Courage, failure and what you can achieve when you re-think fear

Rethink fear

In 2012, I wrote a series of posts on my personal blog detailing how being a typically Type A, serial over-achiever and dedicated people-pleaser led me to such a hopeless place, taking my own life seemed like the only way out.

As with most things that are incredibly personal, those posts resonated really deeply with readers. Which got me thinking, ‘Maybe there’s a book in this.’

So, I started to write a book.

Then, about 1000 words in, I stopped cold, gripped with fear.

And fear found a voice.

Who do you think you are, Kelly? You realise you’re writing a memoir, right? Who are you to be writing a memoir? The world doesn’t need your story. This is just pure indulgence.

That fear triggered an avalanche of self-doubt that stopped me in my tracks for days before I realised it was completely in my power to tell it to shut the hell up.

So I did just that.

I got back to writing and a few months later I finished the book.

Was it good enough to be published beyond releasing it into hands of my lovely, very invested, blog readers? No. Truth be told it was indulgent. And what I wrote about was very much surface stuff. Very safe. (FYI – Good memoirs aren’t safe.)

But I now have the first draft of a book. 

What’s more, I now get to read memoirs with a completely different eye. I marvel at the detail and emotion a great memoir writer brings to their story. If I read a ‘meh’ memoir, I see the mistakes the writer has made, and note if I’ve made the same mistakes in my own first draft.

More importantly, I’ve gone on to write three more books. And these ones, they were good enough to publish.

So what do we need to know about courage?

1. Wobbly courage is still courage

When we think of courage, we think of a huge and powerful emotion brave people are able to summon at will. With this level of courage I would have stood up to the voice of my fears, stared down my self-doubts and ninja kicked them into 2018 like Chuck Norris.

But that’s not what I did.

In 2013 I attended a conference where Darren Rowse discussed the concept of ‘wobbly courage’. And I realised that’s what I used to write my book.

I was definitely no Chuck Norris.

I wobbled. Big time.

But then I pushed on.

Maybe it helped that I’d once let the voice in my head ruin things for me.

In 2002, I competed in triathlon at the Manchester Commonwealth Games for Trinidad and Tobago (the country where I was born and lived until I was nine).

Had I been living in Trinidad at the time I would have attended those Games with my head held high, proud to represent my country as their best female triathlete. But I’d lived in Australia for years, had done all my triathlon development and racing there, and I was a long way away from being Australia’s best female triathlete.

So instead of enjoying the experience of competing at a major Games for the country of my birth, (and where a lot of my family still lives), I spent the whole time scared someone would come up to me and say, “You don’t belong here. Go home.”

It turned out the only person I needed to be scared of was myself. What a waste of an amazing experience.

I really wish I knew about wobbly courage back then.

2. We need to start thinking ‘What’s the best that can happen?’

In the keynote I mentioned previously, Darren also spoke about how we try to overcome our fears by asking ourselves, “What’s the worst that could happen?” Our instinct for self-preservation is pretty strong, isn’t it?

So what is the worst that could happen? Death? Ruining our family financially? Breaking up with our partner?

I agree all these things are bad. But they rarely apply to the things we want to try. More often than not we’re scared that:

  • People will think we’re full of ourselves.
  • Our thing won’t work out so well, and others will see us as a failure.
  • We’ll pour our heart and soul into something only to have people laugh at us.

Isn’t it sad that, a lot of the time, our fears can be boiled down to what other people might think about us?

Now I’m not going to suggest you simply stop caring about what other people think about you. I realise I may as well tell you to stop breathing.

Instead, try focusing on the best that could happen if you push through your fear.

With that book I wrote, here was some of the best stuff that could happen:

  • “I sat down with a coffee to read a chapter or two of your book, and two hours later found myself still reading.”
  • “Your book really made me have a good think about the way I am living my life/the path I am on.”
  • “I really saw myself in your book … and it made me stop and think.”

I didn’t know I’d get emails saying those things when I was writing that book, but I won’t pretend they weren’t part of my ‘best things that could happen’ scenario. And happily, some of that scenario played out.

What if it didn’t? Well sure, I would have been crushed. But I would have learned from the experience and moved on because …

3. There is no such thing as failure

We’ve all seen the Internet memes about ‘famous failures’.

Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Harland David Sanders (Colonel Sanders) had his ‘finger licking’ good chicken recipe rejected more than 1000 times before it was finally accepted by a restaurant.

Thomas Edison is famous for inventing the lightbulb. But we don’t hear much about the 1000 unsuccessful prototypes he created before coming up with the design that worked.

Stephen King’s book Carrie was knocked back by publishers 30 times, and he actually threw it in the trash. Thankfully his wife got him to fish it out and re-submit it, as it has now sold millions of copies and is considered an icon.

Abraham Lincoln, one of the greatest Presidents of the USA, was twice declared bankrupt and was defeated in 26 early campaigns for public office.

Now it’s admittedly quite easy to look back on failure from the lofty heights of success. It is, however, a lot harder to deal with it when it’s actually happening.

I’ve found the best way to deal with failure (especially when you’re in the thick of it) is to pretend there’s no such thing.

And really, there isn’t.

I’ve tried lots of things in my lifetime. Some worked out, and some didn’t. But instead of dwelling on the things that didn’t work out, I learned from them and moved on.

If that sounds overly simplistic, well that’s because it is.

We overthink a lot of stuff in life, and the concept of failure is one of these things. We spend far too much time wishing we hadn’t tried something that didn’t work out instead of being happy we can cross that thing off our list.

“Tried it. Didn’t work. What’s next?”

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