Clay Stafford Of The Killer Nashville International Writers’ Conference On Becoming Free From The Fear Of Failure

An Interview With Savio P. Clemente

Savio P. Clemente
Authority Magazine
18 min readApr 29, 2022

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Take baby steps. Change gradually. Break things down into bites that you can manage and that you can succeed at. One brick at a time, as my brick mason father always said, and you’ve built a house. Was each brick laid perfectly? Maybe and maybe not. But in the end, the house looked solid. Concentrate on the love of laying each one of those bricks and you’ll be amazed at what happens when you lay the last one, step back, and look.

The Fear of Failure is one of the most common restraints that holds people back from pursuing great ideas. Imagine if we could become totally free from the fear of failure. Imagine what we could then manifest and create. In this interview series, we are talking to leaders who can share stories and insights from their experience about “Becoming Free From the Fear of Failure.” As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing

Clay Stafford is a bestselling writer and filmmaker and founder of the Killer Nashville International Writers’ Conference. He resides in Franklin TN. https://claystafford.com/

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?

I’m basing my answers here on who I think your demographics are. My story is a rag to riches story. I’d say I was self-made, but I don’t think anyone is self-made; there are too many people along the way who lend a hand or open a door. Self-made is an egotistical myth. So, I started with a rather modest Appalachian background, but by chance I was “discovered” as a child actor. By my teens, I was working as a professional actor, writer, and filmmaker shooting commercials and documentaries. I proceeded onward, doors were opened, and I worked my way up to working studio support with numerous entertainment companies such as Universal MCA, Disney, Warner Bros., to name a few, and then became an executive at PBS before I branched out on my own as a writer, filmmaker, educator, composer, public speaker, and entrepreneur. I’ve worked with some of the biggest names in the entertainment business and, when I look back from where I came, it seems near impossible that my life should turn out the way it did. Your interview here, though, addresses how my life all worked out well in the end and I thank you for sitting down with me to talk about this.

Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

One of the most important things one can do is stay focused on the subject, so everything I say here is going to tie back to the fear of failure. Tunnel vision has everything to do with getting rid of the fear of failure, which is the subject of this conversation. Sidebar: to ask what the most interesting story from your career is a bit preposterous. I don’t know that I have one. I have many. I love hamburgers and I love Coq au Vin, but I can’t say one is more interesting than the other. Judgment causes you problems, and we’ll talk about that in a moment. The most interesting thing to me right now is this interview. When you live in the moment, these valuations go away. Worrying about failure is a valuation. So, asking this question is, in a way, rescoring the problem. Everything is interesting if you’re choosing to live life rather than judging it. But I will tell an interesting story (though not the most) as it relates to why we’re talking: I once heard my office manager tell a new hire that “the only way to get fired from this job is have sex in the hallway, come in on drugs or drunk, and not continually fail.” I was taken aback at a perception of me that I didn’t even know. And that’s why I’m delighted you and I are talking about the topic of fear of failure today.

You are a successful leader. Which three-character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

“Successful leader.” Once again, a value judgement. If we’re going to talk about getting rid of the fear of failure, let’s watch the semantics. What defines success? There’s your problem for this whole interview. But what three things have worked for me to bring me a contented life? For me, the three top character traits are 1) hunger, which can also be called passion or focus, 2) constant education, and 3) being always delighted to start from the bottom. For the first, I knew there was a world beyond the railroad tracks in our backyard and the once dirt road in our front yard and I wanted to do whatever was necessary to get to that world, even if it meant multiple failures along the way. When I moved to Hollywood, I went there with the resolution that I could live out of my car if I only had enough money to buy paper to write stories on with my manual typewriter. With that attitude, focus, and hunger, I wrote and wrote, enough so that I ended up not living in my car, but eventually living on Bedford Drive in Beverly Hills. The passion worked. In terms of education, it is the key to opportunity. It’s the most important thing one can have, more important than connections. Connections come from being educated, not the other way around. Success comes from being educated, not the other way around. Every dime spent on education is the best dime that will ever be spent. I have no interest in a career in law, yet at the University of Miami, I took law courses along with all the other lawyers-to-be. Why? Because I wanted to be self-reliant, I wanted to know what my options were, I wanted to see opportunities, and as a film producer, publisher, and film and literary creative, all that legal knowledge has paid off, not only in knowledge and skills, but also in confidence. And the last of the three, I’ve never been afraid to start from the bottom. I was happy to clean toilets for Stephen Spielberg, literally, until he could see that I had more to offer and worked my way up to helping in the production of Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and more. My philosophy with directors, producers, writers, film editors, everyone, has always been, I’ll even work for free if you’ll just toss a little bit of knowledge in my direction so I can get a little further along than I am. You don’t see much of that these days, but apprenticeships really were a superior way to go. The wise person starting a new endeavor would do well to take that to heart. It’s never about the money. It is always about where one can go. It’s all about becoming the person you can be. The money will come.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview.

