On fear and failure

I’ve been holding myself back for a while now. Maybe for a decade? Perhaps my whole professional career.

I try my best to prepare myself for unfamiliar topics, discussions, ideas… anything. All things. This is very general and it applies to many aspects in life: discussions about the latest news with friends, meetings with coworkers for an upcoming project, interview problems for jobs, and decisions about lodging for the next vacation booking. You name it.

Person falling in sky
Falling. Photo by Henry & Co.

I don’t like going into a situation blind. It’s fair if I don’t want to make myself out like a fool, right? I want to know what questions to ask and want to be insightful.

I’m afraid of unknowns

Unknowns are scary. Unknown unknowns are even worse! They paralyze me!

Recently I learned these paralyzations have prevented me from doing great things. Things that could have been amazing. I could have started my career in Washington state instead of California. I could have continued to focus on drawing instead of switching to three different types of paints and not do well in any of them.

No, this isn’t about regret. This is about conquering that paralyzing fear. It is about how this fear of failure held me back. The fear of making myself seem foolish and the fear preventing me from trying things. It has held me back from starting some things at all. I would tell myself: If I never try, I can’t fail! The logic was foolproof.

Except I fooled myself.

Fear wins in these scenarios because it took something significant away from me: opportunity.

Person in frustration
Frustration. Photo by Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas

Fear sucks

It sucks because fear is a state of mind. Fear was designed by nature in anticipation of danger. For survival instincts. But failure to pass an exam isn’t dangerous though. Neither is the failure to answer an interview question correctly. Or the inability to communicate what you want to eat from a foreign menu to the waiter. These aren’t exactly life-threatening. Okay, maybe hunger is, but that’s not the point.

Fear of failure is an excuse to not try something outside your comfort zone. Failure happens when you try. Since fear is a state of mind, isn’t doing something actionable conducive to success? How would you know?


To attempt is to try.

Fear prevented me from attempting.

The problem is obvious though, isn’t it? How can I possibly reach for amazing opportunities, experiences, or success if I don’t even attempt to try? What’s the worst that could happen?

Oh… failure?

But I don’t want failure. Failure is shameful. If possible, I try to arm myself with knowledge. Otherwise, unknowns and uncomfortable situations make me hide, ignore, and dismiss things. I’d do almost anything but deal with the problem mentally and/or physically. I would distance myself and attempt to enter a safe space, a space without this fear of failure. However, when I am in a bind and knee-deep in a problem, I can’t just disappear. I learned through struggle that I have a quick escape to buy myself time in a tough situation.

Space without fear

I can create a temporary space of peace.

Reflecting now, I think I have been taking teeny steps to improve my mindset over the years but failed to properly recognize and appreciate it. When I am in a high-stress situation, I often find myself taking a few seconds to breathe. I reset my mind. I focus on my breathing and straighten my thoughts. I attempt to set myself at peace. I calm myself down.

I need to remember I can’t sell myself short.

What if perhaps the next time I am faced with something that might make me fear failure I try to set myself in a state of peace? Will that allow me to face a problem head on with full confidence? Will this help me leap for an attempt? I think so, perhaps not 100% successfully, but at least incrementally. That is an excellent start at squashing fear.

Sun breaking through clouds
Sun breaking through clouds. Photo by Josh Sorenson

It’s funny though; failure is so scary, I have to remember to breathe!

Failure is a two-sided coin

I also have to remember failure is a huge part of my learning process. I am a visual learner and one of the earliest ways I learned web development was by actually making hundreds of little edits: values of CSS properties, HTML element ordering, and script logic. I kept changing things until I liked how something looked and until something finally behaved properly. I made a gazillion micro mistakes until I got my expected outcome.

Perhaps the only reason why I felt safe making a ton of mistakes was that no one else was there to judge me. I am my biggest critic and I know I’m not perfect, so why should I care if I fail in front of others? I’m not being very fair to myself, am I?

Microphone. Photo by freestocks.org

Strengths of failure

I need to get comfortable with failing in front of others. It’s been difficult, scary, and makes me feel so exposed. But at the same time, I feel so empowered. It makes tying things easier because, as I am learning, failure isn’t so scary after all. There are good things it brings.

Failure is instructive. I learn from my mistakes and can use their knowledge in the future. Also, many failures stick. Do you know why I don’t touch stovetops anymore? I burned my finger when I was a kid!

Failure is also a chance to learn my strengths and weaknesses. It provides an opportunity for growth. Failed outcomes highlight exactly what I need to practice to succeed.

Bird soaring in sky
Soaring. Photo by Tobias Bjørkli


Next time fear knocks at the door, I need to remember these notes to prevent a paralyzed me:

  • Breathe.
  • Don’t be afraid of failure.
  • Try. Do.
  • Focus on what you know you do need to know (and possibly the things important to you). Remember you can’t and won’t know everything in the world.
  • Something will be learned.

Do or do not. There is no try. — Yoda

I took the liberty of changing my “try/attempt” and replaced it with Master Yoda’s words of wisdom. To “attempt” implies there is a chance of failure, but maybe I should be more optimistic and view failures as chances of opportunity. With that in mind, there’s no reason not to go for it.

Explore and adventure cautiously and try to ignore that voice pulling you back. Have the courage to attempt and run through those doors of opportunity!

Written by Mee Cha who is probably twiddling her thumbs wondering what's next on the menu. Github | LinkedIn | Instagram

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