The Debilitating Fear of Failure


The reason we struggle with insecurity,” notes Pastor Steven Furtick, “Is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.”

Some quotes educate us on matters we know nothing about, but the truly great ones take a matter we know everything about and puts a clever twist on it that changes our perspective. We all know failure, or some level of it, at various points of our life. Some of those failures have shaped us in profound ways that we assume everyone remembers the moment we enter a room, and some people will remember our failings, but will they remember their own, or will they compare our failings to their highlight reels.

Pastor Steven Furtick

Pastor Steven Furtick

Those of us that can be crippled by insecurity when comparing our behind-the-scenes struggles to everyone else’s highlight reels, do develop some defense mechanisms to help us deal with others looking at us too much, in those everybody-in-the-room-is-staring-at-us moments, but there is a part of us that thinks that these moments have to be dealt with in some fashion if we are ever going to find a way to properly move on.

Acknowledging failure,” Megan McArdles writes in the book The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success, “Is a necessary first step in learning from it.”

Some of us are old enough to remember the severe penalty for missing a rung on the monkey bars.  An erroneous grab, at the very least, could land a victim center-of-attention status, as we attempted to find our feet.  At worst, it would cause the pack of onlookers to send an emissary to the office with a call for assistance.  These everyone-is-looking-at-you moments are so immersed in embarrassment, and pain, that few can see that there is any benefit to them.

Most of those in charge, and liable for such situations, have lowered the monkey bars, and made the ground a forgivable entity that one would have to fall from a skyscraper to get hurt.  Fewer children get hurt on the playground anymore, thanks to some technological advances we have made to prevent injury; and fewer playgrounds get sued, as a result; and everyone is much happier.  Except for one minor, little byproduct: The pain of failure is diminished.

When those disastrous, everybody-in-the-room-is-looking-at-me moments of failure occur, most of us cannot see any immediate benefits to it. Who would want a crying child? Why wouldn’t we do everything in our power to prevent any kind of injury?

After a near fall in a supermarket, the checker that witnessed the incident in which I managed to avoid touching ground, commented on my agility and nimbleness.  “It could be that,” I returned,  “Or it could be said that only one so well-practiced in the art of falling knows how to lessen the pain and injury normally associated with it.”

I eventually did touch ground a short time later, at a family reunion.  I also touched a parked car at a velocity that I now associate with pain.  Had it been a simple fall, it would be hardly worth noting.  This was one of those by-the-time-this-ends type of falls all spectators will be looking.  I thought I had my balance corrected on two different occasions, but I was moving too fast. By the time it was finally over, I had silenced just about everyone in the vicinity. The kids around me laughed, as kids will do when anyone falls, and my age-denying (Not Defying!) brother laughed, but if the Greg Giraldo line, “You You know you’re getting old when you fall down, no one laughs and random strangers come running over acting all concerned,” is true, and it is, then I am getting old.

Most lessons in life are learned the hard way, and they are often learned in total isolation, in that even our closest friends and family members distance themselves from us in these moments, so that they cannot be associated with them.  These dissociations range from laughter to sympathy, but the latter can be just as dissociative as the former if it’s done a right.  The point is, no matter how these moments of failure are dealt with, we usually end up having to deal with them alone.  If we do learn how to deal with these moments, that are largely inconsequential, but also vital to growth, we feel we can gain an ability to deal with what may turn out to be more consequential failures down the road.

The point is that those life lessons, that are learned through pain and embarrassment, are lessened by lowering the monkey bars, providing a forgiving ground, and instituting zero tolerance bully campaigns.  The point is that those of us that see little-to-no benefit derived from bullying, or that the benefits are inconsequential when compared to the damage done by the bully may eventually see the fact that few lessons in life are learned by the individual, until those kids enter adult arenas.

A quote like Pastor Steven Furtick’s, also tells us the obvious fact that we’re not alone in having moments of failure, but that those that can deal with them in the proper perspective  might actually be able to use them to succeed on some levels.

