Fearing Failure Stalls Success

February 15, 2011
T. Greg Doucette

Do you remember that person in undergrad who always declined going out to dinner because they had homework to do? Who always walked around with a venti nonfat organic quintuple shot caffè macchiato frapp-o-death because they needed the caffeine to balance out repeated all-nighters? The one who had a nervous breakdown when grades were released because the lone A- they got in Über-Advanced Multivariable Calculus IV hurt their otherwise flawless GPA?

Most of us had at least one classmate in that category, likely several (and if you don’t remember anyone like that, he or she might have been you).

But think about where those people are today. Do you think they’re successful? Do *they* think they’re successful? And more importantly, are they enjoying their lives, successful or otherwise? Odds are good that the answer to at least one of these questions is "no."

We live in a society that hates failure. We treat it like some incurable illness, as though once you’ve caught the failure disease it must be terminal. The storyline is embedded all up and through our culture. We have elementary school sporting events that don’t keep score since "we’re all winners!" We have rampant grade inflation because we’re worried about students’ self-esteem if they get a grade that’s only "average." I mean think about it: does anyone *really* watch the first few episodes of American Idol each season for the rising stars? Or do people tune in for the comically bad performances and the corresponding "glad that’s not me!" thoughts that go with it?

That philosophy toward failure is what prompts us to reach ever-more-ridiculous heights in trying to achieve "failure avoidance," especially when it comes to law, law school, and the legal profession. All nighters? Of course! 80+ hour work weeks? No problem! A total absence of anything even vaguely resembling a social life? Sure…my $160K/yr will keep me warm at night!

Then you graduate, pass the bar, and realize you don’t remember any of your classmates. Or you spend years working for a mega-firm, finally get around to marrying someone (just for the tax breaks of course), have kids you never see who are in their teens around the time you’re in your 50s, shortly before you’re on your death bed from cirrhosis as you realize you’ve essentially wasted the life you were given and all the opportunities that came with it.

If that’s how we’re benchmarking "success," feel free to take my share. Please.

For all the opprobrium heaped on failure, fear is the more appropriate target. Sure, failure’s bad; I’ll stipulate to that. But if you’ve never failed at anything, how would you know how to succeed? How would you recognize success when you saw it? And if you somehow achieved "success" for yourself, how could you really enjoy it when your life is governed by the fear of losing it?

I’ll use my own life as an example. I used to fear failure, obsessively. I was an overachiever throughout grade school; bringing home a 98 on a test led to me kicking myself over missing those last 2 points. Perfection wasn’t just desired, it was expected. My parents and teachers had me skip the 4th grade because I was bored to the point of mischief in classes. Right through high school graduation, my academic life was filled with good grades, a stellar SAT score, the highest AP scores you could get across nearly every subject. The list goes on.

I was one of the youngest students in N.C. State’s student body when I first enrolled in August, 1998. A case study in "success."

Two years later I was a homeless college dropout sneaking into Carmichael Gymnasium to bathe, relying on a friend’s washing machine to keep my clothes clean, and wondering where I was going to sleep on any given night.

My fall from grace didn’t strike out of the blue. I was an out-of-state student trying to pay my own way through college, and made the mistake of trying to balance two jobs with classes and extracurricular activities. I didn’t have the maturity back then to handle the load, so by the time I dropped out I had the dubious distinction of a 1.x GPA and roughly $16,000 in outstanding debt to my university. I should have seen it coming but I was in denial; the fear of failure was running my life. "I’ve never failed before and I’m not going to fail now" was the thought running through my head.

Life, of course, had other plans.

That time of my life was a remarkably unpleasant experience. I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone. And I’m thankful every single day that it happened.

First, there were the obvious benefits. Dropping out (predictably) made me appreciate the value of an education. I got to develop "real world" work experience. And it forced me to grow up as a person. For example, my family once offered to let me join them on a vacation, however I had to decline because taking time off from work would mean not paying rent the next month.

But the main value? Learning that I could beat any challenge with enough effort, intelligence, and perseverance.

Fast forward 5 years. I managed to save enough money to get back into N.C. State, and the 2nd time around I focused my attention on not only passing my classes but also enjoying the experience. I met hundreds upon hundreds of people, many of whom I consider very dear friends. I learned to enjoy the blessings of NCAA athletics events. I took advantage of every new opportunity I could find and had an absolute blast in the process.

Now in the spirit of full disclosure, I also failed several more classes along the way. But I had already been a homeless dropout and bounced back – what was the worst that could happen?

Fast forward 5 more years. By the statistical benchmarks you’ll find around the blawgosphere, I’m the very definition of failure. I finished my undergraduate degree with a 2.6 GPA, attend a Tier 4 law school, and wrapped up my 1L year with another 2.6 GPA (*way* outside the Top 10%). To hear the chattering class tell it, my life is ruined.

Yet I have a bachelor’s degree in computer science with minors in economics and political science. I have a legal internship paying me an obscene sum of money doing work I barely feel competent to perform. I’m already able to give back to my alma mater, not only through financial support but also helping some of its philanthropic boards. I’m active in my law school, including serving our students as the Treasurer of the Student Bar Association and as a Criminal Law tutor to our 1Ls.

And I’m loving every minute of it.

Knowing I could recover from any setback made me more comfortable with taking risks. The old me would never dream of running for office when I was an undergrad; the new me was elected (twice) by our 33,000-student campus to run N.C. State’s Student Senate — becoming the oldest Senate President in school history. The old me would never dream of any academic competition where I could potentially lose; the new me has been captain of the trial team at my law school for two years in a row, racking up a few awards in the process. And the old me would never dream of keeping a journal or blog or anything involving telling people about my life; the new me not only built up my own blawg, but also writes pieces for different blogs, such as the one you’re reading now.

By the blawgosphere’s views on what constitutes "success" and "failure," I shouldn’t be able to do any of this. Yet I’m not only doing it, I’m having the absolute greatest time anyone could possibly have. I wake up every morning thankful that I get to be me for another day. I even made the Dean’s List this past semester, for the first time since that first semester back at N.C. State many years ago.

Sure, I still fail occasionally — just last week I completely embarrassed myself with a horribly botched attempt at the direct examination of a trial witness. But I also recognize failure is an inevitable part of life; it’s *always* an option, even if you do everything right. So instead of fearing failure, I take it in stride, absorb any lessons from it that I can, and move on.

And I haven’t looked back. You shouldn’t either.

You’ll thank me for it in a few years ;)

T. Greg Doucette

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