It was a little over a year ago that I took a chance by asking a self-proclaimed expert of twenty-somethings a major question about my life and self-sabotage. The answer changed everything and it put me on a road that pretty much eliminated all of the self-sabotage I had been inflicting.
Let me give a bit of background. While I had had some mild success producing and writing in Chicago, I always felt like I wasn’t putting my all into any particular thing. Not my work, or my relationships or my personal development. I frequently held just a little bit back. I had an idea of why.
I was afraid. I was afraid of failing. I knew that I didn’t try my hardest and I failed, I could blame it on my lack of giving it my all. Classic self-sabotage. I was doing this mostly unconsciously, but once I became aware of it, I continued to do it and I felt horrible about it.
This was around the time the web series Quarterlife came out. For those of you who don’t know, Quarterlife was a television show in the webisode format that also came attached to its own social network for those in their twenties. The show had some moments but it was mostly a rare miss from the producers of “My So-Called Life." The social network, as I was about to find, was full of potential. I came across the column of a Ms. Alexandra Robbins.
Ms. Robbins gained notoriety for the book Conquering Your Quarterlife Crisis: Advice From Twentysomethings Who Have Been There and Survived, which involved several clinical trials of the successful and unsuccessful people in their twenties. She also called Stephen Colbert a d-bag, which is pretty hilarious.
Her e-mail was listed and she said that anyone who was interested could submit his or her questions.
I was in the middle of a four month or so creative lull after producing a play and I was getting extremely frustrated and anxious. I sent her a wordy question that had been plaguing me for years. The question was:
I'm a twentysomething trudging through my attempts to
self-sabotage and trying to live a life in the arts.
I just read one of your articles, the one about what you "do" vs. what you do, and I thought I'd shoot a question your way. I feel so much pressure from myself in the way of looking on what all these important people have done by the time they were twenty or twenty-five and then I look back on what I've done and think "oh my gosh, I better hurry up!" Which of course, ups the anxiety ante and then I'm crippled before I start. This also connects (with the subject of my first qLife video post) with my fear of putting 100% effort into things, for fear that if I fail I will be judged as a failure by everybody and especially myself. I guess that's not really a question...but here we go... How do I stop all that gosh darn fear? -- Bryan Cohen
She had already answered the “oh my gosh, I better hurry up" portion in a previous article (which I will write about within the next month or so). She did have a doozey of an answer, however about my fear of failure and my fear in general.
She spoke of the reasons why my particular generation is so afraid of failure. The major ones that struck me were the achievement-based society that starts in school and society’s major emphasis on prestige.
In my high school,
there was some major competition in the (nerdy) Honor’s track. If you planned ahead, you could be taking 6 Honors or Advanced Placement classes per year your Junior and Senior year. There were countless peers of mine who brought on that course load in order to boost up their GPA (you got an extra 1.0 if it was an Honors or AP class) to valedictorian status. As a result, my school ended up with five valedictorians and two salutatorians. I wasn’t as caught up in the hubbub, but I couldn’t help but be influenced by the “if you get one B your GPA is screwed" mentality. Now, while this school of thought (or thought of school? Hehe) kept my grades up, it also made me feel that anything less than being at the top of my class meant that I was a failure.
I love how Ms. Robbins put society’s desire for prestige into words. She said, “For some reason – and I believe the education system, the media, and society's recent ridiculous emphasis on prestige play major roles – our generation has a broad definition of failure and a narrow definition of success. It's no wonder so many of us are afraid of failure; because of the way we define it, the odds of failing are much higher than the odds of succeeding."She was right. I had such a huge scope of what failure could be and I had the tiniest head of a pin sized version of success that there was no wonder I was a bit out of my mind about all of it. She suggested that I redefine the word for myself and reassess my expectations.
The minor failures that I was afraid of, should be, need to be, MUST be viewed as learning experiences. They cannot be walls that you build up around yourself, preventing you from doing a thing with your life. If you fail, you must keep going and learn from your mistakes. That is the point of those experiences.
My last question of “How do I stop all that gosh darn fear?" had such a simple answer.
She said, “Here's the answer: you don't have to."Fear is natural. Fear is not something that you have to make disappear before you do something. Fear is there when you are doing attempting a task with risk, but the greatest rewards often come from doing something risky. So if you want the greatest rewards, you must accept the fact that you will feel fear while you go for them. Ms. Robbins even used an example of an overtime penalty kick which stuck out in my life (I had missed an overtime soccer penalty kick my senior year of high school in a championship game we ended up losing ) and reminded me of the fact that even though my fear might have messed things up, I made it through. I’m still here.
Alexandra told me that I can’t hold back anymore. She said that I needed to give it my all. She said, “So put yourself out there. Put 100% into it. Get what you want, or learn what you don't, or go fail, fail again, and fail some more, if you have to. You don't have to be "the best"…You just have to be."
Over the next few months her advice really took effect. I snapped out of my creative funk and began editing a pilot to a television series I had put down nearly a year earlier; I had been afraid to pursue it. And now I knew that that was Ok. I began taking steps to make the show happen. I created a legitimate business and a business plan to get the show produced. I recruited a group of writers and found a producing team. I even raised nearly thirty thousand dollars to pay legal fees and the production staff. These are things I never would have done, if it wasn’t for the end of my self-sabotage.
Ms. Robbins showed me the way around it and the way through my fear. What would you do if you had control of your fear? The answer to that question should be your next goal. Go for it, because the only thing worse than fear, is regret.