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Fear of failure can be a significant barrier to achieving our creative goals, often causing us to doubt our abilities and hesitate to share our work with the world. This fear can keep us stuck in a cycle of inaction and self-criticism, preventing us from realizing our true potential.

In this episode, we examine the deep-seated fear of failure and its impact on our creativity. We explore the underlying causes of this fear, such as self-doubt and fear of criticism, and discuss practical strategies for overcoming it. By building self-trust and learning to reinterpret criticism, we can transform our relationship with failure and use it as a catalyst for growth and improvement.

Join me as we dive into practical strategies for building self-trust, embracing failure as part of the creative process, and developing a resilient mindset that fosters continuous learning and creative expression.

Topics Covered

  • Understanding the fear of failure and its impact on creativity
  • The relationship between fear of failure and self-doubt
  • How fear of criticism affects creative expression
  • Strategies for building self-trust and resilience
  • Finding constructive feedback in criticism
  • The importance of embracing failure as part of the learning process
  • Practical steps to develop a supportive mindset for creativity
  • The role of curiosity and playfulness in overcoming fear
  • Techniques for staying present and focused during the creative process

đź“„ Transcript

Welcome to the Zen Habits podcast, where we dive into how to work with uncertainty, resistance, and fear around our meaningful work. This is for anyone who wants to create an impact in the world and cares deeply enough to do the work. I'm your host, Leo Babauta, creator of the Zen Habits blog.

Okay, so in this episode, we're going to talk about the fear of failure, which I believe is one of the biggest things blocking people from creating anything or sharing their creation or succeeding in whatever their aspirations are as a creator. It's one of the biggest things. And I've talked about this in a recent episode as well, but the fear of success is really the fear of failure.

So if you're like, "I don't have fear of failure. I have fear of success," you have fear of failure as well. And just to recap, what that means is that the fear actually—let's get into the fear of failure. The fear of failure is, "I don't trust myself in whatever is coming." For example, I'm going to make a nice piece of art, a painting, and I don't trust that I'm going to do a good job.

So I'm afraid of failing. I'm afraid of doing a bad job and whatever that might mean about me. So if I did a bad job at this, maybe I would internalize that and have a story, some kind of narrative that it means there's something inadequate about me. "I suck as a creator. I'm not creative. I'm bad at something. I'm incompetent. I'm a fool. I'm inadequate in some way."

So this is what fear of failure is. It's always this; it just shows up in different ways. And we usually don't even recognize we have it. So another example is, "I'm going to create something and put it out into the world. And then people are going to not value it, or 'Who do they think they are?' Or, you know, criticize me as stupid or something." And so this is—you know, it's a fear of what other people are going to think, but it's really a fear that I'm not going to be good enough. And so I'm going to put it out there, and people are going to judge me. And then I'm going to have a story, an interpretation.

I'm going to create a meaning that I'm not good enough. This is what we're always doing—creating meaning. So someone, you know, doesn't like what I wrote or painted or recorded. That is just simply the truth. They don't like it. But there's an unspoken meaning that we make from that, which is, "They don't like it; therefore, they don't like me," or, "They think something bad about me." Or even if they did think something bad about me, that means that I am that bad thing.

So if they think I'm stupid, "Ah, I must be stupid," and it feels terrible to think that I might be stupid. And so this is what our fear is—that whatever meaning we're going to make from it, it's going to be that we're inadequate. So our fear of failure is really a fear of some kind of inadequacy or wrongness about ourselves, something bad about me that I should be ashamed of.

And so I don't want that to be true. And so it's better just to protect myself by not putting my work out into the world, for example. So a lot of our fears are really to protect us from feeling inadequate and feeling bad or shameful in some way. And what we are really not doing is trusting ourselves.

That if someone doesn't like my work, I'm not trusting myself that I can deal with that. So yeah, maybe someone thinks my work sucks. You know, that can mean a lot. I can make that mean a lot of bad things about me. I can feel terrible and beat myself up about it. Or hide or whatever it is that I might do.