Artistic Creations

Any individual that attempts to create some form of art knows more about comparing another’s “highlight reels” to their “behind-the-scenes” efforts better than most.

In the process of becoming an artist, every individual artist has a shining light that influences them.  That shining light provides a template for which the artistic form, that interests the young artist, should be accomplished.  For the purpose of this discussion, let’s say that shining light of influence is Stephen King, since is the most ubiquitous and influential author to most young writers of the modern age.  After reading King often enough, a young writer may believe he can write like King.  After repeated attempts, this young writer eventually realizes he can’t write like King, but in the course of those efforts he may have almost inadvertently created a voice that is somewhat his own.  After repeated attempts to further develop this voice, some otherwise inconsequential person comes along, reads his stuff,  and picks out a line or two saying, “That’s halfway decent.”  Buoyed by the compliment, the writer expands upon those few lines and begins to grow so divergent that the Stephen King influence is no longer as recognizable in his writing.

The point of this very succinct summation of the artistic process is that if the writer gets bogged down in any phase of the process, with the idea that he can’t write duplicate King’s highlight reels the writer is done before they get started.  If that young writer eventually learns that taking that influence, from that influential writer, is simply a part of the process to developing a voice, he may be able to develop his own highlight reels.

1455Ernest Hemingway

How many times did Ernest Hemingway grow insecure when comparing his behind-the-scenes efforts to the shining lights that preceded him?  How many times did he fail, how many times did he quit, and give up, under that personally assigned barometer, before finally finding a unique path to success?

Even in the prime of his writing career, Hemingway admitted that about one-percent of what he wrote was usable.  Think about that, one-percent of what he wrote for The Old Man and the Sea, was publishable, worth seeing, and that which Hemingway considered worthy of the highlight reel that we know as the thin book called The Old Man and the Sea.  The other ninety-nine percent of what he wrote, proved to be unpublishable by Hemingway’s standards.  Yet, this highlight reel of the Old Man and the Sea writing sessions are what has inspired generations of writers to write, and frustrated those that don’t consider all of the behind-the-scenes writing that never made it in the book’s final form.

mark-twain-6fa45e42400eea8cac3953cb267d66a33825a370-s6-c30Mark Twain

Most of what Mark Twain wrote was dreck,” writes Kyle Smith.{1}

Most of us know Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, the highlight reels of Mark Twain’s writing.  We know the infamous Twain quotes that occurred in the numerous speeches he gave, and the essays that he wrote, but it is believed that he wrote as many as 50,000 letters, 3,000 to 4,000 newspaper and magazine articles, and hundreds of thousands of words that were never published.  Twain also wrote hundreds of literary manuscripts—books, stories, and essays—that he published, and then abandoned, or gave away.  Almost all of it has been discovered over the last century, and placed in a home called The Mark Twain Papers.{2}

Very few of us are so interested in Mark Twain, or any of his writing, that we want to read his “dreck”.  Very few of us are so fanatical about Twain that we want to know the material he, and his publishers, deemed unpublishable.  Yet that “dreck” ended up fertilizing the foundation of his thought process so well that he churned out two highlight reels that many agree to be historic in nature.  Similarly, very few would want to want to watch a Michael Jordan, or a Deion Sanders, practice through the years to tweak, and foster their athletic talent to a point that we now have numerous three to four second highlight reels of their athletic prowess.  Their behind-the-scenes struggles may provide some interesting insight into their process, but they’ve become a footnote at the bottom of the page of their story that no one wants to endure in total.

nirvanain-365xXx80Kurt Cobain

When we hear the music contained on Nirvana’s Nevermind, we hear a different kind of genius at work.  We hear their highlight reels.  We don’t know, or care, about all of the “dreck” Kurt Cobain wrote in quiet corners.  Most of us, don’t know, or care, about the songs that didn’t make it on Nevermind.  Most of us don’t know, or care, about all the errors he committed, the refining, and the crafting that went into perfecting each song on the album, until the final form was achieved.  We only want the final form, the highlight reels, and some of us only want one highlight reel: Smells Like Teen Spirit.

