To succeed in craftwork, we need to be bold. But most of us fear failure. Starting in elementary school, we’re taught to value the right answer. Getting an “F” on a test is considered an academic disaster. Errors at work can lead to humiliation, a bad performance review, or even losing your job. Because most people have had disastrous experiences with failure, even small mistakes can seem scary. We don’t know how to conquer fear of failure. So, too often, we try to avoid making any mistakes at all.
But what is the price of not failing?
To grow as an artist, you need to try new things, develop new skills. But when you start something new, you don’t have any skills. You’re like a baby taking its first few steps. So you will inevitably fall down – a lot – on the way to success.
The only way to avoid failure entirely is to do the same thing over and over again, staying in your comfort zone. If you do, you’ll rarely fail, but you’ll also never improve your work. If you avoid mistakes entirely, it’s easy to get into a rut, or to get bored doing the same things over and over again.
So to succeed and grow, you need to conquer fear of failure.
Common fears around failure
So what makes it so hard to embrace failing? Here are a few common fears.
- Failing means I’m a failure – a talentless hack. I’ll never succeed.
- I’ll be embarrassed in front of everyone. Everyone will think I’m a failure.
- Failing means I’ll waste precious time and materials.
The consequences of failure usually aren’t as serious as these fears suggest. Failures in your early work don’t indicate lack of talent – they indicate lack of skill, and skills can be developed. Over time, your work will improve. An individual piece may not live up to your expectations, but you are not your work: you can, and will, develop and grow.
Similarly, embarrassment is a temporary thing, and easy to avoid, at least in craftwork. You don’t need to show your failed pieces to others if you don’t want to. And most people are less relentlessly perfectionist than you will be: your harshest judge is usually yourself. Also, most people won’t pay that much attention to your mistakes, even the embarrassing ones. A wise friend once told me, “You’ll worry much less what people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.”
Finally, time and materials “wasted” in a mistake are not truly wasted. Every project is valuable in three ways. First and foremost is growth. Did you learn something from the project? If so, the time and materials spent are not a loss at all – they are an investment in your own artistic growth, because as you grow, you will inevitably have some failures. Similarly, if you enjoyed the process of making it, your project was valuable. Your finished product is often the least valuable aspect of your work. So if you learned from the project, and you enjoyed making it, the time and materials are not wasted.
How to conquer fear of failure
These are logical answers to common fears, but fear is not logical. So you need to do a little more to conquer those fears. So – as strange as it sounds – the way to conquer fear of failure is simply to practice failing. By deliberately engaging in small failures, then stretching yourself to progressively bigger ones, you’ll build your courage slowly, teaching your emotional self that mistakes are a healthy part of learning, not something to be feared.
So practice failing. Do something new, or something a little more ambitious than usual. Make your project something small, that doesn’t cost a lot of time or require expensive materials, so mistakes won’t be costly. If that project succeeds, continue stretching your limits further and further until you have a small failure. Then look back at it and answer these questions for yourself:
- Did you learn anything in the process of making this failure?
- Were you emotionally traumatized by having failed at this small thing?
- How much did the mistake actually cost you, in time and materials?
Answering those questions for yourself will help you put your mistake into perspective, and see the positive aspects of failure.
Keep making mistakes
Continue to conquer your fear of failure by deliberately making mistakes on a small scale. After a few times, you’ll find it easier to embrace your errors, to recognize them as minor setbacks en route to learning new things. The key is to fail often and fail small, especially at the start. Most people fear failure because they had a few big, traumatic mistakes early on. Taking on too much risk too early may set you back in conquering your fear of failure. So before risking major failures, practice small and medium ones first. Eventually you’ll work your way up to taking bigger errors in stride.
One way to practice failure is by deliberately taking up activities that you enjoy but are not good at, where you can expect to fail often on the way to mastery. For example, I studied Tai Chi for a few years, because my physical coordination is terrible and I expected it to be hard. And for the first few months, I made lots of errors. My feet and hands just wouldn’t work together. But I enjoyed the meditative aspects of the art, and it gave me a good chance to practice making – and correcting – mistakes. Over the course of a year, I became the best beginning Tai Chi student in the class – not through natural talent but by being very persistent in my practice of failure.
Even after you’ve conquered your fear of failure, plan to make small failures regularly. Courage is like a muscle – if you don’t exercise it regularly, it gets soft and flabby. So too much time between mistakes can make them feel scary again. So make sure you fail often, at least in small ways – that will keep your courage exercised and strong. And that courage, in turn, will help you dare great things.
I hope this blog post has helped you conquer your fear of failure! If you enjoyed this post or found it helpful, please spread the word by sharing it, using the buttons below.