#15: Fear and Failure

Fear can be a good thing. A fear of snakes, for example, can prevent you from picking up a rattlesnake and  subsequently getting bit.

Fear can also be a bad thing, though, since it can prevent you from doing things that would benefit you and maybe other people as well. A fear of rejection might prevent you from asking out a person to whom you are attracted and prevent you from finding your soul mate. A fear of public speaking might mean that the world will never benefit from your ideas. And in your career, a fear of failure might be the principal obstacle to your success.

If you are to thrive as a human being, it is important that you overcome your fears—not all of them, but many of them. The Stoics realized as much and as a result took an interest in courage. We ought, they said, to become more courageous. This raises two questions: Can courage be developed? And if so, how?

To develop your courage, you must overcome fears, and the best way to do this is arguably the same way as you might overcome an allergy. By exposing yourself, in ever-increasing doses, to the thing that makes you sneeze, you can overcome an allergy—or at least this is the thinking behind allergy shots. In similar fashion, you can become more courageous by exposing yourself, in a measured way, to things you fear.

Psychologist Albert Ellis was a pioneer in cognitive behavioral therapy, the branch of psychology that is most in tune with the advice on living given by the ancient Stoics. As a young man, Ellis had a fear of women.

He conquered this fear by giving himself the assignment of hanging out at the Bronx Botanical Garden and introducing himself to a hundred of the women he encountered there. No lasting relationship resulted from this experience, but he overcame his fear of talking to women. He taught himself that being rebuffed by a woman isn’t the end of the world.

A fear of public speaking can be overcome with a similar strategy. You start out by offering a few words before a small and friendly group. Thus emboldened, you move on to bigger audiences. Then the day comes when, as you are speaking before a large and important audience, you realize, much to your amazement, that you are not afraid! (This, at any rate, was my experience.)

In some cases, we fear something because we fear for our health or life. In other cases, what we fear is failure. It is a fear that many people are haunted by, and it is a fear that can severely limit their ability to succeed in life.

People often make the mistake of thinking that successful individuals owe their success to their ability to avoid failure, when in fact the opposite is usually the case: successful people succeed because they do not fear failure and therefore can embrace it. In other words, it is their tolerance for failure that enables them to succeed.

Along these lines, consider James Dyson, inventor of the famous Dyson vacuum. To get to his final design, he had to work his way through 5,127 failed designs. When a prototype failed, Dyson didn’t respond by quitting. He instead learned from his mistakes and thought up ways to overcome them.

His story is not unusual. Most successful people not only admit their own failures but become, in a way, connoisseurs of them. There is such a thing as a “wonderful failure”; this is one that although it cost them dearly in terms of time and effort, enabled them to make a quantum leap forward in their creative endeavors.

Any work of art is likely to be the end result of a long series of failures.  Painters might repaint a canvas or parts of it many times until they get it right. Novelists might rewrite a chapter dozens of times before they find the version that works. These failed attempts, I should add, are not evidence of artistic incompetence; indeed, just the opposite.

If your endeavors never fail, it could be because you are very good at what you do.  It is much more likely, though, that the reason for your “success” is that you are afraid to fail and are therefore systematically avoiding doing difficult things.

Stoic advice: try to do something difficult!  And by difficult, I mean something that is difficult for you; other people might find it easy to do the thing in question.  As you undertake your chosen task, remember that it is better to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all because you feared failure.

Remember, too, that by desensitizing yourself to failure and by learning from the failures that will accompany the desensitization process, you can dramatically increase your chances of success.

#14: Call Your Mother!

In a previous post, I presented what I described as the Stoic formula for a happy, meaningful life:

     X = the number of days you have left to live

I explained that for most people, most of the time, the value of X is unknown. The important thing to keep in mind is that whatever its value may be, it is finite.

Living with this formula in mind might sound depressing, but the Stoics knew that doing so could prevent them from wasting the time they have left to them. Should you spend today having a stupid argument with a co-worker or relative? If you keep in mind that your days are numbered, you will realize that doing so would be a waste of a precious resource.

In this post, I would like to introduce another, related formula:

     X = the number of times you will do something in the remainder of your life

The activity in question might be something trivial, like playing hopscotch. I suspect that my X-value for this activity is 0. The activity might also be something poetical, like catching a snowflake on your tongue; something unpleasant, like paying your taxes; or something delightful, like having dinner with close friends.

No matter what the activity, the value of X will be finite. This is because we have finite time remaining to us, and the things we do all take time.

One logical consequence of the above formula is that for every activity we do, there will be a last time we do it. This fact recently came to mind when my lawn mower, which had been in a long state of decline, finally died. As I drove to a hardware store to get its replacement, it dawned on me that this would likely be the last time in my life that I bought a lawn mower.

My previous mower lasted twenty years. If the mower I was buying lasted that long, I would be in my eighties when it died. Would I still be living in a house with a lawn then? If I were, would I still be mowing it myself, or would I be paying someone else to do it? And indeed, would I even “outlive” the mower I was buying? Would it watch my decline, and on some summer day in the future wonder whatever became of “the mowing man”?

When I shared these thoughts with friends, some of them spontaneously emitted the “Awwww” sound of sympathy. It was, they believed, a dark thought for me to be having and a sign that I needed cheering up. But no cheering up was necessary. For a Stoic, the realization that you might be doing something for the last time is a profoundly life affirming thought to have.

The Stoics do not advise us to dwell on the fact that we might be doing something for the last time. What they recommend is that while we are doing an activity, we allow ourselves to have a flickering thought that this could conceivably be the last time we do it—that for this activity, our X=0. By having this thought, we increase our chances of becoming fully engaged in the activity instead of merely sleepwalking through it, as is so often the case.

Along these lines, it is one thing to kiss someone you love when you think that the kiss can be repeated at will. It is quite another to kiss that person when you do so in the knowledge that it will be—or even might be—the last time you kiss them.

And there is another important thing to realize about the above formula: you probably have it in your power to turn X into X+1! You need only go out of your way to do something one extra time. At this very moment, there are X more times you will kiss the person you love. But if, as the result of reading this, you go give him or her a kiss that you otherwise wouldn’t have given, you will increase this number to X+1. And chances are you will have fun doing it!

Is your mother still alive? Then realize that you will talk to her only X more times in the course of your life. The exact value of X is unknown, but realize that it is necessarily a finite number: either your death or hers will end the possibility of conversations. But you have it in your power to increase the value of X to X+1: all you need to do is pick up a phone and give her a call! And while you have her, ask her to put your father on the line.