“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.” ~ Paulo Coelho
About eight years ago, I had to visit a specialist to find out what allergies and sensitivities I have, prior to having surgery to correct my deviated septum (aka yes, I've had a reconstructive nose job, on account of having been hit with a light sabre/baseball bat as a kid, and falling off bikes to land of my schnoz). I sat and had my arm scratched up to discover that I’m allergic to a number of irritants: grass and hay, pollen, cedar, dust and mosquitos. None of this was particularly surprising to me, given that I have itched, hived, sneezed and reacted to the above for most of my life.
A couple of weeks ago, however, I realized that I have an allergy for which they couldn’t test: I’m allergic to failure. Or I may as well be, given the lengths to which I’ll go to avoid anything that even remotely smells, looks, sounds or otherwise resembles it.
Yup, I avoid failure like I avoid mosquitos, which is to say to the best of my ability, since the little buggers frigging love me and one bite will create a heat-radiating hive the size of my fist. I HATE mosquitos. I mean it. I hate them. I’m positive, that since they flock to me, my odds of getting bit by one of those little bastards bearing malaria or some other equally life-threatening disease are significantly higher than most. You could say I view mosquitos as potential threats to my survival.
I've spent most of my life viewing failure as equally fatal, and avoiding it accordingly.
At first I laughed at the idea of being allergic to failure. It does sound pretty funny, after all, and it resonated with me. But the more I thought about it, the better the metaphor fit. I haven’t necessarily lived to create success; I’ve lived to avoid failing. They are not the same thing. Avoiding failure ≠ creating success.
It’s not failing that’s the problem. It’s my relationship to failing that causes my discomfort.
What are the symptoms of an allergy to failure? I’ll use the increasingly popular peanut allergy to paint the picture:
- Paranoia: Someone who’s allergic to peanuts has to be ever vigilant, because if they’re not sure, that slice of cake could kill them.
Because I’m positive that my imminent failure is lurking behind every decision I make, just waiting to take me down, I keep looking for it, everywhere. I’m never not looking for the worst-case scenario or expecting to bomb. I see my weaknesses and shortcomings, instead of my talents and power.
- Resistance to trying anything new/Missing out: How do I know for sure this treat came from a facility that has never ever been graced by the presence of a peanut? I’d better skip it — no treat for me.
When I was about four or five years old, my mom signed me up for swimming lessons (for which I’m eternally grateful). God bless her, she loves to tell people that I had a meltdown and refused to go to the lessons, because — get this — “I didn’t know how to swim.”
In my mind, the fact that I didn’t already know how to swim perfectly meant I couldn’t take the lesson. Learning how and risking doing it wrong, splashing or, more likely, drown and die. Obviously.
“But Bay, of course you don’t know how yet; that’s why you take the lessons.” Thank God she stuck to her guns; I’m a confident swimmer and I love the water, and I’m so glad to not share the discomfort others experience in the water.
Here’s the best part: I actually already knew how to swim. I’d been swimming since before I’d been walking, or so the story goes in my family. But this was learning a NEW way to swim, not with water wings. So clearly I would fail.
There are probably a lot more similarities, but I’d rather jump to the punch line.
Do you know how allergies work? The simple explanation is that your body perceives an allergen (which can be just about anything) as a potential threat to your safety. Your body goes on the offense as a defence: It produces histamines to attack the allergen, which results in the typical allergic reaction, ranging from the itchy, watery eyes and sneezing experienced by hayfever sufferers, all the way to respiratory distress and throat closing, to anaphylactic shock, and if untreated in the worst cases, death. We take antihistamines to reduce our body’s reaction and counteract the histamines our body has produced.
Did you catch the real kicker in there? The thing you are allergic to is not actually a threat. Your reaction to the perceived threat is what does you in. The peanut does not kill the victim; the victim’s system’s physical response to the peanut is what kills them. Failure isn't the problem; your relationship to failure is what kills you (metaphorically speaking).
My allergy to failure shows up in various places:
- I wanted to be an actor (hell, I still do) and even attended a prestigious performing arts college as a dancer, actor, singer. I had my headshots, my training and a lot of natural talent, but I was so afraid that I wouldn’t make it that I spoke to exactly guess how many agents? Yeah. None. Not a one. Zero. I was so deterred by the thought of not making it, that I never actually tried to make it at all.
- During my university days, I took internships and co-op jobs that set me up financially and responsibly for jobs that would be secure and set me up for stable government employment after I graduated, and keep me out of student debt. I missed out on anthropological digs in Jordan. I didn’t take any of the multitude of opportunities to study abroad or throw some clothes in a backpack and see the world during the summers in between semesters. I ended up in student debt anyway, and working for large organizations where I felt trapped, unfulfilled and uninspired.
- Even now, I know some amazing people I’d love to work with in my capacity as a coach, but I don’t reach out to them, in case they say no. I’m so caught up with the perceived rejection and failure that I don’t even try to connect with them at all.
Now that I see this, I can see where I can make changes. Avoiding failure isn’t the same as creating the success I really want, so all there is for me to do is notice when and where I stop, and then go one step more. I can look for evidence of times that failing hasn’t killed me (because I assure you, I have failed at things, and since I’m typing this, I can also assure you that I’m definitely still alive).
Can you relate? Where have you been treating failure like an allergy? Career? Relationships? Health? Now that you can see it, what will you do about it?