Fear, Disappointment and Failure

I’ve had a few moments of clarity in my life when I realized a truth about myself and how I should live my life. An important turning point occurred when I was deciding my career path and facing my fear of failure pursuing the academic path.   Actually, I confronted this fear more than once while in graduate school and trying to get tenure. Each time I decided I would rather do my best and fail rather than decide I was a failure before someone else did. In other words, it was better to fail following my dreams and desires rather than to quit and live with regret.

Those watershed moments occurred because a major career-path decision was required.  However, we make decisions about big and small things all day long, but just because they’re relatively minor does not make them insignificant. Are those smaller, seemingly less consequential decisions are fear- or desire-based? Is fear or desire determining the overall direction of your life, one tiny decision at a time?

Fear may be an invisible compass in your life if you’re playing it too safe. What areas of your life are you not advancing or in self-protection mode? Where are you wearing your armor or having your guard up? How does that affect your relationships and ability to move forward in your life?

Perhaps you wish to avoid failure or being hurt or disappointed. That’s completely understandable but entirely unrealistic. Life is painful, and to spend our entire life trying to avoid pain and disappointment means we also avoid joy, deep connection and innovation.

The biggest risk is not taking any risk… In a world that is changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.- Mark Zuckerberg

What would your life be like without the constant undercurrent of fear? What would you be doing? Who would you be with?

Screw it, Let’s do it! – Richard Branson

Personal Stagnation

The word sounds like some kind ruminant mammal government overthrow but the reality of  stagnation is much more insidious than a government coup.

I most often associate stagnation with getting stuck in a routine unawares, though stagnation can also result when one is paralyzed by fear.  At least with the latter, you can name and conquer the beast.  In theory at least.  Sometimes it is hard to name the fear as the source of stagnation since it may present as excuses involving money, time, access, helplessness or approval instead.

I have spoken to many students, friends and colleagues who over the years have been unable to make a decision about their lives or careers because of the fear of making a change or taking a risk.  Often this involves a measure of self-doubt or fear about their ability to be successful in their new venture.

I have faced a similar decision when deciding to take a job seeking tenure in a research university.  I remember agonizing over whether to take the job for a couple of days – in reality it was probably much longer – but I eventually realized that I want to make major life decisions based on desire, not fear.  Otherwise, I felt I would always live my life with the regret of “What if?”

I believe this is a common theme for couples in a bad marriage.  I’ve written previously about my failed marriage and my reluctance to walk away when I knew it was not working out.  A healthy dose of fear is useful to make sure each person commits 100% to making the marriage successful before giving up.  But if you’ve done that and you know it’s never going to change despite all efforts, is fear keeping you from taking the leap?   If you’re afraid of being alone, maybe this is an opportunity to rediscover and reinvigorate your relationship with yourself.   I might also add that if you’re terrified of being alone, then maybe your dependence on your mate has been contributing your marital problems.  When I eventually realized I would rather be alone than in the relationship, and that we had already done everything we could think of to try to make it work, I knew it was time to move on.

Stagnation also seems to commonly result from inattention.  In my life, I have experienced stagnation because I was overwhelmed, depressed, or too comfortable.  The problem with being overwhelmed and depressed, besides having those uncomfortable feelings, is that it is difficult to shift gears and take a pro-active and positive perspective about your life under those circumstances.  You’re too busy, you’re too tired, you have too much going on to stop and re-evaluate your perspective or priorities, you’re unable to feel optimistic.  Part of me regrets that I had to hit rock bottom before I would really re-assess my life to make some important changes, but according to Joseph Campbell, expert in comparative mythology,

“Privation and suffering alone open the mind to all that is hidden from others.”

Feeling bad is a wonderful incentive for insight and change.  It is your cue to re-evaluate.

“Where you stumble and fall, there you will find gold.” – Joseph Campbell

The other source of stagnation is being too comfortable.  My job is comfortable, my relationship is comfortable, my life is comfortable, why change?  This might be the most insidious source of stagnation.  Fear, discomfort and depression can motivate change, but comfort rarely does.

I guess one could argue that if I’m comfortable and successful, why change anything?  I guess if your goal in life is to be merely comfortable, than maybe you should stop there.   My reason for change during comfort has to do with my belief about living and life.  I’m no gardener, but I know that when my plants stop growing, when I fail to see new green shoots, then the plant is unhealthy and has a date with the compost bin.  So am I.  When I stop growing and learning is when I should consider retirement, resign myself to the figurative couch of life, my main comfort being the remote control for my remaining days.

I’m not saying that I should sell everything and move to Tibet if my life is good and easy.  Rather, I feel the need to keep growing on some axis – whether intellectual, physical, emotional, spiritual or otherwise.  One of our truly illustrious alumni told our students recently on a return visit, “Do something every day that makes you uncomfortable.”  In other words, push yourself out of your comfort zone on a daily basis.  There, you will find growth, insight, and self-knowledge.

You may surprise yourself with your hidden abilities.  I recall taking antacids literally every day for three months prior to my first research seminar when I was a first year graduate student.  Terrified would hardly begin to describe how I felt.  But I found after that day that I have a love of public speaking and teaching, and if I had caved to my fear and avoided the exercise, I would never have discovered this as a passion.

“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” – Joseph Campbell

Where can you push into unknown territory?  Go where you are most afraid and discover your treasure.

“You enter the forest
at the darkest point,
where there is no path.

