’t want to be publicly humiliated.
Yes, you don’t want to feel like a loser.

But you don’t want to never see your dreams come true, either.

When faced with these two options — endure “failure” or give up completely — which one would you rather choose?

Giving up your dreams is more painful than the worst case scenario.

Usually it’s only when you realize “It’s now or never” that you somehow magically get the courage to do what you wanted to do all your life.

A lot of my friends started waking up around their 30th birthday, realizing that a third of their life is already behind them and they “haven’t achieved anything”, and this realization made them want to start living a meaningful life — pronto.
It was the same for me.

Only when you realize that you’re running out of time, and that your dreams are not going to fall into your lap, is when you give yourself a kick in the butt and start making progress.

Of course, you may be asking yourself “But what if I go for it, and I do my best, and I still don’t get what I want?”

You won’t know until you try. But…

If you don’t try, you’re guaranteed to fail

You may be hiding behind the “I’m not even trying, so that doesn’t count as failing” rhetoric, but let’s face it — it’s a lie.

Not trying equals failing. [Tweet this quote]

Not trying equals failing.

Every second you waste on thinking about what might happen if you fail, is failing at its finest.

You’re already failing.
I am already failing.
We are all failing on so many levels and so many fronts.
To live is to fail.

(Ok, maybe I went too far with that last one.)

The difference is that we don’t tell ourselves stories about this kind of failure (inaction and staying small), but we are so ready to scare ourselves out of our pants with the stories about what will happen if we try, and don’t succeed.

One kind of failure has the potential to bring you closer to your goals, and cause minor bruises.

The other kind of failure is going to make sure you never have what you want, and your life never feels meaningful.

Which one would you rather choose?

Nela Dunato

About Nela Dunato

Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.

On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...

Some blog articles contain affiliate links to products on Amazon. I’ll get paid a few cents if you buy something using my link, and there’s no extra charge to you.

17 responses to “The Meaning of Failure”

  1. Oh what a beautiful post Nela! I find that the longer I’m in business the more I view fear as a stepping blocks. I have to do scary crap ALL THE TIME and the first time I do it, it is never “good enough”. But, that’s okay, because each time after it gets better.

  2. I’m am so happy to have you be part of #braveblogging, Nela! This post certainly fits the bill! Way to put it all out there. I sincerely hope lots and lots of people read it.

  3. @Maria thank you! :) I’m really enjoying making these graphics, and I’m glad you like them!

    @Anna thank you so much! :)
    You’re totally right about that. I’m still new at this so every time I get a fear-storm I freak out and shut down for a bit, but I’m slowly learning that this is just how things work when you’re in business.

    @Valentine: thanks, glad you liked it! :)

    @Illana: Thanks a million! I’m honored that you like the post, and I’m so grateful to you for creating this opportunity for all of us to share some deep and honest stuff.

  4. I’ve worked my way through the process you’ve documented here and I think that failure and I are on pretty good terms. It got to the point where the pain of never going for it was worse than the fear of failure. If I have to live my worst-case scenario, so be it. Sounds like I’ll be in good company. :-)

  5. @Kirsty: thank you!
    We’re all afraid, and that’s perfectly normal, but I’ve found it’s much easier to deal with the fear when you find what *exactly* you’re afraid of, and then talk yourself through it, or talk to a friend.
    I hope it will help you! :)

    @Beth: I’m so glad to hear that! Welcome to the club! :D
    The same thing happened to me. It looks like our life or job needs to get really hard, and then we say “Well, nothing could be worse than staying stuck here forever” and we’re ready to go.

    @Sara: thank you! Hehe glad you like it :D The Rope of Hope is really useful, but if you don’t hold tight, you can slide off.. :)

  6. Honorata, I’m so deeply grateful for your kind comment!
    It’s wonderful to know that my writings mean something to you!

  7. Absolutely love your illustrations! You are so right. Whenever I get afraid of failure, I just think about all of the millions of things I never thought I could do but overcame anyways. For me I fear NOT trying to go for my goals… we’ve always got to keep on growing & changing!

  8. Thank you, Natalie!
    It’s awesome to hear this way of thinking about failure is working wonderfully for you as well :)

  9. Wow…I totally feel better now after reading this. You are like: “You fail? Who give a f*** .” Thats the message I pulled from your text and i really, really, really like it.

    And i really like your cover picture, first second i saw it, its like i recognize myself in that mud. Mud on my face everytime I see people who knows I failed like I have that mud on myself, and their look in their eyes and behaviour makes me wanna run out of my country and start to live my life somewhere else.

    I so needed to read this, its so healthy. Thanks for sharing

  10. Docboy, thank you for your kind comment!

    I already wrote a reply, but it disappeared?

    I’m so glad that this post provided some consolation. I think it’s crucial that all creative people know that this is normal, and that you don’t need to be a victim of such fears.

    I totally get you on wanting to run away! :)

  11. Thank you. This post is awesome. I need to stop watching at the rope behind the wall and start climbing the mountain.

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