The Fear of Failure


“I’m not good enough.”
“No one will ever want to read this.”
“This was a terrible idea.”
“I should just quit.”

Sound familiar? These are statements that creative people say to themselves on a daily basis as they pursue their work, and this fear of failure can be emotionally paralyzing.  In our society we are constantly penalized for our mistakes – they are reflected in poor grades, loss of a job, going to jail, etc. It is hard to separate this punishment/reward cycle from our creative pursuits.

Failure is something that I have personally experienced as a designer and artist. Every time I design a book cover, I wait with bated breath to see what the author’s reaction will be. Five minutes can seem like five hours and five hours can seem like five days. Naturally I spend that time imagining every possible scenario – positive and negative. I’ve been asked before, why I bother to put myself through this “torture” process. It would, in fact, be all too easy to just give up and let that fear take control. But then I wouldn’t get to experience the positive results, when someone is taken with my work, or the joy that I feel while creating it.

Another problem that creative people deal with is the idea of perfection. Many artists, writers and musicians refuse to release their work until it is flawless. The Wall Street Journal reports that perfectionism becomes “toxic when people set standards that are impossibly high and believe they are worthless if they can’t meet them.”  In fact, Professor Gordon Flett, Ph.D. notes, “research has shown that professors with perfectionistic tendencies publish less than others.”

The idea of reaching perfection with your work is really just that – an idea. The Harvard Business Review says “if your internalized view of failure is anything that is not perfect, then you are disempowering yourself from exercising your inherent creativity.”

Creatively, it is better to look at failure as a learning experience. Analyze what caused the failure, be open to constructive criticism and incorporate the results into your next piece of work. If you are worried about something you are creating, reach out to people that you trust, who will give you honest feedback to help you improve your work. (Side note: If they always tell you it’s good, they aren’t being honest!)

Need more encouragement? Watch this video illustrating a quote by Ira Glass, host of This American Life:

Video created by David Shiyang Liu