Which is greater - your desire to succeed or your fear to fail?
Eduardo Zanatta, TEDxBYU, April, 2012
This is an interesting question! We all hold up our successes, and rightfully so - we have achieved something we have set out to do - but what supported our motivation in this achievement? Was it the satisfaction or personal growth or sense of accomplishment we knew we would feel, or was it that we didn’t want to show up to that next appraisal, or coffee with friends, or family get together and say we hadn’t achieved what we had so proudly declared as being our next big project when we last met?
So, which is it?
I think of a desire to succeed as something you are working towards, and the fear of failure as something you are working away from. You may end up at the same point, but what is driving you are two different motivations. One, you are focused on you - what you are trying to achieve, what this will give you, what you need to do to get there. The other is avoiding those negative feelings, thoughts, words, reactions if you don’t achieve something. Both can be extremely powerful.
My own ugly truth
I like to think I challenge myself regularly and it is my desire to succeed at these goals that I set myself that are my motivation. This thought was challenged a couple of years ago though when I set out to walk around the Isle of Wight - 66 miles/106km - in 24 hours. I trained hard for 4 months, walking up to 12 hours a day over the South Downs, on my own, on a weekend. I nursed blisters, I tried all kinds of foot support - 2 pairs of socks, bandaging, zinc tape, Vaseline. I walked over 300 miles in training and was excited to take part in the event. I had raised money for charity, had told my friends, family, colleagues and social media followers. Having run the London marathon years previously, I even knew to work on strategies to support my mental resilience, knowing that there would be tough times - for example, if I walked for 12 hours and achieved 33 miles, I would be tired but would only be half way there!
I set off, and it started well - I had a good pace, I chatted to fellow walkers as moral support on different parts of the journey. At 52km I could feel the blisters but thought I’d try to the next stop - this was my new tactic - just keep going to the next stop (~16-20kms) and then I could quit - although I never thought this would actually happen. At the rest stop at 67km, I took my boot off to have my blisters treated - then couldn’t get the boot back on because my foot swelled too much. This was not part of the plan! I lay on the floor, legs elevated, shaking and called my husband [at 2am] to discuss strategies. His was clear - I had to stop. Mine, was less clear - I could keep going with one boot on (26 miles - that was totally doable). I was not prepared to give up.
But it wasn’t the feeling of success if I achieved this challenge that was spurring me on though, it was the fear that I wasn’t going to achieve something I had told everyone I was going to do. I had attached shame to not achieving this goal. I cried, sobbed - and not because of the pain in my feet, but because I had to publicly declare I had failed. I had to go into work on Monday and instead of regaling everyone with my stories of triumphant, I would have to say I hadn’t done it. My heart was so heavy. I thought I was undertaking this challenge for myself, but the non-achievement became attached to what everyone else would think of me. Extrapolating this out, I wondered if my achievement would also have been for others to praise me? Holding a mirror up to yourself is not always an attractive thing to do.
And what actually happened when I posted to say I had had to retire from the race? There was an influx of amazing messages! Some people sympathised, most congratulated me on what I had achieved (thank you to those that pointed out I had walked a marathon and a half, even if I didn’t see this as an achievement at the time), some even kindly sponsored me more money! People were kinder to me than I was to myself - in my head they would be so disappointed in me - when really I was just disappointed in myself; others either didn’t care, or were proud of what I had achieved.
It does still smart when I think back. But it also taught me that sometimes the labels we attach to things - ‘success’, ‘failure’, ‘good’, ‘bad’ - are far more powerful than we realise and influence us in both positive and negative ways. Really understanding why you are doing something, and what you are wanting to achieve is important - was I wanting to raise money for a good cause, or did I want to say I had walked 66 miles in 24 hours? I thought it was the former, but the reality was that for me, once I had set myself the challenge, the latter was way more important than I realised.
Learning to gain perspective
I believe going for those big hairy audacious goals (BHAG) is important - I think we need to have goals to grow and develop, and the desire and want to achieve these is amazing. If we think we can’t achieve it, or we might give up, then the motivation to start isn’t going to be there in the first place. So go for it, tell the world if you want to, or not, that is up to you. But make a commitment to yourself and go for it. But, if you give it your all, and you ‘fall short’, try to go gentle on yourself. What would you say to your best friend or partner? What are you saying to yourself? Be kind! They say it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all - I believe it is better to have tried and not quite achieved, but have achieved something along the way, than to give up before giving it a go - it’s totally the same, and just as memorable a saying!
So, has my confidence grown?
Yes - although I am not ready, and not sure if I ever will be ready, to take on that particular challenge again! But I am now proud that I walked 41 miles around the edge of the Isle of Wight. I am upset that I didn’t complete the challenge, but am more accepting that physically this wasn’t meant to be (this time). I have signed up to more [different] challenges and will train hard for them - I am nervous in case I don’t succeed again, so the fear of failure is very real for me, but when I sign up it is because I want to achieve something, for me. I have much evidence that I have achieved other goals. I also have evidence that even when I haven’t succeeded I have survived and I have learnt and grown from the experience. I think we sometimes have to accept that it is the journey, not the end destination, that is really important.