Cobalt Communications The Art + Science of Understanding

The Quest after Catastrophe: Deconstructing the Fear of Failure

I can still remember — vividly — my first creative writing class in college. I turned in my first short story, and I thought I had knocked it out of the park. William Faulkner, eat your heart out, I crowed to myself as I took my place in the circle of fellow students who were about to critique my work. Then the onslaught started. They hated it. They picked it apart. They pulled the meat from the bones like vultures attacking a carcass on the African savanna.
by William Harris
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The most stinging comment: “This story isn’t just a cliché — it’s a cliché about a cliché.”

I’m not sure I even understood the comment, but one thing was clear: the group hated the story, and I felt like a failure. I went back to my dorm room and thought about dropping the class. After all, I was a biology major. Why torture myself with an elective class when there were other, perfectly safe alternatives?

But I didn’t drop the class. I went back, with my chin held high. And I wrote another story. And another. And another.

None were particularly good, but with each one I learned a little bit more about what had to be done to improve, to tell a better story. Eventually, finally, long after college and after lots of bad stories, I wrote a story called “The Spacesuit Maker” that was recognized in the Writer’s Digest Fiction Writing Competition. Then another story was accepted into a small magazine. And so on.

The Long, Dark, Tortuous Journey

This is not a unique experience. Almost all of us would acknowledge the age-old platitude, “We only learn when we fail.”

So why, if we accept this to be true, do so many of us fear failure? Why do we pull back from risky situations, avoid challenges and embrace the status quo?

One reason is baked into the we-only-learn-when-we-fail platitude. It makes the whole process sound way too easy, too attainable. Unfortunately, it’s not easy at all. True learning only comes from the long, dark, tortuous journey — the pathway to understanding — that comes after we meet with disaster.

Many people who fear failure don’t actually fear the moment of failure itself. Instead, they fear the long, dark, tortuous journey that comes afterward. Because it’s not easy to make that journey and, in many cases, it’s downright painful.

In other words, learning is not an instant outcome of a failure; it’s a quest. It took me 11 years and thousands of words to make the trek from that first disastrous story in college to “The Spacesuit Maker.” That’s a seriously long and winding road to turn failure into success.

And it forms the foundation of my argument: many people who fear failure don’t actually fear the moment of failure itself. Instead, they fear the long, dark, tortuous journey that comes afterward. Because it’s not easy to make that journey and, in many cases, it’s downright painful.

Fear Itself

If my thesis is correct, what’s one to do with it? Is it possible to use the information to improve our lives or actually overcome fear? I think so, especially if we analyze my assertion in the context of some common refrains we love to throw around when the topic of fear comes up.

So, let’s take each one and evaluate its merits. Is it helpful? Does it make sense? Can it lead us to be more courageous?

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Fail fast. Fail fast is the central philosophy of the lean startup methodology, and it basically argues that companies trying to introduce a new product or service should take an incremental approach to development. In other words, move quickly to key milestones (such as prototype creation) and keep testing those milestones for customer satisfaction to make sure the product or service still meets end-user needs before investing more time and money. Companies that don’t do this risk succumbing to the sunk cost effect, which is the tendency to keep investing in something that clearly isn’t working.

What if you’re not a software company or an auto manufacturer? I still believe the fail fast concept can be quite useful. Think about it: one of the reasons we fear the long, dark, tortuous journey — in fact, what makes it so — is that the road is filled with potholes, wrong turns and dead ends. If you never check your progress while you’re on a quest, how will you know you’re heading in the right direction? All of which leads us to another timeworn adage: every journey begins with a single step. Don’t be afraid to take that first step or the second or the third or the three-hundredth. But make sure you keep your eyes up and check your progress frequently. Because while a journey is required to learn from failure, it doesn’t need to be longer or more arduous than necessary.

