I used to think that I was immune from the ‘fear of failure’. I understood (superficially): first, that mistakes happen all the time; second, that I can learn from them; third, that no-one is really paying enough attention to judge or laugh at me, and: fourth, that even if they did, that would be their problem, not mine.
I’ve recently realised that a ‘fear of failure’ is far subtler and manifests itself in far more nebulous ways.
I was lucky enough to grow up in a really encouraging environment – parents who wanted me to learn instruments (although in the early guitar-learning days my fellow schoolmates probably didn’t), teachers that cast me in pretty good roles in school theatre productions, a general push to set high academic targets, and so on.
The self-confidence instilled in me by all these people around is still there, but it’s become encased in an outer shell of other behaviours, all of which relate to this broader ‘fear of failure’:
- I don’t invest enough in myself – financially I mean, I’m really reluctant to spend money on things like courses, equipment and digital tools even though objectively I understand how important all those things are. Whether it’s a better guitar, more advanced recording software, a social media course, Instagram Ads, etc, I find it hard to justify in my head
- I undersell myself: when people ask me what I do for a living, I still repeatedly downplay my various musical projects as ‘new’ or ‘experimental’ despite the fact that if I have a conversation with a musician I genuinely believe that I have more songwriting experience and understanding than them
- I set under-ambitious goals/dreams (more on these next week): for example, rather than trying to win a Grammy for my songwriting and earn enough income to invest into changing the music industry for other musicians, I’m just looking to make a humble living out of my songwriting. I can pretend these goals are just shorter term steps to a bigger goal, but deep down I know that’s a lie: I need to aim higher
- I put off starting certain things that I know are within my abilities (or require some investment – see Point 1) for no reason other than I’m not sure they’ll work out. A great example is my YouTube Channel, which took me 12 months longer to launch than it should have!
I’m finally admitting to myself that there’s something to tackle, though I still don’t understand how to solve it, or even exactly what the problem is.
I’m going to try and answer those two questions here, by:
– Using real specific examples, like the ones above, to identify lots of different meanings of ‘failure’
– For each example, think of ways I could tackle it
Also – I’m using myself as an example (like a sort of ‘open journal’) but I don’t want this article to be all about me! I’d love it if you think of how some of these might apply to you, and comment below…
‘If I’d NOT done this, I could have spent my time on something more useful.’
Here’s an example:
‘I have a new song and would love to get it featured on the radio. I should write to dozens of relevant radio shows to share my song with them. But what if I get no replies? I could have spent that time on something better.’
This fear is based on the assumption that I always use my time wisely. That I somehow use 100% of my working day to do useful things. Obviously this assumption is wrong.
It’s also based on an assumption that doing something for an outcome, and not getting that outcome, therefore means that you ‘wasted’ that time (and money). As I said in my very first paragraph, you can always get some educational value out of a mistake, especially a new one.
But it’s still a fear that I feel all the time – even for tasks that seem more inherently valuable, like filming a Skillshare class teaching people how to write songs – it feels like there are too many possible things to do with my time, and the difficulty making a choice is overwhelming.
I need to recalibrate what is or isn’t a ‘waste of time’ and teach myself to make the decisions quicker and just get on with it.
I need to be able to look back on many hours doing a task that is neither fun nor produces the result I want, but still see value in it.
This is far easier when you can justify that work as ‘educational’ – you learn something from it. So filming a Skillshare class, through which I can practice filming/editing and also hone my teaching skills, seems easier to justify than sending countless emails.
But I want to get to a stage where the list of things that I know are a ‘waste of time’ is very narrow. Things that either damage my health without any inherent pleasure (e.g. staying drinking at a pub later than I actually want) or conversations with people that bring no value (e.g. purely emotional arguments where you let out your frustration on someone else without helping either person).
I need to see everything else as an acceptable use of time. I need to remind myself that I’m not a 100% efficient creature that would otherwise spend all my working hours songwriting, reading and learning… in between there are always countless minutes of procrastination and overthinking anyway, and that’s totally fine.
‘If I do this, and it doesn’t bring about the outcome I want, it shows that I’m not as ‘good’ or ‘clever’ or ‘talented’ as I thought.’
Here’s an example:
‘If I launch a solo project, what if within a year I have barely any listeners? This would suggest that I’m not as good a songwriter as I’d thought.’
I’m not focusing in the longer term on all the other factors that might affect my songs’ performance – how they were marketed, competition from other music, the Zeitgeist, etc. Instead, the success of the music is inextricably linked to my own identity. Failed songs = failed songwriter.
I read an excellent book recently called Mastery by Robert Greene – it explores the steps you need to take to master something, by reference to a series of ultra-successful people who changed the world in their given field.
