When he got up from the table, I knew something was wrong. His steps were too quick, his smile too forced. He just wanted to get away.
“Hey, buddy,” I said. He stopped, his face half obscured by the kitchen counter backsplash. He wouldn’t make eye contact. “Did you have fun?”
He nodded, and there was that forced smile again—a half smirk tinged with pain.
He turned to go, but I called out to him again. “Come here,” I said, and putting my arm around him, I asked, “What’s the matter?”
And just like that, the levee broke and the tears came in a torrent. My sweet 7-year old, Liam, was bawling in my arms as he choked out the words, “I wanted to win so bad.”
“You played really well,” I said. “Why all the tears?”
“I don’t want to be a loser.”
And there was the heart of it. It wasn’t losing the game that caused so much pain—it was that losing reinforced his self-perception that he was a loser in life. Heady stuff for a 7-year old who is bright, funny, kind, lovable, and who should feel on top of the world right now.
We live in an atychiphobic culture. We avoid loss and failure like the plague. This fear of failure is built into us from an early age. Whether it be from our parents, school, work, or something else, most of us, either accidentally or overtly, have been trained to derive our self-worth by our successes and accomplishments. This generally results in two types of responses.
On one hand, the pressure to succeed is so great that it produces anxiety and a withdrawal from risk. Rather than try and fail, it becomes easier to simply not try at all.
On the other hand, some people take on a predatory attitude, projecting their failures onto others, stepping over the competition and doing whatever it takes to win.
Both are a symptom of a deep-seeded need to protect and create self-worth—and both are a prison.
For my son, I see this in the way small failures cause him to become passé about things he was previously excited about. My house is filled with the relics of passions past—skateboards, drums, books, puzzles—all abandoned when things became too hard, when Liam had to risk failure in order to grow.
And I see the dominance mindset in how some of the young boys at Liam’s school interact with others. When I asked my son why he would self-identify as a loser just because he didn’t win a game, he said a boy at school called him that after beating Liam at a playground game.
I called bullshit on that boy’s words.
“Losing a game doesn’t make you a loser,” I told Liam. “You’re smart, funny, and loved. You’re valuable because you’re you, not because of what you accomplish.”
In fact, I told him, the surest way to become a loser in life would be to avoid failure and the lessons we learn from it—or to begin running over others in an attempt to win at all costs and make yourself feel better.
In a moment of brilliant insight, Liam brightened and said, “That’s why the boy called me a loser. He wanted to feel better about himself because he feels like a loser.”
The Internet is littered with step-by-step guides on how to overcome our fear of failure (like this one). The irony is that these supposed cures are steeped in the same mentality that gives rise to the problem in the first place.
Overcoming your fear of failure is rooted in the mindset that winning is the most important goal in life. These steps usually include breaking down big tasks into smaller, more manageable tasks so that you can get easy wins. This involves some form of goal setting, strategy for attacking those goals, tactics, and execution. It’s divide and conquer.
Yet, these steps to overcoming fear of failure are still based in the context of building your self-worth out of your productivity and what you can accomplish. Missing is the concept of inherent self-worth apart from accomplishment.And when theses systems break down, fear of failure isn’t cured, it’s reinforced.
This is not to say that setting goals and making things manageable is bad. It’s actually good. But where it becomes dangerous is when we base our identity in them instead of something more lasting, our value as a human being regardless of our accomplishments.
There is another way to live: to embrace failure and to recognize it as a necessary and permanent part of life. As FDR famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Failure is a valuable feedback mechanism. Through failure we learn, and failure is a simple fact of life that can seldom be avoided. It’s time to change our framework as a culture and individually about failure in life. No longer should we define ourselves by our successes or our failures. Instead, we should define ourselves by our growth.
There are valuable lessons to be learned from both success and failure. If we take the time to contemplate the lessons learned by each, we become better people and professionals. When we approach life in this way, we no longer have to fear failure (or success) because we embrace it for how it can enrich our lives. Understanding that both failure and success are part of the rhythm of life frees us up to stop focusing on them as the end all and to look at the totality of our life as the place from which we derive our value—not just our present and often overwhelming reality.
Living this way allows us to move beyond defining our reality by wins and losses, and to reshape it by pursuing what we love and are passionate about, regardless of the result. It is freeing in a way that trying to overcome our fear of failure or success can never be. R̶a̶l̶p̶h̶ ̶W̶a̶l̶d̶o̶ ̶E̶m̶e̶r̶s̶o̶n̶ Aerosmith got to the heart of this when h̶e̶ they wrote, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” And both success and failure are part of that journey.
After our conversation about losing the game and how it made him feel like a loser, this was the advice I gave to my son, “Give some thought about what worked and what didn’t as you played the game. And next time, whether you win or lose, you’ll be a better player.”
His response: “Can we play again tomorrow night?”
I think that should be our response too.