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  • Leah E. Welker

My First Fear: Failure

Updated: Mar 22

A young woman sitting in an abandoned, overgrown building full of light; she is holding a flower, with her head back against the concrete wall and eyes closed. Photo attribution: Zohre Nemati.

What am I afraid of?

I’m an introspective person; one of my favorite hobbies is figuring out how I tick. So as soon as I asked myself this question directly, I knew I would have to think and write about it until I figured it out.

Why have I always been (and still very much am) afraid of sharing my writing? Why would I rather just pretend that I’m writing into a vacuum and that nobody will ever read my words?

After some reflection, I think my fears fall into four main categories. To give you a preview, I’ll list them all here, in order of least to most severe, but I only have room in this post to discuss the first. Fears 2-4 will have to wait for another post.

  1. Fear of failure

  2. Fear of criticism

  3. Fear of success

  4. Fear of hate

Why the fear of failure

If you know me, or if you’ve read my bio or my previous blog posts, you know I have dedicated an inordinate amount of my life to writing. It’s my hobby—inextricably connected to, and not competing with, my hobby of introspection; I write to think, I think to write. And I do both to live.

My writing is therefore a substantial part of not just what I have achieved or created in my life—it is a large part of my world. A world I have largely kept hidden most of my life. The thought of finally opening up that world to everyone and then having no one come to visit, or no one think it worth lingering in, hurts.

Why failure ranks last

But, on the other hand, even though this is a real fear, this is the outcome I am least afraid of right now. Why?

I think it's because this is the fear I've been working at the longest, in so many other aspects of my life. I've read and processed too much on this topic to list all the sources that have helped me overcome my perfectionism and fear of failure, but I credit President Kevin J. Worthen's BYU devotional "Successfully Failing: Pursuing Our Quest for Perfection," which I attended in person while I was a student, as being the real kickoff. That was a true watershed moment in my life.

As far as my fear of failure in writing, my thoughts have fallen into another four categories.

First, I know both in my head and heart that all I have done is worthwhile for no other reason than because it helped me. That was the original reason I did it. And if that remains the only reason, I’m content with that.

Second, there is too much evidence for even my emotions to deny that popular opinion can’t be the sole judge of quality.

  1. First off, a piece of art has to become popular enough for a popular opinion to even form, and that phenomenon is largely (I’d say even mostly) dependent on chance. And those odds are becoming ever slimmer as more and more people have the leisure and resources to pursue artistic endeavors. This age is oversaturated with art.

  2. Second off, what the masses love to consume is not necessarily good or good for them. I’m not trying to be a literary snob when I say that. I’m a genre writer after all, and I have seldom aspired to be accepted in “literary” circles; I’ve rarely found the kind of writing lauded by English teachers, professors, and critics to be satisfying, useful, or uplifting for me, as a consumer or a writer. I knew if I went down that path, I could succeed. I’ve been told so many times by such teachers and professors, whom I always managed to please by checking all their little boxes of “good writing.” I just knew I would make myself miserable if I pursued the literary path for a career or even hobby, so I never bothered. So, yes, I read and write stuff for the “unwashed masses” and I’m 100% fine with that. (And someday I'll do a whole post on why I think genre writing is just as valid and can be just as high quality as any other literature.) What I’m saying with this bullet is that there is very little correlation between popularity and quality. The two might go hand in hand. And they might not. They are simply independent qualities. Popular stuff is merely stuff that people have access to and feel like buying at the time, and that’s as dependent on personal and societal whims as choosing whether to buy junk food or health food. So, if my writing doesn’t become popular, I know in my head and heart that it isn’t a direct reflection of the quality.

  3. Third off, even objectively good writing has its different flavors that some people prefer and some people don't, and every opinion in that case is valid. Everyone needs and wants different things. The flavor of my writing will not be for everyone or even most people, and that's not just OK—that's necessary to create any art worthwhile. Works that try to please everyone please no one.

Third, in 99.99% of cases, it takes time to build a writing career. Or any successful career, really. I’ve found that in my research time and again: the writers (or speakers, thinkers, artists, entrepreneurs, CEOs) who become “successful” (a very subjective term, see fourth point) first had a lot of “failures” which were the very reason for their future success.

  • Failure teaches us things that success never does. If we get things right, all we know is that we got it right, and that could have been purely by chance. If we get things wrong, we get to learn why, and we get to fix it and grow.

  • Success doesn't feel as good as we think it will. ("7 Life Lessons I Wish I Knew Sooner," 25:05.)

