Guy looking at the horizon and thinking

How Fear of Failure is Stunting Your Creative Growth

“To be terrible with failure is to be so scared of it that you never do anything interesting.” – Tim Harford

You can picture the scenario. You see an advert plastered on your school wall for chess tournaments you’ve always wanted to try out, or a rare opportunity to try out at a local talent show, where you’re sure your quirky blend of comedy will leave the crowd breathless. Yet, for the life of you, you can’t help but believe that everything will end in disappointment and hellfire the moment you walk through that open door. That, in the face of uncertain odds, you will fail.
“Failure” is often a word most people react to negatively. The four lettered f-word often sends people stumbling backwards better than the actual f-word itself. Of course, in everything we do, we strive for success, right? Nobody wants to become a loser, nor does anyone want to set out for a task that will inevitably fail. Occasionally, a healthy dose of fear is an appropriate motivator to help some people push on through tough obstacles towards their goals, but how many of us never take the first step, already expecting failure to come to us?
Fear is a common human emotion like when we get ten missed calls from mum. Fear is healthy, of course, as it helps steer you away from harmful situations. A fear of heights would curb you from falling off a steep hill and breaking your ankle, while a fear of fire could stop a trip to the hospital for second-degree burns.
looking at a wall of notes
What I’m really looking into, though, is the fear of failure. The crippling doubt that, no matter what you do, you’re destined to screw up so massively that there is nothing left to salvage.
This can keep some from trying new things, stalling progress in what they love, and creates enough self-doubt in their heads to tranquillise an elephant. Some of the fear stems from the way we hold ourselves in our minds, our self esteem, our confidence, even our attitude towards the circumstances around us. How many times daily do we look at opportunities as problems to avoid?
For some, it’s the mindset of perfectionism that ties them down. Failure is often so terrifying and humiliating to some that they simply never deign themselves capable enough to step out of their comfort zone. That single thought is frightening enough for some to throw in the towel before they’ve even ticked the box on the extra-curriculum form. For some, it’s the thinking that all of our failures will stick with us forever, like an orange juice stain on your Mum’s favourite carpet that you can’t ever wash off. Life, unfortunately, doesn’t come with an undo button, and most of our failures seem to stick around. No matter how luxurious or lavish the carpet, the stain still remains.
In the end, these kinds of gratuitous, unnecessary fears end up killing your drive to succeed, and more often than not, will lead you down the winding road towards creative mediocrity.


1. You Miss Out On Valuable Opportunities

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How many times have you seen your friend pass up on something you just knew they would excel at, because they said they weren’t ready, or that they didn’t want to try because they already knew they would never get shortlisted? Life is way too short to drag your feet, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. If all of us were to sit and wait until we knew with complete certainty that the next audition we went to would be a success, we would be holding onto our hats for the rest of our lives.
One of my unforgettable experiences in college was deciding to leave the comfort of my study time to join a writing club. It was an intimidating feat, to say the least. I didn’t believe that my writing style was up to par with most of my seniors in the club. What if I was awkward? What if my writing style didn’t fit in? I simply couldn’t force myself to tick the little green box in the extra-curriculum form. Eventually, after much encouragement from my friends, and some unabashed confidence on my part, I joined my first class in what would eventually be the club that would improve my writing, and my social skills, by leaps and bounds. Sometimes I imagine what I would have become if I hadn’t taken that bold step into a brave new world, and a part of me likes to think that that old me would be proud of the new me.
There’s a Malay proverb, “kalau tidak dipecahkan ruyung, manakah dapat sagunya” which loosely translates to: “you’ll never know if you never try.” We all get a chance to prove ourselves, one way or another. Whether it’s behind a podium in front of a crowd, or a simple family gathering at the dinner table, shying away from these golden opportunities is a big no-no to creative growth.

Next time you’re given the opportunity at your work place, it’s often a billion times more satisfying (and rewarding) to try, than to have the regret of not trying bounce around in your head. Who knows, you might even land the spot!