I’ve been on the main focus, because that tunnel vision goes a long way in making someone successful. Stick to the one subject, cut the small talk, and focus always on the one thing that is important. Focusing on doing rather than what people will think makes all the difference in the world.

We would like to explore and flesh out the concept of becoming free from failure. Let’s zoom in a bit. From your experience, why exactly are people so afraid of failure? Why is failure so frightening to us?

You’re never going to become free from failure. Never. If you aren’t failing, you aren’t doing anything and you need to be fired. If you are working for someone who is expecting perfection, you’re working for someone who is clueless. We’re afraid of failure for two reasons: 1) you’re concerned about what others might think, and 2) you’re concerned about your own value as a person. Both are bad news for living a life. First off, not everyone is going to like you, not everyone is going to think you’ve done well, not everyone is going to be impressed. I was living in Beverly Hills working as a writer and filmmaker and my mother was still asking me when I was going to get a real job. My dad was a hard manual worker. I sat at a desk and typed. To her, in her value system, I was still a failure. The people in Hollywood didn’t think I was a failure, but I always had the impression that she did. So, I had to put it in perspective. I had to learn not to care what she thought. Do my job, do what I love, and those that are excited for me will be excited and those that want to criticize me, let them at it. The way I viewed it, they were criticizing, and I was doing. Did I fail? All the time. Have I failed? Many times. But I try, try, try, and because of that I’ve been able to accomplish many things that, from the child of mountain people, I accomplished simply because I chose to fail and, make sure you get this part, I did not care. Stop caring. The second part is that most of us get our value from other people. Seriously? Why does what my neighbor or coworker think about me have to do with my value as a person. This performance-based self-worth can ruin your life. The only thing you need to focus on is doing your best and doing what you are doing for the right reason. That from my spiritual background and beliefs is enough and makes you a success whether your plans work out or not. And if you keep trying and you keep failing, you will eventually succeed. That’s how odds work. Combine both of what I’ve said here, and people don’t try because they are afraid of what others might think and that a failure might make them look bad in their own eyes and further exacerbate what others might think. Focus on your task at hand and forget everybody else, including yourself. Whatever your work or task, make it an artistic and spiritual expression of who you are. You’ll find joy in that, pure joy.

What are the downsides of being afraid of failure? How can it limit people?

When a person is fearful of failure because of what others might think or what the person might think of themselves, the person many times won’t try. If you don’t try, you don’t get anything accomplished. Then by default, it is by doing nothing that you fail. Doing something and having it not work is no more than discovering what doesn’t work so you can figure out what does. Action, without care of success or failure, with an educated and sound vision is where your focus needs to be. If you focus only on outcome, you’ll never take the first step. All of this comes down to life. Life is not about what you accomplish, it is about joy. A person who doesn’t do something never experiences the joy of doing something that could be really important. A person who is constantly looking at the negative outcome that could come (the fear of failure) is incapable of experiencing that joy. Joy is the most important thing. It is the essence of life. Success and failure are arbitrary and subject to interpretation and judgement. The only thing that is solid is that you wake up in the morning loving what you like to do, doing as much of that as you can get done in a day, and then going to sleep that night looking forward to awakening to play again tomorrow. How many people view their life as play? I suggest they think about it.

In contrast, can you help articulate a few ways how becoming free from the free of failure can help improve our lives?

You’ll try more things, and you’ll do them with more joy. You’ll be free from the expectations and oppression of others and yourself so that you can concentrate on your task, on accomplishing things, even having fun at failing at things, instead of your tiny, fragile ego. I like to paint pictures with oil. Do you have any idea how many times I have scrapped the oil off the canvas with a paint knife and painted over because what I created was awful? Did I view it as a failure? Was I afraid that it wouldn’t look good before I even started? No, I simply enjoyed painting. The result didn’t matter. It was the painting that gave me joy. Having that attitude gives you the opportunity to live in the moment and, even more importantly, enjoy the moment. You can literally play at life rather than work, regardless of your profession. If you’re unhappy with your work, maybe you should do some things that would cause you to fail. You might be surprised at the doors that this exercise might open. Often in my life, I’ve gotten in my car with the idea of going to one place and, through a series of twists and turns, I’ve turned up somewhere that was better than where I thought I was going. Did I fail because I didn’t get to the first place I had in mind? Nope. I took Frost’s road less traveled and looking back at my life, I’m all the better for it. Through it all, one thing happens: you discover yourself. And that, no matter how anyone wants to frame it or what lens they wish to look through, is success.

