The Fear Of Failure

My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure. – Abraham Lincoln

I’ve missed over 9,000 shots in my career…I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan.

“He never feared failure, and this is the only way you can be successful in life. I learned that from Dino.”

That last quote is from Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Dino he’s referring to is the flamboyant, controversial and highly successful film producer Dino De Laurentiis.  Schwarzenegger was speaking at the late Mr. De Laurentiis’s funeral in November of 2010 and this quote made the rounds in the media. The quote struck me as quite powerful – and still inspires me to this day.

Mr. Schwarzenegger and Mr. De Laurentiis are not lacking in detractors. Whatever your opinion of them, the idea of shedding the fear of failure is no less worthy just because they’re the source of this week’s subject. We live in a society that doesn’t just fear failure – but is petrified of it.

In the modern era of America, especially during the Reagan era, failure became the ultimate taboo.  Second place was the same as last place.  Moral victories were denounced and made fun of.  Somewhere along the way, it felt as if in some circles, to try and fail WAS worse than never trying at all.  Even one of my heroes, the musical genius Jerry Goldsmith, moments before he won the Oscar for “The Omen” has said in interviews that he almost walked out of the ceremony that night because he couldn’t take the rejection anymore.  

When I read the Schwarzenegger quote, it wasn’t that it was such an alien concept.  I had heard all the rationalizations before and knew they were true on some level, but none of them really struck a chord with me:

It actually rings a little hollow to say, “at least I tried.”  That always sounds like rationalization.  I worked on a boxing show years ago and sometimes the guy would say after losing a fight, “I lost but so-and-so didn’t beat me.”  I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at that.  “At least I tried” really is cold comfort.  When getting an honorable mention, you only see the line of winners in front of you – the line of losers behind you is irrelevant.

“The only way to learn is to fail,” well, that’s kind of weak sauce, too.  Who wants to learn?  The best way people learn is when they don’t realize they’re learning.  Just ask anyone who hated History class in high school but watches all those battle shows on History Channel or H2.  

We don’t want to learn, we want to WIN.  We want to be on top, we want to raise the heavyweight belt, bask in the adulation of our family and peers.  Everyone wants the victory but not everyone wants the achievement.  And of course as life goes on, the victory changes.  In college you want to be the king of the world, the superstar, the innovator.  In your 30’s, those same people may just want to a good parent, have a solvent job or even just stay sober another day.  Those victories are just as, if not more so, relevant than the grand ideals of our youth.

We talk tough about “winning”, never giving an inch, never coming in second, never even getting into a tie (remember, Rocky doesn’t win in “Rocky”)  But that’s actually the wrong take.  There’s no eliminating the concept of failure.  In fact, we shouldn’t eliminate it, we should embrace it.

The fear of failure is paralyzing.  There have been numerous adventures in my life that I abandoned or walked away from because of it.  I tried to start a small business about 10 years ago and a well-meaning family member said, “If it fails, don’t be discouraged.”  Just him saying that was the most discouraging thing possible.  See, in my younger mind, even considering failure was enough to poison the idea.  I didn’t realize then that failure was opportunity.  

Now, of course, some ventures should be abandoned out of pragmatism and practicality.  It’d be neat to start a real estate company tomorrow.  I have no means whatsoever to do so, so I’ll try something else.  But not out of fear.  Fear is the great crippler.  Fear is the demon in the middle of the night.  Fear is the ultimate enemy.

But to look at the fear of failure and respond with – “So what.”  To shed that fear with a “fuck you, I’m going anyway.”  THAT’S what the Schwarzenegger and De Laurentiis quote was saying “Fuck it!” and that’s why it struck me.  

I’m in the formative years of my writing career.  Sure, I’ve amassed lots of practical entertainment experience, but will my voices entertain the masses?  That question remains unanswered, dear reader.  I just may fail.  And so fucking what if I do?  Because here’s something else I learned about failure:

“The Consequences Of Failure and Success Are the Same.”  

That one’s from me!  I just googled it and can’t find that quote anywhere so boom, you can credit it to either Tim Davis or Handsome Timmy D if you want to post it in Facebook, I’ll leave it up to you. (Yes, dear reader, I’m sure many others have said something similar, I’m just being cute because I like ya)

Anyway, the consequences of failure and success are the same:  Do Better.  Like many an aspiring screenwriter, I’m not just relying on my connections to get noticed.  I used the festival circuit as well as services like The Black List and Inktip.  One of my scripts was very well-received and even named as a finalist by some of the festivals.  In some other festivals, it was downright rejected.  So what do I do with the script?  I continue to polish it.  Rewriting, restructuring, looking for any voice, clarity, drama, that I can squeeze out of it.  (“See Tim, writing is rewriting,” not quite, read my last blog)  

Let’s say I sell a script tomorrow, total success!!  Well, the day after, I have to start or improve another script.  I have to do better.  Let’s say ALL of my scripts get rejected by every agent and studio in town.  Then I have to wake up, start new scripts or improve the existing ones.  I have to do better.

Success and failure are not two linear opposite ends.  They’re constantly moving, ever-changing and fluid.  Success can be described as that single moment when you hold up the title belt at Wrestlemania.  But that single moment may just be another step on a longer journey, all the steps of which combine to become another definition of the word success.

Failure is not the absence of success.  Nor is it the elimination of success.  One step of failure does not prevent the next step of success.  My favorite football team is the Patriots of New England.  In the past 13 years, they’ve won three Super Bowls and lost two of them.  I can name 31 other NFL Football teams who want that resume.  What did Tom Brady do when he lost those two Super Bowls?  Got back to work.  Trained, practiced, worked with his coaches and team to get better the next season.  The same exact thing he did when won three Super Bowls.

There is no reason to fear failure because there is no consequence to it.  None.  

“But it hurts!” say some.

Losing hurts.  Failure hurts.  Being wrong hurts.  No one likes any of these things.  People think pro athletes don’t care about losing big games because they make so much money, but Kurt Warner will tell you that losing  to the Patriots in 2002 haunted him for years.  Think the Cubs are over Steve Bartman foul ball?  Michael Jordan knows off the top of his head the number of times he’s lost the game-winning shot.  (It’s 26, Michael Jordan said so)

But here’s the thing, life hurts.  Life is painful and miserable and disappointing and disillusioning.  Life makes us want to give up, throw it all in, drink our faces off and tell everyone to go fuck themselves.  There’s no avoiding the pain, the hurt, and the misery.  In my mind, it’s the best kind of pragmatism to use that pain and misery toward the goal of success  and happiness.

To go back for “Rocky” for a second, remember Rocky didn’t win.  Rocky doesn’t beat Apollo Creed.  Rocky doesn’t knock out Apollo Creed.  Rocky doesn’t win the Heavyweight Title.  Rocky doesn’t hold the heavyweight belt above his head at the end of the movie.  Rocky FAILED.

So why does the “no second place” testosterone fueled America love it so much?

Rocky endures the entire struggle of the fight.  Rocky is not afraid to fail.  And what does Rocky do in the subsequent movies?  

He does better.




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