We are all so afraid of failing that we do almost everything to avoid it. We work as hard as we can, we live the most interesting and exiting social lives according to our personal Facebook and Instagram pages, and train in the gym to achieve a ‘killer body’. At the same time depression, anxiety, burnout, and even suicide rates are raising to unimaginable lengths, especially in youth and young adults. What is going on here and what factors are responsible for this contradictory phenomenon?
One factor heavily contributing to the longing for perfection and social approval and the stress accompanying that, is our fear of failure. Our society is build on showcasing our successes, leaving no room for the struggles that often precede those achievements. Luckily, there is a counter-movement where people put their failures forward, for example on twitter (#ShareYourRejection or our very own #FailFriday) or with a CV of failures (for example). What all these examples have in common is that they recognize the necessity of failing for their own success.
In this very personal blog, I will outline the failures I experienced in my life and what some of those failures brought me, thinking about it in hindsight. As a perfectionist I’m the textbook example of someone with high fear of failure. I rather won’t put myself out there because of the risk of failing, then giving it a try in an attempt to gain something.
My own short CV of failures:
2009 – Failing my math exam during the final exams
2010 – Failing my driver’s license test
A driver’s license test consists of a theoretical part and a practical, actual driving, part. As the perfectionist that I am, I spent many hours studying for the theoretical part. This resulted in a perfect score: I answered all questions correctly. However, the practical part was a whole other story: here I failed, and I failed hard. I’m not joking when I say that I cried a whole day about this. Even more so when my mother responded differently than I expected: she laughed and told me she was happy that I failed this one. At that moment I got angry and was very upset about her reaction.
What I learned: I thrive in situations that I can control, such as studying for the theoretical test. However, situations where I’m out of control make me nervous. Obviously, those situations are the ones where we can fail. Experiencing these out-of-control situations and the failures accompanying them, made me more resilient and able to put situations in perspective. My mother taught me this valuable lesson when I was 18 already.
2013 – Receiving a low grade in the class of the professor I looked up to
Although this sounds as a minor ‘fail’, this was the one class that got my going in terms of content and the one professor I wanted to notice me in a ‘good’ way. Still at this moment I feel ashamed when I think about it, which shows the importance of that grade at that time.
What I learned: What was a failure for me, was a teaching moment for her. She took the time to explain to me why she gave me a low grade and I agreed with her. Still, I thought that her whole judgement of me would be based on that one moment of failure. I was wrong: I collaborated with her the whole next year for a research master internship, she is my promotor on my PhD project and she hired me for a brand new job starting January 2019.
2014 – Rejected for a Research Talent grant for a PhD position
2015 – Rejected for a €50.000 grant from the Lung Foundation
2018 – Receiving two manuscript rejections 10 minutes after each other
Publishing your research is one of the most important jobs of a researcher, yet also the hardest part with a lot of failure involved. Receiving two rejections in one day, with only 10 minutes in between, is hard. It made me doubt myself as a researcher, taking away the energy to regather myself and continue.
What I learned: Don’t take it personal, although it is very personal. Cry it out and start again: one of these two manuscripts is already accepted in another journal.
It is a life long struggle to cope with your fear of failure. I try fighting it with humor and by resisting the little fear of failure devil inside my head. When a new opportunity or activity comes along and this devil screams: ‘Say no, because you will eventually fail and then everyone knows you are not smart, healthy, funny or strong’, I say yes. Because of this, I have done things that I could not have imagined before: I climbed a volcano in a 6 hour long trip, I applied for a new academic job far out of my reach, and I supported my boyfriend to go live in the States for a year. Try it, maybe it will bring you to new places and experiences yourself.
To everyone and especially to all my dear GEMH-lab colleagues: you are stronger than you think, remember that and fail!