We would love to hear your story about your experience dealing with failure. Would you be able to share a story about that with us?

Absolutely. We are born wanting to please others, to be a part of the herd. I say you spend your life learning to get away from that cow-like nature and mentality. When I was a kid, I started working professionally as a kid actor at age ten. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a kid and it’s why kid actors don’t always end up well once they get into adulthood. But the point is, because they saw talent, a lot of people put a lot of pressure on me because I did have potential. I was hungry and I also wanted to please (I hadn’t learned to get rid of that yet). So, life went on and by luck and chance, I was able to work with film studios in Los Angeles and Orlando and then work for PBS and I found that my works were distributed in over sixteen languages. I was then asked what I was going to do next. Strange, and riding on that success, I was hit with the fear of failure. In the film and publishing businesses, you’re only as good as your last project, or so the thinking goes. How was I going to guarantee topping that? It did what I’ve talked about here. It made me want to give up writing. It made me sit down to write and all I could do was stare at a blinking cursor. What could I write that would guarantee that it be published in seventeen languages, because that was now the next step up, right? It debilitated me. I was successful, and yet I spent six months wandering around in limbo worrying how I was going to top my last success and, in the process, did nothing.

How did you rebound and recover after that? What did you learn from this whole episode? What advice would you give to others based on that story?

In the case above, I realized adding an extra language to my resume was not why I was doing what I was doing. I didn’t want to succeed. That wasn’t my goal. My goal was that I wanted to write. I wanted to tell stories whether anyone read them or not. That’s why I had done everything that I had done in my life. So, I shifted from film and television and wrote a series of children’s adaptations and, guess what happened? Because I took a chance and did something that could have easily flopped, I sold over 4 million copies of those illustrated books. If I’d let fear hold me back, that would never have happened. I then, with the courage from that, went back and sold a nighttime TV series to Sony Pictures. I realized through the process that the only thing holding me back was my fear, my concern what others thought, my own fragile ego of what I thought of myself, and my unfounded perception that I was somehow able to foresee the future, all of which caused me to be a deer in the headlights. The secret is to get moving in what you love to do, always remember what you love to do and why you started doing what you’re doing in the first place, and then forget everything else. Fall in love with the task at hand. When you’re a kid, you play all day. No stress. You get to school and then to work and they teach you to be stressed, to look only at grades and results. You’re looking at the wrong thing. In the process you’re missing life. What did I learn about the whole thing? I needed to focus on playing. The rest, of which I had no control, would take care of itself.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that everyone can take to become free from the fear of failure”? Please share a story or an example for each.

Define what you love and do that for the sake of doing that. Forget the results.

Don’t work for the approval of others.

Don’t grade your self-worth by making things or results markers of success. Success is what you learned from that day, whether it looks great or a dismal failure. You’ve grown. That’s success. How much did you learn? How much fun did you have?

Take baby steps. Change gradually. Break things down into bites that you can manage and that you can succeed at. One brick at a time, as my brick mason father always said, and you’ve built a house. Was each brick laid perfectly? Maybe and maybe not. But in the end, the house looked solid. Concentrate on the love of laying each one of those bricks and you’ll be amazed at what happens when you lay the last one, step back, and look.

Keep learning. Fear comes from the unknown. We sometimes worry about failure because we don’t know what to do next. Well, bumble around (that’s not failure — bumbling is learning). You’ll find the path. Be persistent. Stick with it. When you see a path go for it, even if it is the wrong path, you’ll eventually find the right one because you’re learning and moving forward. You have to take that forward action.

Give up control. You think you have control. You have none. You will succeed at things. You will fail at things. What can I control about writing? I can choose to write 1,000 words a day. Will they be good? It doesn’t matter. Will anyone read them? Don’t care. Does it give me joy? You bet. And because of that, I’m in the zone and nothing makes me happier than being in the zone. That’s all that matters. Control of anything — other people’s perceptions, how many products will sell, anything — is an illusion with only the end result stressing you out. Forget about control. Do the best you can in something you love and be persistent and all of it will work out.

