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Fear, Failure...and the Twilight Zone


Awhile back I did some leadership training. One night we were asked, “What would you do if failure were not an option?” The exercise is designed to heighten our awareness of how we let our fear derail us and how we often unconsciously defeat ourselves before we get started. Instead, I answered by describing…a Twilight Zone episode!

In the story, a petty thief dies and goes to the afterworld hosted by a friendly man dressed in white. Anything the dead man does he succeeds at – if he plays poker, he gets a royal flush every hand, if he bets on a horse it always wins, etc. Finally, in frustration, he tells the man in white that, while he appreciates it, he really belongs in “the other place.” “But this IS the other place,” says the man in white, laughing sinisterly.

The fact is that a life in which failure is not an option would get boring pretty quickly. Which brings me to the point of this post: fear and failure – usually looked at as purely negatives – are actually key elements to happiness and success.

Say what?

I am a composer for film and television. Right now, I have several friends who are going through unemployment-related depression. Unemployment is a normal state of affairs for artists. You’re out of work, you get the cool gig, it goes, it ends, you’re out of work. Circle of artist life. A few manage to get the next gig lined up while the previous one is going, but that is actually the exception to the norm. For all the talk of “the work”, the hardest work – and most revealing – is what happens when you’re out of work.

Why do people feel like they’ve failed when they are unemployed? Because they did. Hey, wait a minute, isn’t that where I’m supposed to say, “You’re never really a failure unless you give up,” or some other platitude? But you have actually failed to stay employed. Fine: success is built on failure. And fear of failure is one of the great motivators that lead to that success.

I read a transcription of a roundtable discussion of some prominent actors recently. Kevin Bacon described standing on a corner in NYC, freaking out to his wife, Kyra Sedgwick, pregnant with their first child, because of his inability to get a decent gig. “I can’t believe that the only job I can get is some stupid movie about giant underground worms!” he complained. That was Tremors, which reignited his career.

People, especially those in the transformation biz, often claim that the best way to achieve something is to envision it as if you were already living it. That has not been my experience. Have you ever noticed, that, outside of motivational speakers who make a living peddling this idea, most people who say this are often kind of lost? You know the ones: they have a picture on their refrigerator of the house they’re going to own or the yacht they are going to sail the world in and, ten years later, the same picture is still there and they’re no closer than they were when they started. The problem is that they have not done the actual mundane, unglamorous, daily tasks to get there, at least not with consistency and self-discipline. Their eyes are so focussed on the horizon that they’re not looking at what their feet are stepping in.

This may seem like an odd thing coming from a guy who likes to think of himself as a “visionary”. But what distinguishes a vision from a fantasy is not just a plan – it’s a lot of task completion.

What are these tasks? How about reconnecting in a meaningful way to everyone you know in your business? Systematically. With a daily quota. How about improving your craft? It never hurts to actually be better at what you do. Read, observe, practice, practice, practice. How about becoming entrepreneurial instead of being dependent on others for your next job? You can’t fire me – I’m the boss! How about taking care of your physical being through exercise and real food? How about taking care of your spiritual being through connection with your community, loved ones, or higher power?

All of this takes courage. Courage is going to talk to the next person on your list after the last one has informed you through their actions how inconsequential they believe you are. Courage is finding the perspective to see that your career is the sum of all your efforts, not just the successes. Courage transforms paralyzing fear into motivational fear.

Courage beats fearlessness any day.

I originally posted this on my Facebook artist page and my friend, Nick Jameson, posted a comment about jamming until the wee hours with Bono, who sat in and improvised song lyrics. When Bono was asked how he had the courage to do so, he replied, “You gotta have faith in failure.”

That and the wisdom of The Twilight Zone.

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