How I Fight the Fear of Failure

August 15
Baseball by Li Chen

“Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game.” Babe Ruth

I have to admit, I first heard that quote in the cheesy teen romance A Cinderella Story with Hilary Duff and Chad Michael Murray, but it still rings in my head now. And every time I hear it echo through my brain I’m thankful that Babe Ruth said it first and not Hilary Duff.

It’s a message that shows up in a lot of motivational quotes. The basic idea is that you can’t let fear stop you from doing what you want to do. But there’s a deeper level hiding under this idea. How do you do that? What actions can you take to fight the fear of failure?

I practiced the skill every time I submitted a paper in college or grad school. Somehow, month after month, I gave my carefully constructed essays to critical professors. Since grad school, however, I’ve stopped silencing the fear automatically. How did I unconsciously do it then so I can intentionally do it now?

Show up. The fear of failure can be paralyzing. In school I would put off writing papers until the last minute. I need to do more research, my desk needs to be cleaned, I should have a beer with friends to clear my mind. 

But there was a point when I needed to stop preparing and start writing. No matter how difficult or awkward it felt, I showed up at my desk with my laptop and a pad of paper in front of me. Writing was the only option.

Acknowledge that you are still learning. When I stopped thinking every essay had to be perfect, I gave myself a lot of freedom to create. Each one was a learning experience, from selecting my first source to scanning the red marks on my finished essay. It was important to remind myself that I was a work in progress. That awareness allowed me to forgive mistakes and gave me the confidence to continue.

Know that you will get better. Every essay that my postgrad professors critiqued taught me something that I could apply to the next essay. And every essay permanently carved facts about history into my brain. One year, ten essays, and countless books later, I’m smarter and I’m a better writer.

Start. When I would finally begin writing an essay, I would literally just start — even if the words I was typing had nothing to do with my topic. I would do anything to get my fingers moving and the words flowing. I could edit and tweak later. All I had to do at the beginning was get all the thoughts out of my brain — the relevant and brilliant and the completely unrelated and rambling.

This is arguably the hardest thing to do. I have read so many blog posts and book chapters about starting. It’s when the fear pops up the most for me. What if it’s not good enough? What if no one likes what I produce? 

All I can do to silence the negative voices is begin.

Keep learning. When I wrote my dissertation, I wrote it in little chunks. But as I wrote, I kept reading. By the time I finished, I was an expert on Charles I’s art collection.

Even now, there is no end point for my learning about art, art history, creativity and writing. I don’t research, research, research and then stop and write. Yes, I have to start writing at some point. But I also need to continue learning.


Fighting the fear of failure is a constant battle for me, but these little reminders help me when the fear makes me want to quit or stops me from starting. They’re relevant in every area of life: blogging, speaking up in a meeting and forming a wobbly pot on the ceramics wheel.

So you should do it too — whatever it is that you’re not starting for fear of messing up. Sit down with your tools in front of you, cut yourself some mental slack, start with anything and go on learning.

Do you have fears of failure and sounding stupid? What do you do to fight it? 

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  • Reply Caitlin September 9 at 11:33 pm

    Margaret, thanks for sharing your talents! I am so excited to see where your blog takes you. As a 6, fear can be crippling, but you’re right. You do have to face it head on and push through it. I think there’s a danger fear that keeps us safe, but more so, there’s also an excitement fear where we just don’t know what to expect and we have to rely on faith and trust to get us through. I can’t wait to read more from you!

    • Reply September 11 at 5:23 am

      Thank you so much for reading Caitlin! That encouragement means so much to me 🙂 You’re right, sometimes fear can mean danger. The trick is telling the difference, and facing the excitement fear! I hope you’re doing well in your new home. Can’t wait to see you in October!

  • Reply 5 Reasons for My Current Creative Block — and How It’s Actually Helping Me | this is your heart. October 13 at 1:42 pm

    […] I know where it came from, and I know how to fix it, but I’m not fixing it. Why? Because of fear. Because I’ve settled back in to the old habit of comfort. Luckily, I’ve already written two posts that really came in handy in getting me going again: My Blueprint for Creating Art that Matters and Fighting the Fear of Sounding Stupid. […]

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