Andrea Thomson is the co-founder Project Mindfulness LLC and is a Budget and Policy Analyst at the Maryland Department of Budget & Management.
I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about failure recently. Tal Ben-Shahar, a lecturer at Harvard University recounts his own struggle with perfectionism and fear of failure during his college years in, “Being Happy.” Reading about his experience, reminded me of my own.
As a Retriever, my motivation was fear-based rather than goals-driven. If there’s one lesson I’d like to convey to my college self it would be, “Don’t fear failure.” Not fearing failure shouldn’t be confused with not caring and or foregoing goals. It’s just acknowledging that the path to fulfillment isn’t straight or easy. It’s also having confidence that you’ll find a way through life’s unknowns – not unscathed but unbroken.
During my time at UMBC, my primary driver was the fear of failure. This fear, along with plenty of popcorn, candy and Monster drinks kept me focused through countless all-nighters. It also prevented me from feeling comfortable just being alone. Instead, I chose constant busyness and quickly accumulated many titles that supported my identity as successful and well-liked.
I was oblivious to how easy I had it. My job was to be a student. As a perfectionist I excelled at that. I put in the work, played by the rules, and won – ultimately graduating UMBC with a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania.
Life after the ivory tower taught me that hard work and a good attitude does not guarantee anything. Both characteristics are necessary, but also important is the ability to recognize when you’re headed in the wrong direction and to courageously hit reset.
My first gig was in financial consulting. The position was not a good fit for my talents and interests. Yet fear of the unknown and a sense of obligation kept me stuck. My perfectionist tendencies, driven by fear of failure, had me spending long hours staring at Excel files, investing incredible time and energy in boring and tedious assignments.
I believed that if I “paid my dues” and submitted flawless work, managers would reward me with plum assignments and praise. Instead, they ignored my requests for projects and berated me for getting bogged down in the details. I did not realize that the amount of time I spent on every minor detail was unsustainable. I started making errors due to burnout.
In hindsight, I recognize the fact that I did not take a single day off was a red flag. Even after I’d saved enough money to quit, I wouldn’t leap. It took me a long time to admit that this was not an issue of competence and a case of diminishing returns. I only found my freedom when I realized that fear of failure was creating more suffering than “failure” itself.
If there’s one piece of advice I’d like to give my present self and all the Retrievers reading this piece it’s, “Don’t let fear make your decisions and practice fearlessness every day.”
I recently started Olympic lifting and my fear of not properly executing lifts can be paralyzing. I’m barely five feet tall and have never been coordinated. I laugh at how ridiculous I must look with a barbell.
My best lifts happen when I don’t succumb to my perfectionist tendency to overthink. They happen when I’m just enjoying the sport.
On a similar note, a friend from high school and I started a yoga program for teen girls this year. Setting up a start-up requires a good chunk of money, time and the ability to tolerate risk. I’m slowly learning to savor the journey as much as the outcome – preparing myself for good and bad surprises by cultivating inner resilience and chipping away at fear one failure at a time.