Defend myself, get mad, and like, "Ah, these people suck, and like, screw them. I'm not going to do it." So this could be one way of doing it, which is really not trusting ourselves to deal with whatever comes from someone judging us. So, you know, in this example, it's not always someone judging us. There are a lot of other possibilities, but maybe it's us judging ourselves.

But let's take a look at them judging us. So they judge me, and I make some kind of meaning from that. And then I feel terrible about it. And then I make some kind of conclusion from that feeling, which is like, "I should never do this again," or "People suck," or "I suck," or something like that. So that is how it goes.

But what if we could actually trust ourselves that when someone criticizes us, we can hear it and try and find the gold in it? Maybe like, "Oh, this person didn't like my thing. Maybe there's something there I can learn from that." It's not that I don't care about what anyone says. I think that's inhuman.

Not caring about what other people think is something we tell ourselves that we should do, but it's not true. We do care. But when I care about what this person thinks, I can try and find the gold in it. This is one way that I can handle this. "They didn't like this thing that I created. What is it they didn't like about it? What didn't resonate? Is there something that I can try next time that might resonate more?”

That might be really interesting to play with: figuring out how to actually resonate more with people like this. Or maybe I learn that this person is not the audience I'm looking for. Maybe I'm looking for someone like this over here, not them.

I can also think maybe this person just got triggered by something, or they're just having a bad day, or, you know, it touched on some old wound of theirs, some insecurity. Which isn't something to ignore, but I can instead put the attention over there as opposed to like, "I suck," which is the meaning I might make from that.

The other thing is we might have some feelings with whatever the criticism was. That's okay. I'm allowed to have feelings. What if I just feel the hurt, feel the anger, feel the shame, feel the sense of disappointment? Just like, be with that. And so if I really trusted myself, that wouldn't necessarily be a problem.

It's not a great thing to be criticized, of course, but I can make—I can find the gold in it. I can see, you know, care about what they're going through. I can see that maybe they're not the audience for me or something like that. And I can also just be with my feelings. And as I practice in this way, creating a different interpretation other than "I suck, I'm inadequate," finding the gold, and then being with my disappointment, hurt, anger, whatever it is, I start to develop a trust in myself. And so this is really how to deal with the fear of failure: first of all, acknowledge that it's there. There is a fear of failure there. Second of all, notice that that is a lack of trust in myself.

Which is okay. It just means I need to develop that trust in myself, practice it. And then I can see, like, what am I really afraid of here? "Oh, I'm afraid that they're going to criticize me and think I'm stupid," or "I'm afraid I'm going to make some terrible art and then feel inadequate." "I'm afraid I'm going to trigger someone and they're going to get upset, and then I don't know how to deal with their upsetness," whatever it might be. And then fear of success is really fear of what's on the other side of the success, that I'm going to fail over there. I don't trust myself with that.

So for example, I'm going to get really successful and then not be able to deal with all of the overwhelming number of requests that come in, or emails, or messages, or interviews that I have to do, or speaking on stage. I'm like, "Oh, I don't want to do any of that because I don't trust myself." So it's better to not succeed, then I won't be exposed to any of that. So fear of success is really a fear of failure on the other side of the success. So I can just acknowledge that that fear is there.

And then I can start to, you know, trust—develop trust in myself, make a new meaning from whatever, you know, criticism happens or failure that I have. So let's say I failed at launching something successfully, and people didn't resonate with it. Okay, great. I can make that mean something bad about me, or, you know, maybe there's another meaning I can make from that, which is, "Oh, that thing that I made didn't resonate with people."

Why not? What can I learn from that? Maybe there's a way to, you know, iterate on that, make a new version of it that might resonate more. Maybe it wasn't the thing that I'm called to do. I tried it, and it wasn't the thing, and I'm going to try a different creation. Maybe I need to, like, pivot. Maybe there's something to be learned in the criticism.

