There’s a funny scene in the movie The World According to Garp in which Garp (Robin Williams) and his wife are looking at a house they’d like to buy. They’re standing on the sidewalk with the realtor when, without warning, a single-prop plane comes sputtering into view over the tree-line. The plane crashes into the side of the house, making a terrific mess. Garp’s wife and the realtor are horrified, watching the unscathed pilot waving hello from what’s left of the master bedroom.
This scene wasn’t in the novel, but it could have been.
“We’ll take the house!” Garp exclaims, wrapping an arm around his wife. “This house has been pre-disastered. We’ll be safe here.”
Fear of failure — and of disaster, which amounts to the same thing — disappears when the failure is no longer hypothetical. When the failure actually happens, and it becomes real, we discover that the repercussions are easier to manage than the fear itself.
So here’s the most embarrassing moment from my childhood: I was taking a math test in fourth grade. It was near the end of a long, hot day at school. I had visited the water fountain too many times and now I needed to pee, badly. It was the don’t-stop-tapping-your-foot-or-you’ll-bust kind of need to pee. I flagged down my teacher, who refused to let me go the bathroom. I’ve never resented someone so much in whole life.
I lasted about ten minutes before what you can imagine happened. Shorts darkened. Socks yellowed. Textbooks under the desk swelled and curled up at the edges. There was no stopping it. Trying to hold it back again only made it worse. So I gave in.
“Well,” I thought to myself, “at least I don’t have to pee anymore.”
I felt relieved. That was the last thing I had expected to feel. I had traded one set of problems for another. Failure relieves fear. Actual problems are solvable. Hypothetical problems are not.
In creative work, it’s easy to waste a lot of energy on the fear of failure. We measure our work against external ideals of perfection. We care about what we do, so we try to get it right. But if we’re not careful, we can let the fear of failure get in the way of doing our best work.
I’m not one of those people who by nature doesn’t give a shit about what other folks think of my work. If such a person exists, I’ve never met one. A man without doubt is a monster. I am always going to labor under the gaze of the Big Other. So any strategy that boils down to ignoring other people’s expectations of me is not going to work.
There’s another way of dealing with the fear of failure that is more plausible: give yourself permission to fail. Short-circuit the tangle of expectations you’ve inherited by adding failure to the list of what excellent craftspeople do.
Real artists fail.