  • Failure is the gatekeeper. It’s the test. So many more people could succeed if they pushed through the initial failures or “meh” years until they finally make it. ("7 Life Lessons I Wish I Knew Sooner," 13:45.)

“Failure is so important. We speak about success all the time. It is the ability to resist failure or use failure that often leads to greater success. I've met people who don't want to try for fear of failing.” —J.K. Rowling

As I said in point 2.1, commercial popularity and success is largely dependent on chance. Therefore, the key is to stay in the game long enough to finally hit that magic moment where preparation meets opportunity. And the odds of that happening are actually better than what most people believe. Certainly higher than what I thought at first.

When it comes to a writing career, I've consistently read that it takes about ten years and/or 28 books to start really making it. To me, that's good news. That gives me hope, a realistic goal to shoot for, a trial period to know when I have done enough. That also tracks with what I remember Brandon Sanderson telling us in his lecture class (318R): that it took him about ten years to become big. (Ha, and I long ago passed the number of books he said you had to write to get actually good at it, before I even began Dragon Blood.) And if it can take Brandon Sanderson that long, then I have little qualms about what the initial success of my debut, six-book series will be.

I’ve long since adopted the long view, the mindset that the experts all recommend: simply stay in the game, keep getting better, keep publishing, keep learning the system, keep putting yourself out there, and your moment will come. After a certain amount of endurance, some level of success is guaranteed, if only because you are the last person standing (and you have so many books that someone is bound to like one of them).

If after ten years and 28 books I haven't achieved financial success, I know I'll have learned 1000% times more than I would have otherwise, I would have created 28 books I can be proud of, I'll have created art instead of passively consumed it, and I know I'll have given my all. That's a far more worthwhile place to be ten years from now than safely locked into a financially secure yet life-draining job I never truly wanted. I know that at the end of those ten years, I'll have had the ride of my life. I'll have made something with that life, even if no one else besides me thinks so. (And since writing this paragraph, in my research I discovered that's exactly the attitude Brandon Sanderson took when his first twelve books were rejected. Ha, maybe I'm onto something after all. 😉)

"After so many rejections and some soul-searching, he decided to keep at it. If he died with 100 unpublished novels in his closet, he would be 'a bigger success than if I give up now because I’m discouraged'." —Alison Flood, quoting Brandon Sanderson

Fourth, because I’ve already achieved what I define as success. This is related to the first point of how my writing was originally just for me, but I’m taking it a step further here.  Because I’m not just making it for me anymore. I’m taking that leap into the dark to make it for other people, and that leap is so huge for me that I already see it as success. If nothing else comes of this experience but that I did one of the hardest things I’ve ever done but always dreamed of yet feared doing, then who wouldn’t call that a success? Now I don’t have to wonder “what if.” Now I’m doing it. Now I’ll know. And for that alone, I am so incredibly proud.

And incredibly grateful, especially to the people who made it possible: my family and friends. Without their support, both emotional and financial, I wouldn’t have been able to do this. Not this quickly, or in this way.

Why am I still afraid of failure?

Given all of the above, you may be surprised why I’m still listing failure as a fear. But that last paragraph is why. I am so grateful for the support everyone has given me that I don’t want them to be disappointed if publishing these first six books hardly moves the needle—even though I know that’s the most likely scenario and isn’t a sign that I should quit.

But how to persuade all of you to stay with me for as long as it takes? My fears tell me I need a quick success to show you that I can make it, otherwise I’ll lose that support, and everything will collapse. But when I name that fear out loud, I have to laugh at myself. Because it’s obviously a fallacy (as most of my subconscious fears are) and does a disservice to the people who love me best. Those people, the people who matter most to me, probably won’t withdraw their support. But the question of whether they will or not is irrelevant, because even if they do, I’ll find another way, even if that means slowing down my writing and publishing schedule to make a living another way for a time.

“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.” —Paulo Coelho

When I really sit myself down for an honest talk and I ask myself, “Can I do this?,” I know what the answer is: yes, yes I can. If I endure long enough, I can.

Do I want to do this? Ha, there’s a different question! But most days, also yes. Enough that I’m not going to let myself give up, because I know the darker days when I question why I’m putting myself through this will pass. It’s a cycle; the fears always come back. But so far, each time, they pass more quickly, and I learn how to cope with them better. The fear of “failure,” as most people would define it for these books, is almost gone altogether, as my head has almost convinced my heart of the utter fallacy of it all.

The other fears are proving harder to tackle. But since I’ve written enough about the first for one post, those are for another day.


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