On an album prior to Nirvana’s Nevermind, called Bleach, Kurt Cobain penned a song called Floyd the Barber.  “Where does the kernel of a song like that start?” Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell asked.  Cornell may not have come from the exact same background as Cobain, and he may not have been influenced by the exact same artists as Cobain, but he presumably felt like his creative process was close enough to Cobain’s that he couldn’t fathom how the man achieved such divergence from the norms of musical creation.  Those familiar with Cobain’s story also know that he was heavily influenced by the music of Soundgarden, and that fact probably confused Cornell all the more.

Other than Soundgarden, Cobain also loved Queen, The Beatles, The Pixies, The Melvins, and a number of other lesser known bands.  How much of his early works were so similar to those artists that no one took him seriously?  As I wrote earlier, it’s a major part of the artistic process that every artist goes through to attempt to duplicate influential artists in some manner.  It’s simply a part of the craft.  When that artist duplicates those that came before them often enough the artist (almost accidentally) begins to branch off into building something different… if they had any talent for creation in the first place.

Divergence in the artistic process

Few artists can pinpoint that exact moment when they were finally been able to break the shackles of their influences, for it happens so progressively that it’s almost impossible to pinpoint.  Most artists do remember that moment when that one, somewhat inconsequential person said that some aspect of their piece wasn’t half bad however.  At that point, the artist became obsessed to duplicate, or replicate, that nugget of an idea.  Once that nugget is added to another nugget, those nuggets become a bold idea that wasn’t half bad.  Once that is achieved, another bold idea is added, until it all equals a “halfway decent” compendium of ideas that may form something good.  At that point, the artist believes he has something that others may consider unique enough to be called an artistic creation in its own right.  When enough unique, artistic creations are complete, the artist may eventually achieve their own highlight reels.

When did Cobain finally begin to branch off?  How did he become divergent, and creative, and different on a level that made him an organic writer to be reckoned with?  How many casual statements, spray paintings on walls, and other assorted personal experiences had to occur before Kurt Cobain had the lyrics for Nevermind?  How many of the different guitar lines that worked their way into the final songs that made it on Nevermind, came from other failed songs, casual strummings in a closet, and offshoots of other guitarists?  What did Floyd the Barber, Come as You Are, and Pennyroyal Tea sound like in those moments when they first found their way from notepad to basement practice sessions?  How many transformations did these songs go through in those practice sessions, until they were entirely original, and transformative, and legendary additions to the albums they were included on?  Most of us don’t care, we only want to hear the highlight reels, so we have something to tap our finger to on the ride home from work.

Cobain’s highlight reel, Nevermind, proved to be so popular that record execs, and fans, called for a B-list, in the form of the album Incesticide.  That album proved Cobain’s B-list was better than most people’s A-list, but what about the D-list, and E-list songs that proved to be so embarrassing that no one outside his inner circle ever knew they existed?

The point is that some of us are so influenced by an artist’s highlight reels that we want to replicate it, and duplicate it, until we become equally as famous as a result, and when we don’t, we think that there is something wrong with us.  The point is that the difference between a Mark Twain, a Hemingway, a Cobain, and those that compare their behind-the-scenes work to an influential artist’s highlight reels is that while these artists recognized that most of what they did was “dreck”, they also knew that their behind-the-scenes struggles could be used as fertilizer to feed some flowers.

So, the next time you sit behind behind-the-scenes of your computer keyboard, tattered spiral notebook, or blank canvas, remember that all of those geniuses —that so inspired you to be doing what you are doing right now— probably spent as many hours as you do staring at a blank page, or a blinking cursor, trying to weed through all the “dreck”, that every artist creates, to create something different, something divergent from all those creations that inspired them to create.  You now know that they succeeded in that plight, but you only know that because all you want to see, hear, and read are their highlight reels.

{1}http://www.forbes.com/sites/kylesmith/2014/02/20/what-mark-twain-van-halen-and-dan-rather-teach-us-about-failure/

{2}http://www.marktwainproject.org/about_projecthistory.shtml

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