Private Ryan

Why are we so afraid to fail? Here are some musings on our fear of failure.

One of the things that all of us have in common is that we don’t want to get to the end of our lives with any regrets. If such a person does exist, please make yourself known, but I’ve never encountered one. People don’t go into the big decisions of their life thinking, “hey, you know what… I’d really like this to be one of my worst decisions ever and hate myself later on for what I’ve done here”. It just doesn’t happen.

Consequentially, what manifests in our present day actions is a fear to fail. We generally do not like stuffing things up. We don’t want to make a decision knowing that things aren’t going to work out for us. We want to feel like whatever we decide to do, we do so with great capability, and the people we make the decision with make similar levels of commitment to the course of action.

Alas, we are plagued by a morbid sense of dread very often when it comes to making those big choices. The choice to work at a certain company, to marry a certain woman, to date a certain man, to develop a certain friendship, to join a certain church, to live in a certain suburb or country. We want to be able to live with a sense of confidence that we have made the “right” decision, and that we aren’t going to let anyone down or experience disappointment along the way.

Take career, for instance. In Western cultures, most people go straight out of their secondary schooling into some form of tertiary education. Now whether that be via a university, a college, a TAFE, a specialized school, or a trade, most people spend a number of years further to their time at high school in order to establish themselves in a certain field. For me, my IT degree was fast tracked from 4 years to 3 years. 3 years may be one of the smallest duration for a university course, but it is still an extended period of time. There is a lot that can happen and indeed did happen over the course of those 3 years. And as you spend more time in that environment, more and more of your heart becomes involved in it.

Following completion of the course, you then try to find an entry level position, and work your way through the ranks, or at least to a level you feel comfortable with. All of this takes years of our lives to achieve.

So if something doesn’t end up working out for you in your career, you can be pretty disappointed. If your education turns out not to be sufficient for a certain position, for instance, it can be a major setback. You invest X years of your life into a certain career path in your education or experience, only to find that there is a closed door waiting for you at the end of it. And we’ve all heard enough stories of this happening.

This fear also rears its head in romantic relationships. And friendships. This is probably because the best romantic relationships should be extensions of the friendship, but I digress. But you spend X years developing and building a relationship with another person. You go to their big events, you’re there to talk during their hard times, you open your life and your bank account and your soul to them. And if the result at the end is a closed door, or a lot of heartbreak, you’re going to feel pretty disappointed.

I could spell this out for a lot of other areas – finding the right ministry to become involved in, deciding on the right city to spend X amount of time in, choosing the right housemates, and so on and so forth.

But what is always in common across all these areas is fairly clear – we don’t want to be disappointed.

And so what we do is we pre-empt potential disappointment by living our lives in a flinched position. We call it caution, but I wonder if sometimes we are too cautious. But then are times where people throw caution to the wind as the expression goes, and the results are catastrophic.

So which is it?

It’s probably a mix of caution and risk.

The problem with caution is that it can play it too safe and fail to take opportunities that present themselves as they appear. The problem with blind risk is that it can play it too dangerous and not consider the ramifications of the decision to one’s self or surrounding lives. The cautious single person may refrain from too much meaningful contact with the opposite sex to avoid hurt, the all-risk single person may just fling the door open to just anybody and get involved with someone who’s bad news for them. The cautious business person may miss career progression opportunities for fear of having to become more educated or take on more responsibility, the all-risk business person may make a lot of big kicks that result in failed or unsustainable employment. The risk-averse investor may avoid making big gains on their portfolio, the risk-dominated investor may lose all their money on bad deals.

…You get the idea.

It’s the balance between these two where many of us get lost. To be truthful, it is more likely that we tend towards the aversion and avoidance of risk than it is for us to take a shot. The problem is that hindsight is 20 20, and we can so easily look back to see the failures in our own lives or in the lives of others with great clarity, but we are looking to a future we can’t quantify, measure, or know. Who can really say exactly where they will 100% be in the next 10 minutes even? A catastrophic weather event could happen, a phone call from a friend could alter your course, your car battery could go flat… who knows.

Known decisions leading to an unknown future.

What we often want and wait for is for someone or something to make a decision for us. We are waiting for the magical Disney golden light to shine on the correct path, the correct person, the correct choice. Or, we’re waiting til necessity forces our hand and we have to make a decision either way. Or sometimes, we just wait and wait and wait til the opportunities are no longer available. Making no decision to make a decision, which is a decision for no.

And so when it comes to prayer and asking God for our next step, we feel entitled when we have this sense of uncertainty about our future. We look for a sense of peace when we approach our bigger decisions.

I think there is a lot of wisdom in doing this, don’t get me wrong. God often leads people by peace. His plan is often doted with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction in areas of decision.

But I think that when it comes to big decisions, we need to be aware that our feelings can be tainted by fear, even in facing the right decisions.

I always think back to the people of Israel heading into the Promised Land that God had promised for them. After 400 years of slavery, they were finally free to make a decision to follow God into the promise He had for them.

But when faced with the opportunity to enter into their Promised Land, they responded with fear. “There are giants there, we can’t do it”. And a fear of failure kept them out of the place they were meant to be. And so they missed it.

They would have felt justified in making such a decision, as we often do. We’re pretty good at making ourselves feel good about not being in a place we know we should be.

It was the time when kings went to war, and like David, we feel justified in staying home.

But perhaps it is not the time for you to stay home. Perhaps this is not your moment to hesitate or hold back. Perhaps this is your moment to take a chance on what you know you should do and follow on.

And perhaps we shouldn’t be so afraid of failure if it comes. Yeah, maybe it won’t work out at that job, in that relationship, in that place. Maybe we should just get better at owning the decisions we make. Of counting the cost, of thinking things through, of praying and listening and seeking wisdom, and at the moment of decision, making a clear yes or no decision to proceed or to change course.

And let us never neglect a life of obedience. There is no place more safe than in the will of God. It’s not always comfortable, it’s not always convenient, it’s not always the Disney magic option. But it is a path that leads to life everlasting.

Have you prayed about it as much as you’ve talked about it?

Anyway, a bit less of a structured post tonight. It’s a topic that can be discussed at great length, so feel free to join in the conversation below.

But whatever decision you make, don’t let a fear of failure prevent you from moving forward in your life.

PS. For some more related musings on decision making, see 7 Ways To Stop Being Indecisive

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