The Startup
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The Startup

Facing up to fear of creative failure

Some days, blogs tumble out of me. I sit down and, without really understanding how or why, my fingers frenetically fly across keys, bashing out ideas that somehow manage to render themselves coherent.

Then there are the other days.

Days when I’m struck by epiphanic ideas that somehow never manage to make their way onto page or screen. Days when I’m crippled by some sort of idiopathic inertia.

Today happened to be one such day.

I sat on the porch with a cup of tea, trying to work out why I was sitting on the porch with a cup of tea instead of at my keyboard evacuating the inspiration from my head.

It wasn’t too long before it occurred to me that the answer might be fear of failure.

I realised that before I started to write, the potential for perfection remained intact. My ideas had no opportunity to be opposed. I had no occasion to clumsily mangle them.

There was no possibility of letting myself down.

The realisation that fear of failure was fundamentally underpinning my creative immobility was eye opening. All of a sudden, I started to see the multitude of ways in which the fear manifested:

Researching endlessly to make sure I was adequately “equipped” before writing a word;

Painstakingly perfecting each sentence word-by-word until an entire afternoon had passed without progressing beyond a paragraph of text;

Accepting any offer of activity that interrupted the production process and allowed me to procrastinate further (thus delaying my otherwise inevitable failure).

Ironically, the cruel prophesy created by my fear was self-fulfilling. By virtue of self-sabotage, I was entirely unable to create anything. Let alone anything satisfactory.

I failed as I had been afraid I would. Because I had been afraid I would.

I remembered reading a quote as a child that “boats are safe in the harbour, but that’s not what boats are meant for”. It occurred to me that the metaphor could be extended to my fear of creative failure.

The ideas were safe in my head. But while trapped within, they carried no purpose or function. They had no power. There was really no point holding them there at all.

On the flip side, if I did attempt to translate the thoughts to text, what was the worst that could happen?

I might magnificently muck it up. I may well find myself exuding a poorly-constructed cascade of verbal nonsense. However, were this to occur, upon review I would unceremoniously ‘trash’ what I had written before any other humans had the opportunity to read/recognise my intellectual deficiency.

I might feel a bit miffed by the mess I had made of my once seemingly brilliant idea. But I would probably get over it pretty quickly. Particularly if I had something particularly delicious lined up for dinner.

Yet there was clearly much to gain by expelling ideas from brain.

For one thing, as with almost every avenue of achievement, creativity is essentially a numbers game. Just as we improve our odds of winning a raffle by buying extra tickets, so too do we hike the likelihood of producing something spectacular each time we produce something.

Of course there are bound to be a bunch of disappointing defeats and spectacular failings along the way. Plateaus and troughs are essential inbuilt features of the game of life.

We don’t expect to win the lottery every time we buy a ticket.

But failure is more than an inconvenient hurdle to success. It’s a catalyst for forging a stronger self.

When we succeed at something, we generally feel good but learn very little. Failure, on the other hand, tends to convey a sense of profound dissatisfaction. And if we can push through the preliminary knee-jerk impulse to punch a wall, throw in the towel, and never pick it back up, this dissatisfaction motivates us to become better.

So having recently recognised my own fear of creative failure — despite academically acknowledging its perks — I am resolved to finding a way to constrain its power.

Here’s my plan.

From here on, I will rigorously police my creative procrastination behaviours. Instead of painstakingly picking out the perfect words to form each phrase, I’ll smash out sentences as they tumble from my brain, and save the editing until later.

And each time I churn out a particularly pathetic blog, rather than exiling it immediately to the virtual trash can and pretending it never existed, I will examine it carefully to determine what made it such a total piece of literary tripe.

Then I’ll resolve not to make the same mistake next time around.

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