Most of us don’t actually fear failure.
Millions of people play the lottery, knowing they’ll almost surely fail. People play sports, where one team is guaranteed to lose. I’ve even happily joined teams I knew were bad, and likely to fail almost every week.
Young people wander through college for years and tens of thousands, purportedly to help them get a job, when they know many of their degreed peers aren’t getting jobs that need degrees anyway. They graduate, don’t get a great job, and don’t feel too bad about it.
And no one harshly judges people for participating in any of those failures. Why do we happily engage in activities with high likelihood of failure?
We’re not afraid of failing, we’re afraid of failing alone.
We’re not afraid of being a failure, we’re afraid of being a unique failure.
People will build houses in a flood plain if everyone else is doing it. Getting wrecked by a decision isn’t scary if everyone else gets wrecked too. “Couldn’t be helped”, “The economy hit us all hard”, “You did what anyone would do”, make failure easy to handle. The ultimate dread isn’t failure, but failing at a deviation from the crowd and hearing “See, I told you so” from the rest of the world.
Check out this video of people in a hospital waiting room. A group of actors pointlessly and inexplicably stand up every time a bell rings. Pretty soon, the real patient does too. She looks completely foolish engaging in a useless activity. The valuelessness of the activity worries her less than the thought of being alone in rational defiance.
No one wants to be a unique failure, but everyone wants to be a unique success!
We want our success to be the result of our unique individual choices, effort, and journey, not just the result of being in the right place at the right time. We don’t want to be seen as simply the beneficiaries of group success, propelled along by virtue of the herd with which we haplessly roam. We want failure to be aggregated and non-unique, not due to our individual choices, but we want the opposite from success.
You can’t have it both ways.
If you wan to strike out and create your own success (and you should! It’s the only really meaty kind.), you’ve got to get over your fear of failing alone. It will hold you back, and prevent you from discovering your unique path. Returns (in money, fulfillment, etc.) are greatest when most divergent from the crowd.
So how do you fight the fear of failing alone? Here are a few helpful mindsets to combat the pull of the lemmings…
It’s better to fail being you than succeed being someone else
You’re only really gonna find meaning when you find your meaning. Success living someone else’s dream, or conforming to someone else’s definition will always divide your soul and lead to torment. If you refuse to follow anything but your own goals and preferences, even the bitterness of failure is truer than the sweetness of misdirected success. Remind yourself that, had you gone the “safe” route everyone else did, it wouldn’t be nearly as wonderful as it looks. You’d always wonder what might have been had you gone your own way.
Forget them. Be willing to fail at being you.
Failure is temporary
At any given snapshot in time, you are failing at something. In fact, most of the time you’re failing, because until you succeed, you’re failing! The Patriots failed for three and a half quarters of the 2017 Super Bowl. In fact, they didn’t even succeed by the end of the game. One play in overtime succeeded, and thereby rewrote every other time-slice of the game into a narrative of success.
If you fail, it’s just a brick in the wall of the mansion you’re building; a step on the journey you’re crafting. Most of the time, what’s a failure plot on the graph at T1 turns out to be one point in the success curve by T3 or T10. When people pity or mock you for taking a unique risk and suffering a unique failure, they’re frozen in the present. Remember your story moves through time, and you’re not done writing it.
Take it personally
Sometimes, it’s good to have a chip on your shoulder. Use that fear of hearing, “See I told you so” as fuel to push forward rather than a reason to freeze.
Why do you think so much Hip-Hop music is infused with, “No one believed in me, now they all want my money”? Because it’s great motivational fodder!
Turn the doubters, finger-waggers, safety-clingers, and herding haters into part of your personal narrative; one more obstacle you have to overcome. Turn the loneliness of failing against the grain, amidst the chorus of “Never shoulda done it’s” from the losers who are failing in the comfort of each other’s company, into a tale of your epic grit!
Find a few other misfits
You’re not the only one failing alone. All the greatest innovators and achievers in the world did too. Dip into their stories. Find others not content with group failure, unafraid to fail uniquely. You can’t offload your agency to them, but you can inspire one-another on your own unique journeys.
And most of all remember: it’s your life. No one gets to live it but you.