Where there is a way or path,
it is someone else’s path.

You are not on your own path.

If you follow someone else’s way,
you are not going to realize
your potential.”  – Joseph Campbell

Couch potato

Couch potato

Change Agent, You

Putting yourself out there

Putting yourself out there

If you knew me in my 20’s you know I was a hot mess.  Being a mess, however, is a great incentive to make some changes, and oh boy, have I had incentive and opportunity!     Maybe you have that incentive and opportunity right now, just like I still do.

Those that knew me in my 20’s would think I was shy, lacking confidence, afraid to speak up.  Those that know me now pretty much laugh when I tell them I was that way.  I’ve learned a few things about change over the years as I have been experimenting with it for some time.

I have learned that some changes are easy – they just require an Aha moment or change in perspective.  Others feel like you’re standing on the edge of the proverbial cliff, choosing between the inevitable fall or the mid-air, windmilling feet moment, each option lasting a painful eternity.

I have also learned that change is not always easy, but gets easier with practice.  So, regardless of the outcome, the exercise itself is well worthwhile.

If you are in the pre-contemplation stage of change, you are considering doing something different or new.  Congratulations!  Good for you!  I hope you will choose to make the change that you are contemplating before hitting rock bottom or letting the situation completely degenerate.  If so, you are wiser and braver than I have been.

Here’s some advice for those who are considering a change.  Maybe this will make it easier to move into the execution stage so that you can have some control over the change as opposed to having it forced upon you.

1.  Consider the real consequences of making a change – Not the ones you fear deep down. Most of us catastrophize the outcome:  I’m going to look or sound really stupid!  I’m going to make a mistake! Well, welcome to the real world.  If you’re making a mistake, it means you’re taking a risk.  Risk and failure are pre-requisites for success, so good for you!  As for those who will judge you for looking or sounding stupid, they are pretty much hypocrites, since who has not looked or sounded stupid at some point?  So you don’t need to worry about those hypocrites or nay-sayers.  The only judge that matters is your own, and you’re going to retire him for good.

Let’s take my shyness as an example. Talking to strangers made me feel deep down I was setting myself up for rejection.  But really, who cares if a stranger or acquaintance rejects me?  Likely I’ll never see them again and their judgment of me (another stranger) cannot really be taken personally.  They don’t know me!

2.  Consider the real consequences of not changing – If you’re contemplating a change than something is likely not going well.  What is the real consequence of doing nothing?  Take into account your anger, resentment, powerlessness, frustration and lost opportunity in this equation.

Being shy was standing in my way, both professionally and personally.  Networking and speaking up are important skills.  By caving to my shyness, I was doing myself a huge disfavor on all levels.  By being afraid of rejection I was ensuring I would be ignored.  Same thing. AND another self-fulfilling prophecy.

3.  Consider the opportunities of making the change –  What doors will you open for yourself?  What situations will you right?  Focus on the positives instead of letting your fears define what you’re willing or not willing to do.

Expanding my network both socially and professionally can potentially open up many doors in both spheres.  New friends and important professional contacts are just waiting for me to discover.  Speaking up means I could have a positive impact on the outcome instead of letting my opinions languish on the tip of my tongue.

4.  Take a small step – You don’t have to make all the change at once.  Just like any big endeavor, break it into small, manageable bites.  Test the water, experiment with that, re-evaluate and try again.  Be strategic about your approach, choosing a strategy that works best for you.

I used to really hate being in social situations, like cocktail parties, where I had to meet strangers.   I decided the approach that would feel most comfortable to me is to find the person in the room who looks uncomfortable too and introduce myself.  I reasoned that they’d be more likely to be receptive to meeting a stranger and also grateful to me for saving them from their own social discomfort.  Nine times out of 10, this has proved to be a successful strategy while simultaneously not making me feel like I was going out too much on a limb.

5.  Practice – Write it out, role play it, imagine the scenario in your head.  You wouldn’t enter into a competition without practice and repetition, so why would you stick your neck out for a long awaited change without practice?  Give yourself the best possible chance for a good outcomeiby preparing for it.  You’ll also feel more confident going forward with practice.  Practice until it feels rote and automatic and it will be almost as if you’ve already made the change.

“Hi, my name is Susanna and I’m a ____ at _____.   How about them ‘Niners?  How is the crab dip?  Do you think biological drug discovery will be driven more by technology or market demand?  Say…. What is that stain on your tie? ”

6.  Forgive yourself and others – We are all just doing our best to be our best.  It’s not always a pretty or linear journey.  Forgive yourself and others for the detours we must all take at some point.  Sometimes the detours are the best part.

7.  Commit to being a change agent – Get into the habit of doing things that make you uncomfortable.  Your friends will think you’re courageous, but it will just be habit for you at that point!

I don’t believe in change for change’s sake.  But I do know that you sometimes don’t know what you’re missing until you try something new.  I could not do my job effectively today if I did not overcome my shyness.  I also cannot count the number of times that I have been glad I spoke up or made the effort to meet someone new.  There have been times when I felt stupid or awkward but the positive outcomes far outweigh the failures.

I also personally wouldn’t wish perfection on my worst enemy – growth is what keeps us vital and alive.  Nourish yourself and don’t be afraid of the growth that occurs.  The beautiful you that emerges may surprise and delight you.

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” – Serenity Prayer, Reinhold Niebuhr

New growth

New growth