When asked to write on the fear of failure, I bristled a little. I knew tackling this topic would require a particular level of vulnerability.
My life has always been one of creating, performing, and struggling to create and perform. Right now, it looks like this: I’m a writer at idfive, a fast-paced integrated marketing agency, where I write ads and articles for clients against the clock. Outside of idfive, I’m a musician, a writer in the literary space, and a dabbler in dance.
And if you’ve come here searching for a champ who’s punched the lights out of the You’re not good enough giant, keep a-steppin’ because I’m no expert. The inner battle is real, young Padawan.
But so is the ability to overcome it — or at least tamp down the negative self-talk and push through the mental barriers. Though I can’t say I’ve obliterated the fear of failure, I can offer you the ongoing lessons I’m learning as a creative professional. I hope they’ll help you reduce anxiety and feel a little less alone.
Beware of “What if I fail?”
When you create things, especially as a professional, it’s easier to get twisted around the idea of failure than it is to actually fail. We all define failure differently (are you tired of the “f” word yet?). Some of us simply allow a smaller margin of error than others. We can even get fatalistic with it, as if there’s a fast track between hypotheticals and doomsday.
What if all the people with all the opinions don’t like it? Wait, what if I don’t like it? What if? What if? WHAT-THE-HECK IF?
I typically personify failure as a dark, menacing blob of a figure without a face. It hovers nearby, threatening to suffocate me as it looms and expands. Other times, it feels like a parasite stuck between my shoulder blades…or a starfish on my face slurping all the delicious words and creative juices from my brain.
Whatever failure looks like to you, expose it. Name it out loud. Draw it as a cartoon. Write it into a flash fiction piece. Or sculpt it, if you really want to spend the time. (I mean, don’t spend too much time. Yeah, I see you over there turning your gears around how to make it just right). Then light it on fire — in an open field, mind you.
Do whatever (healthy) thing you need to lodge anticipatory failure from your brain, concretize it, and release it into oblivion. This action step will slow the mental spinout and loosen this overblown fear’s grip on you.
Ask Questions and Trust Yourself
Did I tell you I’m three months new at idfive? I’m new to agency life. New to cranking out words in quicker turnarounds, often struggling to get started under the weight of a time crunch. Throughout this huge transition of newness, I’ve had to fight against the temptation to predict failure.
When a client, a project, an entire workplace ecosystem, or all of the above are brand new to you — you’re likely missing lots of information at first, which can increase performance anxiety at work.
Add to that, communication can be hard. Language and humans are so nuanced that it’s not easy to communicate well, especially when you’re just getting to know each other. The person who assigned you a project may not articulate expectations as clearly as they thought. And if you don’t understand something or need more information, request clarity to prevent wasting everyone’s time later.
But sometimes, you won’t get the answers you’re looking for. Sometimes, that person isn’t around to answer…or your questions are misinterpreted…or there’s just no more information to go on and it’s up to you to do it anyway.
It can feel precarious when you have unanswered or even unasked questions, but you may have to be okay with letting sleeping questions lie. This whole thing can be hard for creatives, particularly when we’re extra curious and zealous for details. *raises hand*
Take heart, though. You can move forward on less information than you’d think. Trust yourself to do your best with what you have. Dip into your well of creativity, intelligence, uniqueness, and resourcefulness. Uncork that confidence, and muster up the strength to face an unknown outcome.
Be Patient With the Process
Developing and honing your craft in any professional context takes work. It takes straddling the line between an unleashed, explosive artistry…and a too-practical, lifeless “creativity.” It takes time. It takes energy. It takes recommitting to pen and paper, Google Docs, Adobe Creative Suite, and chaotic whiteboards again and again.
It also takes tilling worn ideas to cultivate new growth while ignoring your inner critic. Be patient with the process of learning and not mastering, especially if you’re relatively early in your career. It can be overwhelming to have your work constantly evaluated by your team and clients, but be patient with and learn from critiques.
If you’re impatient with yourself (or others) while worrying about failure, you may experience analysis paralysis, where your brain is so crowded with unhelpful mental chatter that you can’t even start a project.
What if my ideas aren’t good enough? What if I run out of time? What if I can’t make it through my whole task list without my brain imploding? What if I never get started because I’m too busy worrying about brain implosion?
My boss told me that when I have no clue what to write, I should keep my language center moving — even if I’m literally writing something like, “Words are hard, and I hate them so hard right now.” Eventually, something worthwhile will come out. I just have to be patient, even when I think I’ve blacked out and forgotten how to string letters together.
Being patient with the process is easier when the idea of failure feels less scary…and vice versa. But if it still feels scary, be patient with that, too. The worst thing is to be anxious over being anxious. It’s way too meta, and your brain will definitely implode. So give yourself grace, take gulpy breaths, drown out mental noise with lo-fi beats, and keep moving. Movement is where courage lives, along with art waiting to come unglued.
Hold On Loosely
When we’re afraid to fail, we tend to cling to our personal way of approaching creative work. We curl our fingers through its safety net, afraid to get swept into a whirlwind of the unfamiliar. Sticking to your individual creative process makes sense in your paint-splattered basement art studio, but it doesn’t fly in an agency filled with humans and budgets and schedules.
Let parts of your personal strategy go. It doesn’t mean you should lose yourself in others’ systems, but you have to find a way to do your thing flexibly — a creative functionality, so to speak. After all, in a professional setting, your work is not actually yours. Become less attached to you, your ideas, and your processes, and you won’t be as afraid to fail.
Though it may be difficult to swallow, underneath our fear of failure is an element of pride. If we’re not careful, it can become too much about us.
What if I look like an idiot? What if I turn out to be an imposter? What if I can’t bring myself to do this art that’s so beneath me?
Remaining a creative individual in a highly structured environment is super tough. But that’s part of learning and growing, believing in yourself, and trusting your team not to condemn you if things don’t turn out as expected.
Redefine the Crap Out of Failure
I think we compartmentalize success and failure, as if the two aren’t intertwined. Like joy and pain, you can’t know one without the other. You may “fail” at something the first time, but you will learn from it and “succeed” the next time. Life would be colorless if we always hit our marks, right?
Another way of looking at it: You may “fail” at your work according to some standards, but if you did your best, you actually succeeded. I mean, you went and did the thing. If that doesn’t feel like enough, your bar may be too close to perfect. Consider adjusting it so it’s more reachable, and take more risks.
Earlier, I mentioned that part of me bristled when assigned this topic. There’s another side to this story: The other half of me was pumped to tackle this challenge. I live my life simultaneously terrified and excited. (We’re full of nuances, remember?)
But more often than not lately, I choose to lean into the enthusiastic side because I see growth in my future. This long-lens approach helps me plunge into every task. The anxiety may still be there, but the more I write, do, exist without feeling totally prepared or knowing the outcome, the more it weakens.
Will you — creative, talented, patient, resilient person — join me on the journey? We’re as ready as we’ll ever be, and we’re pretty friggin’ brave.