One of the points Greene makes is that, what all these ‘Masters’ have in common is not some inherent talent not possessed by everyone else around them, but a singular drive and persistence that meant that they couldn’t not be hyper successful.
To put it another way, hard work trumps ability. And obviously you make your own luck – if you keep plugging away at your passion and constantly find ways to improve, you will eventually bring about the conditions needed to make you succeed.
Accepting this leads to 2 conclusions:
- Outcome doesn’t determine ability, but instead it evidences the work you’ve put in
- Achieving a good outcome requires a lot of work, and a lot of work in turn requires you to start things and risk them failing, so you can quickly move on (‘fail fast and often’)
To return quickly to my example, if I launch as a solo artist, release my first songs, and no one listens to them, I need to release more so that I don’t need to be defined by the first set of songs. Instead I can be defined by my work ethic – ‘this is a songwriter that releases lots of music – he’s still exploring his sound until he finds the right formula’.
‘If I do this and don’t get the outcome I want, it’ll damage my reputation and thus make it harder for me to achieve things in future.’
We live in a world where our future opportunities seem to be strongly linked to our past successes.
This is especially true in the music industry, where people stress the importance of first impressions. If a record label comes across your music (or image) and doesn’t really like it, they’ll always remember you as someone of no interest to them.
With my solo project example: ‘if my first song flops, who will want to listen to the second one?’
There might be practical ways around all this – like changing your name, or changing your location (if I don’t make it in the UK, why not try the USA?), etc. But how can I get over the problem of attitude?
To quickly zone in on the specific problem of ‘first impressions in the music industry’- I’ve always dealt with this problem by thinking that the sorts of people I would want to work with in music would be those people who are willing to give people a second chance instead of being governed by first impressions. Time and time again I have found my first impressions of people to be totally wrong. I therefore value an open mind and want my future record label, publisher or manager to share that value.
Exploring this more generally, I think solving this problem involves focusing on your own process and values (for me this means wanting to explore different ideas and just keep writing lots of songs) and let the right people come to you. If some people don’t like what you’re doing, they’re not the audience you should be worrying about for now.
‘If I do this, and don’t get the outcome I want, how could I believe in myself in the future?’
The effect of not being good enough goes beyond how others perceive you – it’s a question of your identity and how you perceive yourself. This is an extension of the previous point about it constituting proof that I’m not as good as I thought. By definition, that involves a challenge to my previous self-belief, a challenge that might make me question my self-belief in the future.
‘I believed my song was going to succeed and spread quickly from person to person as people shared it with their friends. They didn’t and so my belief was wrong. Which other of my beliefs are also wrong?’
There’s a fear that failure is a vicious spiral – you fail one project so you’re less likely to succeed in the next one as your self-confidence has been knocked.
I try to solve this specific fear by taking a really analytical approach to my music and ‘failures’. It’s easier to accept that a particular belief was wrong when you make it really narrow.
So, for example, rather than thinking ‘my music was bad, that’s why people didn’t like it’, instead I’ll think ‘the over-use of electronic instruments didn’t quite work, that’s why people didn’t like it.’
It’s less emotionally draining to accept that specific decision was wrong or some form of creative exploration didn’t work. It also gives me something to try next, rather than leaving me feeling completely lost.
This is another way of reminding yourself to look closer at what you’re doing. Trying to find reasons rather than drawing wide, far-reaching conclusions.
‘If I do this, and don’t get the outcome I want, this is going to make me sad and regretful.’
Another angle to the emotional impact of the failure is the idea of ‘regret’. A friend of mine recently defined ‘regret’ very succinctly as ‘mistakes with emotional attachment’ (thanks Kin!).
Regret is one of the least glamorous emotions – no one wants to feel such intense mourning of something as precious and finite as time.
You might be thinking – surely you’re more likely to regret not doing something, than doing something and failing?
I think that’s true, but the flipside is also true, based on my point above about time-wasting (‘there was a better way to spend that time, but now it’s gone. I regret that.’)
More broadly, there’s a risk of sadness that comes attached to failure. Throughout this article I’ve referred to failure as ‘not getting the wanted outcome’. It means you still want the thing, ‘want’ is another word for ‘lack’, and the thing you’re ‘lacking’ is some sort of fulfillment. ‘Unfulfillment’ equals ‘sadness’.
This takes a lot of effort and time, but I’m trying to appreciate the process more and more because if I can make the process itself fulfilling, not just the outcome, I won’t feel unfulfilled when the outcome is missing, because the process is still there.
Obviously this is easier for some tasks (writing new songs) than others (sending lots of emails), but day-to-day I somehow have to make all those processes enjoyable.
This last point will be explored in next week’s article, about the crucial distinction between ‘dreams’ and ‘goals’.
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