Fear, Mistakes, and Other Things We're Taught To Hate

“Face your fears.”

       “Learn from your mistakes.”

From a young age, we are told both. Now more than ever, a cultural pursuit of self-love, often from self-improvement, encourages strides away from our shortcomings, our embarrassments, our misinterpretations, and our imperfections. These familiar credos sprout in our hunt for betterment with both gentle promises of improvement and shouts of intimidation. To make matters worse, they are accompanied by the weight of looming expectations. What friends, parents, teachers, coaches, and others who offer this advice usually fail to realize is how these messages undercut those attempting to develop. Rather than inspiring the askers to be greater than the identified fear, this ideal insists fear and error must be eradicated before a grain of progress is gained.

Standards of excellence, the intrinsic need to foster a presence we are proud of, is an admirable trait, but it is not always sustainable. No human can uphold a constant stream of courage and expertise. Last week in my senior seminar, I was struck when our assigned reading was about “wrongness” and how it can better serve our academic and creative lives.

“Of all the things we are wrong about, this idea of error might well top the list. It is our meta-mistake: we are wrong about what it means to be wrong. Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition… Far from being a moral flaw, it is inextricable from some of our most humane and honorable qualities: empathy, optimism, imagination, conviction, and courage.”

-Kathryn Schulz, Being Wrong.

It reminded me of a habit I picked up while abroad in Sydney. I had become a frequent partaker of long walks. I refused maps, digital or physical, and happily meandered (or got legitimately lost) among beach trails, streets, markets, villages, and hiking trails. Eventually, I knew, a sign or marker would appear, steering me back. In my eyes, the hypothetical and ideal worst that could happen was a longer wandering of time and distance than I had planned. I could always stop to ask for directions, attempt to navigate with the often unreliable Google or Apple Maps, or in desperation call an Uber. Classmates and roommates gave me looks of genuine concern, partnered with scenarios of the outlandish but still possible worst that could happen.

While an extra hour lost to new sights didn’t deter me, speaking up in classes amongst a culture not my own—portraying the identity of ‘a typical American’—robbed me of all communicative abilities. Even more bone-chilling was weekly read-aloud of paragraphs chosen by our professor at random in my creative writing tutorials. The possibility of failing to read my own writings with the adequate emotion and authenticity I attempted to pour into each paragraph seemed as much a mistake as the inability to produce it. It would seem that, as humans, we do not just fear mistakes, we fear uncertainty… or you could say we have come to fear fear itself. Once again, Schulz might be able to help us. Schulz declares that “the pessimistic model of error tells us that wrongness is unpleasant, but it doesn’t tell us why, and it has nothing at all to do with errors that don’t turn out to be disagreeable.” In other words, the prospect of venturing blindly, without direction, and especially without identifiable markers of success to steer the course terrifies all of us. We are trained to believe that mistakes and worries are evidence of a less-than-ness within our own being. We are taught that worry is the enemy of self-actualization. We are taught that slip ups nullify success.

Obviously, there is something to be said for challenging oneself, for inspiring personal growth, for letting go of the past that weighs us down. Even more so, understanding the cause and effect of mistakes is fundamental for growth. As Schulz knows, it is “thanks to error, we can revise our understanding of ourselves and amend our ideas about the world.” We must take the wrong turns, climb the tree too high, or swim too far out to sea to know how we fit into a larger schema. Yet, the never-ending journey of self-improvement can breed an internalization of unworthiness. With modern media, we are washed in a never-ending stream of self-help books, mindfulness activities, weight-loss journeys, TED-talks, and online classes promising you access to your full potential in just eight weeks!

Yes, some fears are irrational and they are limiting. Then again, it is this same past which pieces us together, and this incessant need to transcend ourselves and how we become these selves belittles our foundational experiences. If a fear is not limiting your life, why should you invest hours of self-criticism, anxiety, and energy that could be better utilized somewhere else? Not all predispositions or learned behaviours are flaws. We do not need to fear every single blemish on our souls. Without our own idiosyncrasies, and, yes, our “shortcomings”, where would the inspiration for artistic and practical methods come from? How many great works of art and science would be lost for the sake of perfecting that which already exists and learning to follow the known, in spite of personal emotional or rational opposition?

If human beings were not afraid to live in the dark, would we have learned to make fire? Would city skylines no longer beckon with the luminescence that promises it is not only you who hates to stumble in the darkness? That is to say, does an acute case of arachnophobia make the man who climbed Mount Everest is a coward? Sometimes, a little fear is healthy. A little stumble can hurt, but asking for a crutch turns our perspective away from the crowd, allowing for innovation. While anxieties and mishaps are annoying, and sometimes they are deeply felt hardships, they cannot and do not disprove accomplishments. In the era that emphasizes ‘being your best self,’ it is time to recognise the tense of that verb. Being is active. It is not about the better, and thus the best, you who comes tomorrow. It is not about the fearless, flawless potential you might one day fulfill. It is about the courageous and gorgeous essence that pre-exists any so called upgrade. My iPhone might need a hardware update, but we are hardwired beautifully from birth.

Image Credit: Feature, 1,2,3,4