I recently counseled a young man who had egregiously flunked out of college. He also quit his last three menial jobs and now spends all night playing video games and all day sleeping. Surprisingly, he had managed to take chronic low-achievement to acute no-achievement in less than two years. He told me that his main problem was fear of failure. He explained that he lives with an unrelenting dread that he will fail his parents’ and siblings’ high expectations. Apparently, this fear of failure has kept him stuck in a spinning loop of…well…failure. Admittedly, fear of failure is high on my list of bewildering but popular counseling issues. I view it with the same skeptical eye as struggles with self-esteem and the right to unconditional acceptance. When I hear all three of those conditions in the same counseling session I have to wrap my head with duct tape to keep it from exploding. But for the purpose of this Fortnight we’ll only consider the first one: The dreaded fear of failure.
I admit I have had a longstanding relationship with the fear of failure. I truly have not viewed it as an enemy or a stumbling block. Rather, I consider it a blessing. I look back at my formative years and am grateful for the experiences that nurtured that fear within me. During my senior year in high school I had a profound encounter with a guidance counselor who made a huge difference in my life. I remember the event like it was yesterday. The counselor looked at my SAT scores and my cumulative grade point average and pronounced me overwhelmingly average. I was troubled enough by her assessment to ask, “Do people like me go to college? Should I even try?” She coolly replied, “I don’t know. You might be able to pull it off. Whether or not you try is up to you.” I admit I was taken aback by her flatly discouraging input. I assumed that guidance counselors were supposed to be positive and reassuring. Even though she was neither, I credit this counselor with stirring my heart toward a healthy fear that kept me through three degree programs. The fear of failure was a motivating package that disciplined my efforts in higher education. Without that healthy and unrelenting fear, I would have failed.
So what in the fear package motivated me but has not been helpful to others? We know that fear evokes one of three possible responses: Fight, flight or freeze. For me success was worth the fight. But I also understood that I was not entitled to success based on magic or natural ability. I could not simply show up and be awarded the prize. Here are a few thoughts for applying the fear of failure in a constructive way:
• Fear generally makes us better. I’m not talking about paralyzing terror. I’m talking about a good healthy truth-based fear. When asked if he was ever afraid on the mound, Hall of Fame pitcher, Dennis Eckersley said without hesitation, “Every single time. Lord help me if I’m not afraid out there.” Eck’s fear was firmly grounded in reality. As a closer, he was always pitching with the game on the line. He understood the havoc that a major league hitter could produce with a bat in his hands. A wicked backdoor slider made Eckersley good. An abiding, informed fear made him great.
• People who have no fear of failure are either crazy reckless or their dreams are too tiny. If you can stumble over the bar, the bar is set too low. We all have varying capacities for accomplishment. You won’t know what you’re capable of till you blow it…a lot.
• We do our children a disservice when we attempt to insulate them from the pain of failure. In the real world, everybody doesn’t always win. Those participant trophies your child “won” are placebos. They perpetuate the lie that hard work and sacrifice are unnecessary for gaining a reward. Success is not free. Failure is also costly but in a different way.
• Fear is good, but failure might be even better. I tell my new counselors that if they aren’t making therapeutic errors, they aren’t working hard enough. By the same token, repeatedly crashing and never figuring out where it broke down is foolish. Failure should shape our solutions. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is still the definition of you-know-what.
After I had screened the aforementioned young client for depression…he wasn’t…or an anxiety disorder…that he didn’t have…I gave him the following feedback. “Your main problem doesn’t seem to be a fear of failure. You seem quite comfortable with it and are even good at it. I am also not hearing unusually high expectations from your parents’ or siblings. As matter of fact, their expectations seem fairly low. I am thinking your main problem is more related to a fear of success. The fear of failure theory will get you some sympathy, whereas your pervasive laziness and sense of entitlement is probably what is actually holding you back.”
He didn’t make a return appointment. But maybe someday he will look back with affection at the insensitive counselor who told him what he didn’t want to hear. For years after my encounter with the discouraging guidance counselor I harbored an I’ll-show-her grudge. After I grew up a little I realized that she was right. I was average. My attitude and effort put me dead center in the middle of mediocre. When I stopped feeling indignant and started feeling scared, things changed. Scared was a whole lot more productive than being offended. Stay scared, my friends. Stay very afraid.
But hey, get out there and have an above average fortnight. Enjoy every minute of it with appropriate fear and trembling.