2. You Never Learn From New Experiences

taking a video on the phone 

In life, the second worst thing you can do to yourself is not learning from your mistakes. The worst is not learning anything at all. Trying out new things can be an exciting and memorable experience, until the tragedy of failure rears its head. To err is to be human, after all. But once you stop taking risks, you forever grind your creativity to a crawl. There are infinitely more things you can learn from failing, than you do in succeeding.
I have a friend which I find, has an amazing singing voice. She was confident in her singing, and had volunteered to perform on stage for a school event, and through the process of singing “Flashlight” she had begun to run out of breath, so the audience could hear her voice grow hoarse as she struggled to gain her tone and breath back.
After the performance, she was down in the dumps, lamenting about how she would never hold a microphone again, how she already knew she would mess up before the performance even began. So many people offered her comfort, but I remember one specific teacher that came to her after everything was over, and provided her with advice on how to overcome her performance anxiety.
Just recently, I had encouraged her to perform at a talent show in college, and through the throngs of guitarists, magicians and singers, I got to see her on stage, singing with enough confidence to knock out the entire crowd. Her stage presence fit “Scars Like A Beautiful” like a tailor-made glove, and all that remained after her final note was nothing but resounding applause.

“I could sing, but I also learned how to play the microphone on stage,” She told me when we met up after the show had ended, “All I needed was more stage experience.”


3. You’re More Likely To Hurt Yourself With How You Think

 confused guy looking at laptop

How many times do you hear the phrase “I’m just not good enough,” from someone to excuse themselves away from a viable opportunity? Now and again, this toxic way of thinking is the first, and usually the most daunting hurdle to cross before you reach the part where failure is simply due to lack of preparation. It seems to pervade our thoughts no matter how carefully prepared we think we are, and it keeps our tongues in our mouths when we have the attention of someone we need to talk to, or holds our hesitant fingers over the enter key.
There is a quote from one of my co-workers which I like: “If you keep talking about your limitations, that’s all you’ll ever be.” Constantly fussing about how entering the marathon is a losing game because you’re not athletic or you’re not fast enough will inevitably lead you to embody those traits that you keep thinking about yourself.
The one line of thinking that really hinders your creative growth is believing that everything needs to be perfect, no matter what. Striving for perfection is a completely different ball game than making sure each and every brush stroke on the canvas is perfectly calculated. More often than not, you will burn yourself out trying to come out unquestionably superior, and that can feed into the ravenous maw of the fear of failure. “Aiming for the moon to land among the stars” only works if you don’t berate yourself when you don’t reach the moon and beyond.
Instead of thinking about what will happen if you fail, which can perpetuate negative thoughts, try instead to ask yourself what will happen when you succeed, and work towards that. At the very least, you’ll now have an achievable goal to strive for.
In our fast-paced life, we are all destined to make mistakes. Whether it be something as monumental as your voice cracking during an important meeting, or missing your mouth while sipping your teh at the mamak, it’s imperative that we do not let these little setbacks define our entire lives. Maybe you’re progressing a little bit slower than your other peers. Maybe your art style is completely different than what you had in mind. Don’t let that stop you. Progress is not linear, and your motivation to create what you assume might be the worst thing you’ve ever seen might just be the next thing that motivates your closest friend to start creating.
Experiencing failure isn’t about us becoming losers and forever being remembered as being the rotten, second-rate artist, nor is it about us forever living in a padded cell of our own comfort zone, never leaving to taste anything foreign. Living in our own comfort zone can help us gain the confidence we so greatly need in order to break out of it. We can gain so much from the simple act of failing; it’s a natural part of life and it is what makes us so inherently human. There simply is no living without it.

So why don’t we go out, and fail more often? We might just create a life richer than what we already have!

Caleb Ng is an avid writer from the heart of Kuala Lumpur. When he’s not seen playing his guitars, he can also be caught reading new books, watching his favorite shows, or listening to the same playlists on repeat.

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