Doing it anyway, in the face of fear

Just watched a very disturbing Ted Talk, in which the speaker proposes that if we all lose our fear of failure we can change the world – and that’s all you have to do. She’s speaking from the position of working with one of the world’s best funded Defence research institutions, where the failure concerned doesn’t seem to have any personal consequences other than the odd night of disturbed sleep.

As for the rest of us, especially performers, fear of failure generally involves more than that. First and foremost there is the fear of looking like an idiot in front of an audience. There’s the financial cost, the time and energy lost as well as the disappointment that can be caused to friends, colleagues and loved ones when a project fails.

So let’s look at what ‘failure’ means, in the artistic sense. As a general rule, it means that the aim of the project was not realised. Either it was not well enough executed, or well enough promoted, or well enough realised in any way, shape or form to be well received, or well remunerated, or both. Maybe the originating idea was doomed from the start, being not well enough developed.

How can you tell, before you start, whether an idea is well enough developed?  The simple answer is, you can’t. So here I agree with Ms Dugan, that fear of failure is not a good enough reason to not go ahead with developing an idea. However, let us look at the underlying assumptions that she fails to mention. What factors are essential to have in place, to justify attempting some “impossible” task or dream:

1 the necessary skills and training to be able to understand why you have failed

2 the necessary resources to at least take the project far enough to be able to learn something useful from the attempt


And of course, it is No 3 that she is wanting to inspire in her listeners.

No disagreement there.  I speak as someone who has lived most of my life with fear of failure.  Then one day I found myself performing, just for a tiny fraction of a second, with TOTAL COMMITMENT. It was shocking, exhilarating and revelatory.  It took me another twenty years to learn how to have those moments with something approaching consistency, and I ain’t there yet!

So I agree, it is not failure that is the problem. As Ms Dugan proposes, fear of failure is the problem.  For a performer, holding back, just a tiny little bit, will almost inevitably ensure failure. And by failure, I don’t mean that you won’t get work, that you won’t create interesting work. I mean you won’t be working to your full potential, and you will miss out on the satisfaction and the thrill that goes along with it, and you’ll be short-changing your audiences.

David Mamet points out in his little book True and False : Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor. (1st ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 1997) that what audiences really respond to is the courage of the performer.  That doesn’t mean we should show them how brave we are. It is not our job to make them admire us.  Our job, as creative artists, is to share our innermost selves, in the act of communicating whatever text or action the production requires, with total honesty, and to allow the audience to make up their own minds about what we are sharing. If they don’t like it, or respond to it, that’s their prerogative.  Performing with skill, imagination, intelligence and TOTAL COMMITMENT is our job. When we succeed in doing that, there is no failure.

So fear of failure is pretty much a given in our line of work.  Doing it anyway is our job.