Blind spotting my fear of failure / by Michael Sloyer

I have a fear of failure in life. I am scared that I am not good enough. There I said it. Well that wasn’t so hard. Well, actually it was. Because it took a hell-a-va lot to get to this point. To get to the point of being able to say something like that. Both out loud to all of you. And more importantly, to figure it out myself. Because, for the longest time, which I would define as approximately 28 years, this fear of failure has been in my blind spot. I have been looking in the rearview mirror, but a narrative I have called “I am someone with a healthy desire to succeed” has been in the way. It has been masking the truth.

“Semantics,” you say. Fear of Failure. Desire to succeed. Po-tay-toe. Po-tah-toe. Well yea, that’s what I always thought too. Because the process and the results seemed to be the same.

The process looked something like this: 1. Invent a new idea/activity/goal/project  2. Enroll myself and others (if necessary) in it  3. Execute  4. Win/succeed/accomplish  5. Receive external validation  6. Feel satisfied  7. Repeat steps 1-6.

Moving to Asia. Photography projects. Charity events. Building a website. Writing a blog. Triathlons. Traveling. Blah blah blah blah. This is what life looked like. For 28 years. And it was fun. And I felt happy a lot. Genuinely happy.

But throughout the last few months, this blind spot has revealed itself. Actually that sounds a bit too mystical. What really happened is that I started to inquire. I inquired into the nature of myself and what really drives me. And as much as it pains me to say, I discovered that fear of failure, and not a healthy desire to succeed, has been steering the ship.

For me, there are two major differences between having a healthy desire to succeed and having a fear of failure. First, having this fear of failure has prevented me from taking on things in which I am unsure if I will succeed. It has prevented me from playing big games. It has prevented me from taking chances. There is no freedom in this fear because when my ultimate goal is to avoid failure, I am not free to do things that I might fail at. The tricky thing, and one of the reasons it took me so long to figure this out, was that sometimes the decisions I made looked like risky decisions to the outside world, and I let my perception of the outside world’s perceptions convince me that I was taking a risk. Take my decision to move to Asia, for example. Was this really a big risk? Was I really not going to have a great time? Was I really not going to learn a lot about myself? Was I really not going to do well in my career and make good friends and have a nice life? The outside world told me, or at least I thought it did, that this was a risky decision. And I believed it. But it was not the truth. I am not belittling the decision at all, but the reality was, for me, moving to Asia was not a big risk. It was another one of those games in which I knew I could succeed.

So what would playing a big game look like? Clearly the answer is different for everyone. But for me, it would look like learning a language. It would like learning to play the guitar. It would look like giving up a high paying job to spend more of my time helping others. It would mean doing things I want to do without craving the external validation that may or may not come about as a result of doing those things. It would mean always honoring my commitments for no other reason then because I said I would. To put it simply, it would mean not having my cake and eating it too. At least not all the time.

And the other difference is that having a fear of failure is exhausting. Totally exhausting. It is filled with anxiety and apprehension. It requires a lot of effort. It requires a lot of scheming, plotting, and figuring out how not to fail. It leaves a lot less room for just "being." And for me, the best times in life have been when I just "am." Perfect the way I am. And perfect the way I’m not.

When I had the ah-ha moment and really got present to my fear of failure, I was inclined to explain it away as a necessary evil. My “story” was that my fear had allowed me to accomplish what I had in life and was to thank for my quality of life. But the reality is that having this fear of failure did not allow me to accomplish anything. It was my actions and the amazing people around me that have caused the results. Plain and simple.

To use a sports analogy, the basketball goes in the net because you shot it in there. Not because you were scared of missing it. And not because you practiced a lot because you were scared of missing it. You may have been scared of missing it, and you may have practiced a lot because you were scared of missing it, but it didn’t go in there because you were scared of missing it.

This distinction that my fear is not the source of my results provides a huge clearing for me. A clearing to be free and joyful. A clearing to take on things I may fail at. A clearing to try to get the results without worrying about the results. A clearing to forgive myself.

So really, not much has changed on the surface. I am still the same regular guy. I just have a new distinction. And one less blind spot. But the world seems a whole lot brighter. And I like it that way.