Thursday, February 16, 2012

Raise Your Hand: Overcoming the Fear of Failure

Yesterday, I made a big mistake on MNINB. I had a typo, spelling "loose" as "lose" for the title of the post. In fact, you'll notice the URL for that post is now permanently "lose." I totally dropped the ball, and my day job title is Senior Content Editor. Ugh!

Lose or loose? I can learn (and sometimes) fix my failures online.

Around the same time the mistake was brought to my attention yesterday, I was also suffering through a stomach bug that gave me a fever and knocked me out last night. But one of the last things I did before throwing in the towel last night was to fix that typo. I just had to.

Raise Your Hand If You Know the Answer
Back in my school days, I was pretty smart, but I had a confidence problem. My tests almost always came back with perfect grades. On standardized tests, my scores were always high. The only knock on my grades was usually due to my slacker attitude when it came to homework.

That said, I usually knew the answer whenever teachers would inevitably prompt, "Raise your hand if you know the answer." But I wouldn't raise my hand.

My reason was simple: I thought I knew the answer, but what if I was actually wrong. What if everyone laughed at me?

Overcoming the Fear of Failure
Sometimes, my fear of failure keeps me from finding success. The teacher asks who knows the answer and someone else raises their hand moments after I could've--if I'd been brave. Or I don't make a blog post, because I'm afraid the topic might not be received well. Or I don't suggest an idea at work, because people might think it's crazy.

Many people deal with these fears. Maybe it's because we're all trying to be exceptional while still fitting in with everyone else. We might not find success at what we love, but at least, we don't have to go through the process of facing failure or rejection.

Over the years--and it's been tough (with much backsliding)--I've found the courage to go for it, despite the possibility of failure. Just over the past five years, I can see there have been a number of failures. But I've found far more successes than I would've ever dreamed when I was that young boy thinking of raising his hand, but ultimately not doing so.

If you're struggling to find the courage to try something new or amazing, what's holding you back? Don't be afraid to raise your hand.


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Unknown said...

Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.~Winston Churchill. Keep on keeping on. I love your blog.

Robert Lee Brewer said...

Thanks, Alvarado! Keep on keeping on, indeed.

Leslie Miner said...

Perfect timing. I needed this. Thanks!

Robin Coyle said...

Wow...I needed this today too. Fear of "not knowing enough" is horrible.

Brandee Shafer said...

This is a valuable post, Robert. Thanks for calling my attention to a typo about which I knew nothing. We all make mistakes. I had an English prof in grad school told us a story, once: he didn't know the word "misled" as we know it. He spelled it correctly but pronounced it "mizzled." He said that--in his mind--the word had a definition similar to misled, just darker and more malicious. Anyway, one day in conversation, he said something about being mizzled, and the person w/ whom he was conversing said: "Excuse me?" My professor said: "We've been Mizzled." The other person asked: "What do you mean? I don't know that word." My prof said: "You know...mizzled...m-i-s-l-e-d!" And the other person asked: "You mean MISLED?"

I often think of that story and how even the best and brightest among us get it wrong, sometimes!

Hope Clark said...


OMG I could write a book on overcoming shyness. Oh yeah, I did - The Shy Writer. But . . . I seriously felt like you in school and was considered timid but also snobbish because I didn't jump into conversations. It's a heavy burden to bear as a shy person. But over time, I decided life was too short and went back to writing and gaining the guts to present it to the world. Now I even speak.

I make such mistakes as well. Just a week ago I misspelled chicken coop as chicken coup. And readers let me know it - especially since I raise chickens! But we laugh, learn and move on. Enjoyed your post!

Peggy Strack said...

I'm finally ready to independently publish my first novel, which I have been working on for three years. Even after about 20 of my own edits, four friend edits and two professional edits, I hate the idea that on some page there may be a misplaced comma, an awkward sentence or a "their" for "there." With approximately 1500 books being published everday, there are some good and some bad. I want to be on the good side. Fear of being on the bad side has kept me from seeing my story in print. Here's a quote from Bill Cosby that has moved me forward, "Decide you want it more than you are afraid of it." Thanks for the post, "Not Bob."

Catherine Johnson said...

I never used to raise my hand either and after the event no one believes you that you got the answer right. Thanks for the go-getter attitude today.

Robert Lee Brewer said...

Thanks for sharing that story, Brandee. It's the kind that sticks.

I know it's a battle, Hope. I actually like to be around people, just analyze everything I'm about to say--and then, the moment passes. But speaking in front of people at events has become easy, because I already have a game plan.

Peggy, the thing that helps me keep moving is realizing that nothing is perfect to everyone. So I just try to do the very best I can, and then send it out into the world. Good luck with your manuscript!

Catherine, it doesn't matter if we're right after the fact, because it's after the fact. Thanks for the comment.

And also, thanks to Leslie and Robin for your comments!

Carol said...