Maybe there's something to be learned about myself, about the creative process, about what I want to create, about what resonates with people, about what triggers people, about people's emotions. So I can look at all of that. And then the next part of the process is developing trust in myself to be with whatever shows up in me from whatever happened.

So I might have created something really terrible and feel ashamed or disappointed in myself. So can I just allow myself to feel shame or embarrassment or disappointment? Just sit with that for a minute. Maybe I put something out there, and no one cared. No one responded. "No one cared" is a meaning I create from that, but no one responded.

Okay. What am I feeling from that? I'm feeling disappointed. I'm feeling abandoned. I'm feeling disrespected. I'm feeling inadequate. Whatever it is, just let myself feel that and be with it. Bring some love to it. And that's all it has to be. It doesn't have to have a chain reaction of conclusions and thoughts and actions.

It's just like, "Oh, I'm feeling something. That's okay to feel that. That's a part of whatever I'm creating." In fact, I might then take that feeling and put it into the next version of my art, the next iteration. Like, "Oh, I'm feeling disappointment. Okay, great. Can I put that into the painting? What does disappointment look like in this painting?" Can I put that into my novel? "What could my character be like if they're feeling disappointment?" And so, in this way, I'm transforming whatever came up in me into my art. Create art from your reaction. As you do this, you'll create more and more trust in yourself to, number one, allow yourself to fail.

Number two, allow other people to have their reaction. Number three, create a new meaning from your reaction and learn something from it. And then number four, be with and love whatever your reaction is. Allow it to be as it is. And it's okay to have feelings from whatever failure you've had. And failure, you know, is—we put that in quotes, you know, it's just a part of the process, whatever happened.

So another way to look at failure is it's a part of the learning process, a part of the growth process, a part of transformation. So if you are trying to learn to become a good, let's say, musician, and you sucked at it, like, "Ah, of course, you're still learning." So you have to suck at it. You learn from that sucking.

Let's say you're a new comedian, and you go, stand-up comic, and you go on stage and you try out some jokes, and it bombs. And you can be like, "Okay, I wasn't meant to be a comic. I'm not funny, right? People don't like me." That's one way to interpret that. Or you can be like, "Oh, this is a part of it. Every comic sucks in the beginning. And I try it and it bombs. Okay, great. Let me try a different one. Maybe it was the delivery. Let me try that a different way." So you just keep working with it, and you'll fail, and you'll fail, you'll fail, and you might have a little bit of success. And you're like, "Ooh, that was something."

And this is how the learning process goes. This is what it looks like to grow. If you've ever learned anything, from a sport to a martial art to, you know, an instrument to a foreign language to math or, you know, writing or anything, you will have sucked at it a bunch of times until you started to figure out, "Oh, it has to go this way. Ooh, I have to try it this way." If you try to, you know, learn to ride a bike or some kind of vehicle, you're going to be awkward at it at first.

That's failure. That's what the learning process looks like. And so we have to be willing to stumble around like a toddler learning how to walk. I like to use the phrase, "stumbling around like a drunken toddler," even though you should not give alcohol to toddlers.

So the next thing I want to say about fear of failure, though, is that it is a future focus. Fear of failure is focusing on the thing that might happen after I do something. It is not focused on right now. Fear of failure is like, "Ah, if I stumble around right now and don't know what I'm doing, I'm going to look stupid. People are going to judge me. I'm going to, you know, whatever it is."

Now, we don't usually speak that part, but it is there. There's a reason why I don't want to stumble around like a toddler. I don't want to fall on my face because there's some kind of meaning I have on the other side of that. What if we forget about all of that meaning and we just let ourselves be in the full experience of stumbling around like a toddler or falling on our face and feeling disappointed and then getting up and trying again?

What if we just let ourselves be in the motions of creating, or of learning to play an instrument, or of learning to ride a bike, or learning a sport? Just let yourself do it. When I—I'm not a rock climber. But when I was learning to rock climb, I would get up there and I would try and climb, and of course, I would do it really terribly. Or, you know, another way to put it is, I would do it just like a beginner would. And I would feel really dumb.

