Fear is an excellent, if somewhat clumsy and inefficient, indicator of a possible proximate threat. It is, however, a terrible emotion to be relying upon when making long-term plans. Fear of failure in particular is a paralyzing waste of cognitive energy.
There’s a scene in The West Wing, one of my all time favorite television programs, that puts fear in its place as well or better than any other that I can think of. President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) is confronted by the ghost of his executive secretary Dolores Landingham (Kathryn Joosten). Mrs. Landingham has just been killed by a drunk driver. President Bartlet, meanwhile, has just admitted to the American people that he concealed his multiple sclerosis from them during his first campaign for the presidency.
President Bartlet is afraid that, given the circumstances, he can’t win a second term and so has decided not to run again. But Mrs. Landingham’s ghost is having none of it. “You know, if you don’t want to run again, I respect that. But,” she adds as she stands to leave the Oval Office, “if you don’t run because you think it’s going to be too hard or you think you’re going to lose, well god, Jed, I don’t even want to know you.”
We’ve all told ourselves we’re not doing something because we don’t want to, when in fact the reason has much more to do with our fear of failure. Statistically speaking, our concern is certainly warranted. There are only a few ways to succeed at anything, but a nearly infinite number of ways to fail. Indeed, when it comes to failure we can be quite creative, to say nothing of foolish.
Failure, and the fear thereof, is something every writer should be intimately familiar with. In 1984, twenty three years following Ernest Hemingway’s death, a manuscript prepared by Arnold Samuelson chronicling ten months he had spent with Hemingway in Key West was published. It provided us with some advice the famous novelist offered his visiting protege during their time together.
Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it. I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. You’ve got to work it over. The first draft of anything is shit. When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he had read but something that happened to himself.
Even after pouring your heart and soul into something, people may still not see it, let alone like it. The number of times it has been revised, read to long suffering friends and loved ones, or kept its author up at night is of no concern to the awaiting public.
Failure stalks every article, novel, biography, philosophical treatise, and personal essay like a hungry mountain lion. Even if the work somehow recovers from rejection’s initial attack to make its way back down into the valley where a possible audience resides, there’s always the chance that the author won’t live to see the day his or her work finally receives some respect. We put our thoughts out into the world at our own risk, hoping eventually they will add to the light humanity needs to illuminate the way forward, but we have absolutely no idea whether this will be the case or not. We do it anyway, because for most of us there’s really no choice.
Of course writers are hardly alone. We all end up in this boat at some point. We find ourselves there in relationships, at career crossroads, or when contemplating leaving our comfort zone to explore new perspectives or cultures. Sometimes our fear approaches proportions warranted by the situation, but nine times out of ten it’s far from justified by the circumstances.
Regardless, fear of change is a choice, even if it is one our biology predisposes us to make. There are no predators lurking in the bushes or warriors from the neighboring village waiting with weapons. The kind of threats our ancestors faced are, thankfully, actually rather rare these days.
There’s still crime, of course. There are still people out there that abuse their authority and try to intimidate those with less power. But the kind of existential threats we evolved to deal with aren’t nearly what they used to be. Now we typically call the police, a lawyer, or the local paper rather than running away or reaching for a large rock to hurl at someone.
Our contemporary fears are more often expressed in phrases like what if or I could never do that. In other words, it’s the prospect of failure rather than death or injury that’s keeping us up at night. Of course, failure does have consequences. But then, so does not trying at all. Unfortunately there’s no getting around the fact that falling flat on our face a few times, actually or metaphorically, also happens to be the best way to learn the things that are really worth knowing.
Regardless, just about all of the really big consequences associated with failure can be anticipated and planned for to at least some degree, and there are more people that have our back than we think. The things we fail to anticipate we can make life adjustments to compensate for if it comes to that. Homelessness or death are rarely the outcome nowadays, even when our failures are catastrophic. With that said, if you’re waiting for some sort of guarantee that the consequences of failure won’t turn out to be huge or that nothing you haven’t already anticipated will ever come up, life’s never going to provide you with one.
So, if you really don’t want to do something, I can respect that. But if you’re not doing it because it’s going to be hard or you’re afraid you won’t succeed, I don’t even want to know you. After all, life’s pretty short and as a writer I need material. It’s with the fearless ones that I’m likely to have the most fun and learn the most from.