OK, SO...Robert, I see you've been lurking in my head all these years?!!? LOL Seriously, I too, did well in school, and didn't learn the truth about homework till high school, so I too, often had perfect marks but sometimes I slipped up through lack of effort. I seldom volunteered answers to the point that my Grade 10 history teacher's face showed shock when I actually raised my hand and got it right. I remember in Grade 8 having to do an oral report but I shook so hard and was so nervous I couldn't even answer when the teacher tried to help by asking questions. In Grade 11 it all caught up with me. My Latin teacher asked a question directly. I knew the answer. But she questioned my answer, which made me uncertain. It was to identify a part of speech. I went through all of them, coming back to my original answer. She then responded; "Yes, but you didn't sound sure of yourself."
As an adult, in any group gathering, I could not speak if there was even one person I didn't know. And, like you, when I eventually had something to say, I waited too long and the topic changed before I "got my chance."
Unless I had a few drinks. Then, I was apt to say things I should not have said as well as the things I should.
It wasn't till I was in my forties that I lost the fear. I had gone back to school (I dropped out through boredom). I had to give a presentation, but this time, I knew my subject and no-one could question or catch me out in misinformation. It was about my personal travel experiences. I put one hand in a jacket pocket, against the teacher's rules. But that let me fidget away my nervousness unseen. I did well. Years later, facing a poetry crowd, I was nervous again. This time my trick was an outrageous hat: a persona. It wasn't "me" talking so I could do it!

BUT, I still have not gotten past the fear of submitting my poems to magazines. I am starting to work on that by entering a few contests and submitting to e-zines. Next step is the literary mags. I hope.
But Robert, I was so amazed at the similarities of your experience and mine that I just had to share here. And to thank you for this post! Carol A. Stephen

Robert Lee Brewer said...

Thank you for sharing, Carol! I think there are more of us than we realize. The solution is to take more chances and go for it--as Sage Cohen said in an earlier post. Of course, that's often easier said than done.

Unknown said...

This sure does speak to a lot of people, Robert. I got all the way to grad school before I could really talk in front of more than three people and still worry that what I say sounds stupid, incorrect, whatever. But you're right - you get nowhere if you don't try.
For Carol, above, send your poetry to Every Day Poets at We'll take a look. We're nice people.

Hannah said...

Wonderful, insightful post, Robert. I have trouble with chose or choose...never fails! Thank you for your courage!

Crystal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Crystal said...

Having someone read my post that contained a spelling error (hope it's the only one) and fear of looking like an idiot led me to delete my original comment. LOL

I found your blog through Writer's Digest and I love your posts. A few years ago the idea "to write" landed in my head from nowhere. Prior to this I had always stuffed my creativity inside the "Fashion/Drawing/DIY" box along with my hot glue gun and scissors. I'm unorganized, flighty at times, and a terrible procrastinator. All characteristics that would make any writing device laugh hysterically.

Fear has scoffed and tried to distract me. (Writing...really? You don't know how to write, you'll never finish, it's not good enough, this will never go anywhere, people are going to think this is crap, your blog has zero traffic)

On my way to a writer's conference Fear sat beside me on the train, mocking. (You didn't edit enough, your pitch is not good enough, you're going to screw it up, agents are going to think you're a joke) But, I keep going.

I keep pushing because while Fear can be intimidating, What If is a heck of a lot scarier for me. That, and I don't want to miss the chance to kick Fear in a soft spot. LOL

Happily Following...

Karen Nolan Bell said...

Oh, man, I had to grab the tissues after reading this one. Robert, you so get into my head! I never accomplished my dreams in life because of my fear of failing. My big change came when I nearly died. I realized (as I lay there with monitors hooked up to every body part and surrounded by medical personnel)I had thrown away my life and hadn't fulfilled my dreams because of my perfectionism. I decided it was time to live. I have written my first book and am finally willing to face rejection to reach my goal. It certainly took long enough! I just had my 58th birthday. I'm not perfect yet, but this year my resolution is to push myself beyond what I think I can do. Thanks for being so transparent.

Jessie Lambert said...

I still RARELY raise my hand!! (I'm in college right now.) You're so right that fear often binds us. I'm actually writing a short story about that now. I'm trying to overcome my own fears - of rejection, mostly - right now. I've finished 3 novels, but have never had the courage to even query. But I'm slowly overcoming that fear and writing query letters. I'm also starting a blog - something I've always been afraid to do - full of writing tips. I used to believe that I didn't know enough about writing to create a blog about it, but several of my writing friends have encouraged me to share what I have learned. I'm finally doing it! I'm raising my hand, too! :) Great post.

Christina Katz said...

Hi Robert,

I'm sorry that you were not feeling well and I hope you are feeling better.

I'm a big hand-raiser but I wasn't always. I was once painfully shy, like Hope talks about in her book, for many years but today I really like to be part of the conversation, so I raise my hand and more.

There are people who would have loved for you to feel ashamed of your typo. I was not one of them. To me it's just human error.

On the other hand, to hang back and collect resentments, like an inventory of other people's typos, to me that's sad. And I've seen more vicious remarks over typos over the years than just about any other reason.

You could make all the typos in the world (my editors certainly never catch them all and neither do I) and it wouldn't make you any less excellent at what you do.

But I steer clear of the folks who hang back and collect slights, real or perceived. Because they are into shaming, like the folks who need to shame people who make typos as though they themselves would never make any, which is much more harmful, in my book, than any silly typo could ever be.

Khaalidah said...

What an incredibly honest post. I can't say that confidence was ever my problem. Don't get me wrong though, I'm not this supersonic know-it-all. I just don't care, usually about what other people think, about what I think. In other words, I trust my intuition most.
I have a daughter who is immensely scarily talented and yet she isn't confident in her abilities. This is painful to see because sometimes being too careful can make you miss out on the good stuff.
This is a terrific post. Thanks!