I say this not because I think it’s awesome (it is) or because Yuvi is a great guy (he is). You should check it out because he’s a fellow creator who has transcended his fears and thrown a bit of himself at the world. He’s done this despite the possibility of abject failure. For that alone, he has my deepest admiration.
In honor of the fear he’s experienced around his new book’s launch, Yuvi asked us to write about fear and failure.
That’s easy for me, because fear–specifically fear of failure–is my primary driver. I have gone to great lengths to manage that fear and all the things that feed it. I have not yet defeated it and probably never will, but I know that if I succeed or fail in life, it will be because of that fear. It is inseparable from who I am as a person.
Knowing Fear, Knowing Failure
I spent 13 years on active duty as a US Naval Aviator, flying fighters from aircraft carriers. I’ve spent two more years as a reservist, pretending to be a bad guy over the high mountain desert of north-central Nevada, in a surprisingly reliable 1960’s-era export fighter.
There hasn’t been a single time I’ve climbed into a jet that I haven’t been deeply afraid–not of dying, but of messing up, disappointing someone, failing. There are so many things you have to do to successfully complete a flight in a military aircraft that the opportunities for mistakes (big and small) are everywhere. There are no perfect flights.
The video below shows what it looks like to land on an aircraft carrier at night. I’ve done this more than a hundred times, often after a five hour flight in the dark, and it never gets easier or less scary.
When you perform this (admittedly) insane act, your fear doesn’t come from the possibility that you might plant yourself on the back of the ship and die in a huge fireball. The fear comes from performing the job poorly and failing in front of your peers.
We’ve got guys called Landing Signal Officers (LSOs) whose sole job is to keep you from crashing on landing. The LSOs grade every pass and send you around for another try if your best attempt just isn’t good enough. Land too short and you scare people. They get mad, you look dumb. Land too long and you miss the wires and have to do it again.
I spent some time as an LSO myself. Here’s a video of me as Landing Signal Officer yelling at a guy who got too close to the back of the ship. This kind of yelling-to-keep-everyone-alive happens at least once a night.
There’s an old saying in Naval Aviation:
Better to be dead than look stupid, but it is possible to do both.
No truer words were ever spoken. Death wasn’t ever a concern for me in the air, because I was too busy trying not to screw up, look like an idiot and/or scare people. Concentrate on those things and survival should follow.
Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once. —William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
I have died well over a thousand deaths climbing into airplanes, so that puts me solidly in coward territory. Every flight is another chance to mess up, to let people down. You can plan for just about everything to go wrong or break in an airplane but you are the biggest wildcard. You are always the weakest link. The human element is simply the part most likely to fail. You can study, you can prepare, but in the end if you can’t execute you’re useless.
Flying is a lot like sports. Nothing matters but what you do right now. Sink the 3-pointer to win the game, or be the guy who blew it. Beat the ball to home plate. Sink the putt. It doesn’t matter how many books you’ve read on basketball, baseball or golf or how many hours you’ve practiced. If you can’t do it when it counts, you’re useless.
Needless to say, placing your life and career success in the hands of something that can’t be predicted or relied on is a bit stressful.
Truthfully, flying didn’t make me this neurotic, this fear has been with me since the day I was born. I’m just as afraid of screwing up on a hike with my wife and son in Yosemite.
”What if we get caught in a storm? What if one of us gets hurt? What if my son gets bored? What if I forget to pack enough water? It’s going to all be my fault.”
This sort of perspective has been a constant challenge in my personal life, as you might imagine.
How to Control and Manage Fear and Failure
Sorry about the misleading header, but I have no idea how to control or manage fear. I can’t. Not my kind. I’ve tried, believe me.
In Aviation Safety School we learned a technique called Operational Risk Management (ORM) that allows you to sort potential obstacles by their severity and likelihood. You can then put controls in place to mitigate the most dangerous or likely failure points. Things that are unlikely or not a big deal you can safely set aside.
If it’s likely you’ll get rained on in Yosemite, you bring a raincoat. If you think you might get injured, you bring a first aid kit and a way to call for help. Common sense, right?
Intellectually and professionally this method can be very helpful, but emotionally it’s hollow. Deep down inside you know that you were the one who assessed all those risks. You made the call to leave behind the hiking poles because the trail wasn’t that steep. You thought you set out with plenty of drinking water.
So what if you’re wrong?
Many years ago I dove into stoicism as a way to manage that fear. As a philosophy it gives you some powerful tools.
To stoics, the world is broken up into things you can control, and things you can’t. Things you can control are your opinions, desires, and actions. Things you can’t are your body, your stuff, your reputation, and pretty much anything that’s not a personal act. Concentrate on the things you can control, let go of the things you can’t, and you’ll live a tranquil, undisturbed life.
This is great advice. It’s also extremely difficult to implement.
In a letter to his nephew, Seneca (who is usually a pretty cheery guy for a stoic) drops the following bombshell, lifted from his fellow stoic Hecato:
”Cease to hope, and you will cease to fear.”
This simple statement rocked my world. I had never associated hope and fear in my mind before, but there they were. The idea is that if you’re hoping for something to go a certain way, you’re focusing on things that are out of your control and therefore doomed to fear and misery. Give up hope and you’ll be fine.
In an attempt to dig deeper into my psyche and find (or build) this well of equanimity I began studying Buddhism. I’ve learned to enjoy vipassana insight meditation. I discovered that my brain can come up with some really crazy stuff when it just sits there for a while.
I’m not yet qualified to talk in any detail on Buddhist philosophy, but I was surprised by how much it has in common with stoicism. I know that I crave a lot of things, and that I’m really attached to certain outcomes and perceptions that others have of me. A lot of that is rooted in excessive pride.
Stoicism taught me that nothing but my actions, opinions and desires are in my control. Buddhism has caused me to question even that. And still I worry.
Getting on with it
Fear of failure isn’t all bad. Fear is a powerful motivator.
To the untrained eye, I am a highly-organized, highly-focused productivity machine. My fear keeps me on top of things, keeps me planning for all eventualities, and when something goes wrong I am usually ready. I have mastered the illusion of calm and quiet strength.
Nearly all my successes in life have been a result of this fear.
The people who know me best know better. Left to their own devices, my fears turn me into a controlling, paranoid jerk, who’s reluctant to change plans or even leave the house sometimes because something might go wrong. My wife (to put it lightly) is a saint and loves me anyway. Some days I make things a lot more difficult than they need to be.
Nearly all my failures in life have been a result of this fear.
There is a fine line between running away from something scary and running toward something cool. The vast majority of people see me run and think the latter. Few know me well enough to question that perspective. Sometimes that’s part of my plan.
I’ve spent enough time living in fear to know that it’s probably not going away. I continue to do my best to discover how let go. There is no easy answer, and that’s maybe the most difficult part to accept in all this.
You can’t create without risking failure. Heck, you can’t walk outside your door without risking failure. Yuvi overcame all this and wrote a whole book.
I’m sure impressed.