The famous Greek philosopher Aristotle once said, “It is possible to fail in many ways…while to succeed is possible only in one way.” Based on your experience, have you found this quote to be true? What do you think Aristotle really meant?

To know what Aristotle meant, you’d have to ask Aristotle. I can’t really comment on a quote out of context, but after reading this question, I asked a neighbor child who Aristotle was and she had no clue, so even fame for Aristotle could be called a failure if someone wanted to be subjective. You see how silly all of this really is?

But, back to your question, who am I to disagree with someone who is “famous,” but I’ll disagree on the surface with the comment. You can fail in many ways, but you can also succeed in many ways. It depends upon whether your goals are well-placed or not. I used to love to go boating down the Tennessee River. The Tennessee River splits in many places. Some might think that getting down the river is all that counts. To me, it is discovering the splits along the way that mattered more. Did some of them prove as dead ends? Yes. Did I fail in my trip that day down the river? No. I saw things others might never see. I spent time with my family. I ate delightful pimento cheese sandwiches. I didn’t get as far down the river as I wanted, but did I fail? No. I experienced life. And that is what it is all about. Experience life. Don’t worry about success or failure. If you keep at it, that’s a given. You’ll succeed. If you do nothing, you’ll always fail. It’s really very simple. However, if you were going to back me into a corner and make me agree with Aristotle, then I’d say that the one way is to keep going no matter what, concentrate on what you’re doing, and forget the end results over which you have no control. That would be the only one possible way of succeeding.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I’d ask each of us to humbly work on ourselves each day. Don’t worry about what others are doing or what others think. Look in our heart, examine ourselves, and work on building who we are based upon our own values, values that are innate to us, not values that we’ve inherited from others. Remember that all of life is transitory, including who we will eventually become. You cannot look at a barefoot boy in Appalachia and predict that he will be named by Publisher’s Weekly, the Frankfurt Book Fair, and the American Booksellers Association as one of the top leaders in the publishing industry. Those predictions don’t work. We have no control. But by humbly working ourselves each day, this sort of serendipity happens. Have the courage simply to take that first step forward. Have the courage to change yourself and you’ll change the world. Whatever today is is no predictor of where you’ll be tomorrow. Your first steps will change everything. And, as you step forward, realize that of all the things that happen to you, very few are personal. We take them personally because of our own weaknesses, but they are not personal (even if others want us to take them that way). Concentrate on the next step and let that be your sole focus. It would be a wonderful world if everyone went through life thinking that what someone else thought of them was none of their business.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them :-)

When I was growing up in the backwoods of Appalachia, there were three people I really wanted to get to know, three people who really inspired me, three people who were doing what I wanted to be doing: Stephen Spielberg, Stephen King, and Elton John. I set a goal. I prepared myself. I took the steps. And I moved forward with courage. I ended up working for a couple of years for Spielberg, I worked on a campaign with Stephen King, and I found myself in a position where Sir Elton invited me to dinner. At that point, I realized it was a form of hero worship that I think many people go through. What I found was three people who were doing what they love to do. Since then, I’ve never had the desire to meet an unknown. I have a desire to talk to people, but I put no value on what they’ve done. A single mom doing the best she can impresses me more than a guy who can influence Wall Street. However, now that you ask, there are three people that I’d love to have a private breakfast and lunch with: my wife and my two children. It’s not the answer you’re probably looking for, but it’s the best answer you could possibly get. They are my rock. They are my foundation. They are the ones who give me the courage to take that next step. They are the ones who accept me for exactly who I am: win or fail. My advice is don’t go for glitz or persona. Go for real. Find someone to have breakfast with that encourages you and inspires you. Find that true mentor, that true person that really wants to give back for all the good that has come to them. The man in overalls who lays brick for a living may be a better mentor for you than the president of a country. If you don’t see that, you’ve got a long way to go, and I wish you well on that journey. May the truth find you.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I’m easy to access: https://claystafford.com/

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.

Thank you. I really appreciate what you’re doing here. Fear of failure is such an illusion, but it also holds people back more than anything I know. Anything you can offer to get people to really look at what’s going on is wonderful. You’re doing a great work here. My thanks to you. Elimination of this fear of failure would be the movement that I think I would love to inspire, but you’re already doing it, so I’m happy to follow your lead. Kudos to you!

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Savio P. Clemente
Authority Magazine

TEDx Speaker, Media Journalist, Board Certified Wellness Coach, Best-Selling Author & Cancer Survivor