I'd be like, "Ah, I'm doing this badly, and people are going to look at me and see how terrible I am." And so my hope was that I would learn how to do it really well really quickly. And in private, so that people can see me climbing really well. And this is me wanting to shortcut the learning process and caring about the outcome more than just letting myself be in the process.

So I want to shortcut the process and get to the part where I'm really good and skip all the parts where I suck. That's what everyone wants to do. But what if we just gave ourselves permission to just be in the growth process? Suck for a while. That's how it has to happen. You can't skip it.

And as long as we're trying to shortcut it, we're actually shortcutting our learning. And so if we want to get good at something, we have to let ourselves be in the motions of doing it. So if I were to go back to the rock climbing example, I'd be like, "You know what? Everyone sucks in the beginning. You know, everyone does this badly.

Everyone here in this gym knows what this looks like. They were here before. And so I'm just gonna give myself permission to, like, be a beginner and learn and, like, explore and be curious and not need to do it right." And through this curiosity of trying different things—"Let me try putting my weight this way and this way"—I'm going to be exploring and discovering something new.

That is allowing ourselves to be in the moment, in the process, stumbling around and feeling the awkwardness of it, trying different things, bringing curiosity, letting ourselves play in this process. This is a present-moment focus as opposed to "future, I might fail and look stupid." That's for future Leo to figure out.

And I might fail and look stupid, and future Leo, if I trusted him, will learn how to deal with that, will actually be okay. And that's the trust that when that future comes, maybe—who knows—maybe I'll never get criticized or look stupid or fall on my face. But even if it did, I trust myself to deal with it then when it comes, as opposed to needing to anticipate it and get out ahead of it and prevent it from happening right now.

So instead, right now my focus is I'm fully in this process right now, stumbling around, letting myself learn, being curious, seeing what it's like, being in the motions. That's what I have to share about fear of failure. If you want to practice with this, please put down a reminder somewhere. Get a Post-it note and write down, you know, something like, "Make new meaning out of failure," or "Let myself stumble around like a toddler," or "Let myself be present-moment focused with curiosity and play," something like that.

It could just be one word: "play" or "curiosity." But let yourself be in the practice of this. Practicing trusting yourself. Practicing making new meaning. Practicing finding the gold. Practicing being in the process of growth and learning. If you do this, something new will emerge. Okay, my friends, that's what I've got for you on fear of failure.

If you have something to share with me, how's your project going? How's your creation going? Share it. [email protected]. I love every email that I've been getting. 

I also, by the way, have some coaching spots open. If you want to work with me one-on-one with any of this stuff, if you want to create something new for yourself, if you want to be supported in your growth process, if you want to have feedback about your blind spots, if you want to create transformative growth and results for yourself, come talk to me. And you can write at the same email: [email protected]. If you want some coaching, we can jump on a call. We can figure it out. It is the thing that I love doing with people the most: coaching. If you want to be in that with me, come talk: [email protected] is the email.

And the last thing I'm going to plug right now is my Fearless Living Academy. It is a monthly membership. We have some amazing courses in there—30 plus video courses from me and an incredible community supporting you through your growth process, your learning process, your transformation. We have monthly challenges. We have coaching in there. We have monthly live calls. We have focus sessions. Really, really amazing stuff. So come check out the Fearless Living Academy as well. I’ll put a link down below.

If you haven't already, please subscribe to this podcast in your favorite podcast app. If you found this episode useful, please share this podcast with someone you know, who cares deeply. That would be really meaningful to me. And, if you'd like to dive deeper with me into this work, please check out the blog at or get in touch at [email protected].

Thanks for listening, and I hope you'll join me every Wednesday for more episodes of the Zen Habits podcast.

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Music: Salem Belladonna & Robrecht Dumarey

Editor: Justin Cruz

Post-production: Diana C. Guzmán Caro & Amanda Goddard