Afraid to try—or to fail?

When your first impulse is to run, our elder says fear not. And finish those projects you started.

Dear EWC:

Well, I am a 20-year old guy in college. I keep running away from things I care about, things I love. I am scared of even trying. I keep resuming, again and again, all of my ‘paused’ endeavors. And then, leave them again. I am so so scared. I feel angry for not committing to stuff!

For instance, I have been doing this course on Coursera on Artificial Intelligence. It’s really quite interesting. But I feel even if I give in my 100 percent, I would come out short in being able to complete the course. Though, intellectually, I do know that it’s not true. I do have a sharp brain for which I am thankful. Maybe, it’s just me being lazy like I have been for a very long time.

I don’t know what to do and how to get off my ass and be ready to face this terrifying feeling in my heart. This uncertainty of the future, which I have so admired from an aesthetic point of view, I am failing to accept emotionally. Thank you!

Purple-Finch replies:

Thanks for your letter. Your behavior reminds me of some of the things I do. I often do not follow through because (way down deep) I am afraid they will show something about me which I do not wish to see. I think we humans love to construct our values based upon who we wish we were–rather than who we truly are. I wonder if you might share some of these traits?
When we are in school, our teachers (and our parents and our books) are forever pointing out to us many success stories. How Person A worked hard, fought many set-backs, and finally succeeded at Task X or Discovery Y. But I think you will agree that while we are reading or hearing these stories, we already know what the ending is. And so we lose any sense of the real struggle the person endured and somehow conclude that success comes to those who seem to already know they are on the right track.

These stories become myths that we take inside ourselves. In fact, the real truth seems to be that it takes far more gumption than anyone is letting on. Most successes come only after a great many failures. And failures make us feel foolish.

So–are you willing to let yourself fail? To attempt something with your whole heart and then NOT succeed? It is a scary proposition, but I think we all need to fail in order to become complete human beings. We need to know ourselves and our limitations, to test ourselves and be willing to fall down into the mud, even while others may be laughing at us. It is an extremely difficult life lesson, but it makes us better human beings. I firmly believe that we make far better helpers when we have failed ourselves.

What have been my failures? Let’s see. I got fired from a job that was supposed to be my life’s career. My first marriage, with vows it would last forever, ended before 10 years were up. I had a labor union make a mockery of me during the course of my 2nd career. I got into a dreadful fight with my daughter, to the point where she refused to talk to me for at least a year.

Every life has its failures, and let’s admit it: They do not feel good. But from our failures, we learn a great deal. The people, in my experience, who are the worst human beings are the ones who do not recognize any of their failures until very late in their lives. Such people end up having spent a great many of their years on this planet being absolute skunks to others. I don’t think you want to be a skunk.

Please do not be afraid of failure. It is a hard but absolutely necessary teacher. Please go ahead and finish those projects or classes. OR perhaps just leave them alone and try something else, but have the courage to admit to yourself that something about that earlier adventure did not work well for you. Look at it squarely. Let yourself get familiar with what might not have worked so that you can learn from it. It will likely make you a humbler person, but there is nothing wrong with being humble. Of course we all brag on our resumes and in job or school interviews. But in our day-to-day interactions with other human beings, we do better if we are humble.

Category: Career
Letter #: 457769

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