I confess: I have a paralyzing fear of failure
It has been a really long time since I just sat at my computer at home and wrote, for myself, as an extracurricular challenge — until right now. I’m a reporter for a small-town Nebraska newspaper, so technically I write every day. I cover everything from city council meetings to court trials to human-interest stories. But by the time I get home, I just want to sit in front of the TV and zone out. I make excuses for why this is: I don’t have a good internet connection here. I don’t own a proper desk yet and working on a desktop computer at the kitchen table is uncomfortable. No one reads my blog, so why bother? To some extent, these excuses work, or at least they make me feel vindicated, like I’m not wasting my potential. But as today is National Honesty Day I’m going to confess to you the real reason I don’t write as much as I used to: I’m afraid I’m not good enough.
I often ask myself, Do I even have potential? I spend a lot of time reading blogs like this one. I read articles from women who live in major metropolitan cities, write for numerous publications, and have had amazing experiences, like living in Brooklyn or getting to interview pop-culture icons or even traveling abroad. When I’m done I often feel naive, under-qualified, envious, and even a little lost.
I never finished college. I dropped out in my junior year to move to another state and help a family member who was ill. Prior to that, I hadn’t even thought college was an option due to my Jehovah’s Witness upbringing, which taught that college education is unnecessary. I knew that the only thing that could bring me happiness was writing or creating in some capacity, but I never really had the confidence to pursue that goal.
So when I moved to a small Midwestern town and landed a job as a reporter for the local newspaper, I was kind of shocked. And, of course, excited. I saw a door opening. Those jobs that wanted me to have “two-plus years writing experience”? Those could be within my grasp now! People were reading my articles and I could possibly use my words to change the world. Whoa! I was so excited by the idea of my own limitlessness that I might’ve been getting ahead of myself.
After several months, my idealism faded, or at least it began to look a little like a fantasy. I realized I was not at the New York Times, and there was no guarantee I ever would be. In fact, it suddenly seemed very unlikely. And it would be years, if not decades, before I was able to make any impact at all, and even though this is true of every young person starting out, I took it pretty hard. Reality hit me like a slap in the face. I felt discouraged. I was impatient, yes, but it was more than that. I was paralyzed. I stopped writing in my free time, and started making excuses.
The truth is I was afraid of failure. I’m terrified to fail at the one thing I can picture myself doing for the rest of my life. And my dreams were so big! I mean, I want to create a poignant television series like Danny Strong (Empire), or live among a group of social outcasts in hopes to better understand them (á la Hunter S. Thompson), or pen a series that resonates with an entire generation like J.K. Rowling. Where do I even begin? It was much easier, I decided, to settle for a life of mediocrity in which I simply write three or four articles a week. Then, at the first of the month, I collect a small paycheck, I pay bills, avoid student-loan debt collectors, and binge on Netflix rentals.
I resigned myself to a life of Gilmore Girls and Buffy. Every once in a while I felt sad. I’d be watching The United States of Tara and wish that I had written it. I’d read an empowering book like Brave New World or Bossypants and I’d just yearn to have been responsible for it. I’d watch Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Sandra Bullock, and Mindy Kaling and wish that I was any one of them.
My fear of failure stems partially from anxiety, which I have been clinically diagnosed with. It also stems from past experiences. I was nervous to pursue a career as a writer because, again, it was not accepted within the Jehovah’s community. I was worried that I would disappoint my parents if I didn’t choose a career that would allow me to be fully engrossed in the faith (which is no longer my faith).
After my time in college, learning about the world in a more open-minded capacity, I began to see that I wanted to contribute to it. The more I wrote, the more I realized I had to learn. I set out to tell story after story, and each time I got about halfway through and stopped. I think maybe there is a part of me that thinks if I willingly quit, it doesn’t count as failure. The best way I can think to explain this is: I never learned to ride a bike, and I’ve never wanted to. It can’t be taught by watching or reading a how-to guide. In order to ride a bike, you have to actually do it, you have to get on it, and fall, and get on it again. But if I never get on a bike, I have never failed at riding a bike. See?
I know that logic is ridiculous. And I wish this was a story about how I think it’s so ridiculous that I did something about it and now I’m happily on my way to realizing my ambition, The End. But this is only the beginning. Now that my dryer has stopped spinning and Principal Skinner is once again yelling at Bart, I want to make a resolution: I will try to stop living in fear of the possibility that I am not a great writer. Everyone knows that in order to even be good you have to try. I’m going to make a writing schedule and, more important, I’m going to try to stick to it. I’m scared, and a little overwhelmed. We’ll see what happens.
[Image via Shutterstock]