Perfect is the enemy of good. How many businesses have you known that delayed launching a website until every last page or feature was completed? Or didn’t pull the trigger on a marketing campaign because the landing page wasn’t exactly right? Or didn’t begin reaching out to prospects until the CRM had been set up and tweaked? Heck, we’ve all been guilty of this at one point or another, which means we’ve been guilty of not seeing perfection for what it really is — an enemy hellbent on destroying us.

The first thing to accept: perfection does not exist and is therefore unattainable (sort of like infinity or the Easter Bunny). If it’s unattainable, we shouldn’t be holding back until we possess it because, of course, we’ll be holding back forever. Now consider this in the frame of the long, dark, tortuous journey. If we’re on the road to enlightenment but never see a destination emerge on the horizon and then draw closer, then something is wrong. At the same time, if we never take the first step because we assume that, no matter how far we walk, we’ll never make it to some faraway Oz, then that is equally destructive.

And let me be clear, in case there is some confusion: the pursuit of perfection — the desire to do great things — can and should be a powerfully motivating force. But if perfection does not exist, then we must accept that a good outcome on the road to perfection is a completely reasonable conclusion.

The art of the possible. The “art of the possible,” a popular sentiment in business these days, is nothing more than a repackaging of “perfect is the enemy of good.” If you accept that perfection is impossible, then that only leaves something less than perfect as possible. And that, of course, is the basic idea here: to get something that is good enough and move on rather than being driven into complete immobility by a desire to be perfect.

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Don’t sweat the small stuff. In the case of an apocalypse, “don’t sweat the small stuff” makes a lot of sense. If an asteroid struck the earth tomorrow, then the details of everyday life — organizing receipts for taxes or dusting the baseboards or changing the oil in your car — seem trivial. But living life as if such an apocalypse were imminent seems counterproductive at best, irresponsible at worst.

In fact, I might argue that sweating the small stuff is a necessity if you want to overcome a fear of failure. Why? Because you have much greater control over the small stuff, and it’s easier to get one small thing right. In the context of the long, dark, tortuous journey, the small stuff describes the steps you take and the things you do proactively to move farther down the road and closer to your destination.

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There’s nothing to fear except fear itself. Ah, the granddaddy of all fear-conquering, confidence-boosting statements, courtesy of FDR’s inaugural address in 1933. But what does it really mean? This is what he said in his speech: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Basically, I think FDR was saying that it’s easy to become fixated on the things that could go wrong. Not only that, it’s easy to take small things and blow them out of proportion. A sniffle becomes the flu. A small leak means the whole roof needs to be replaced. Rejection on one story proves that you’re a lousy writer. It’s so easy to let fear consume you, to give it the space to grow in size until it controls everything.

But if you can focus on one small, achievable task, then fear recedes into the background. It puts you in the driver’s seat instead of being a passenger in fear’s joyride. And this is exactly what FDR was trying to say to the American people as the Great Depression gripped the nation: don’t obsess over “nameless, unreasoning terror” — stay positive, stay focused on the little things and keep moving forward.

Failure as Fuel for Innovation

So, what can we take away from this? First, acknowledge that perfection is an illusion and cannot be achieved. Next, accept the fact that you’re going to fail sometimes and that the failure will take you on a long, dark, tortuous journey to understanding. Finally, know that you are in control of that journey. You have the power to take the first step, to see it all the way to its conclusion and to emerge a smarter, stronger person. That is where the true capacity for innovation exists.
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Then the moon was before her. Not an image plucked from her memory or fabricated by her imagination, but a genuine lunar vista: barren, stark, beautiful in its simplicity. A pockmarked plain unfolded to the horizon, where a lunar rille rose into the sky like an alien creature's bony spine. And above the hills, Earth, lying against the nothingness of outer space as if it were a marvelous gemstone placed on top of black velvet. Janice even had to reach up with her gloved hand and descend the helmet's solar shield to protect her eyes from the sun, which was whiter and brighter on this world with no atmosphere.

Click to read “The Spacesuit Maker.”