Sunday, May 8, 2011

Fear of Failure

Calling Myself Out

I'm not really sure how it happened.

I was having one of those deeply enjoyable, provocative conversations with my Warrior Friend (the one with whom I spar and joust, just to keep my edges trim and cutlass sharp), and in the middle of his sentence, it just happened.

A Rock in My Gut Dissolves and Fades Away
I could feel a big, black, invisible-but-tangible-thing in my gut - between my solar plexus and my second chakra. I could feel its outlines and its volume, perhaps for the first time. It was not just three-dimensional. It somehow also occupied space in that inner infinite universe that is in each of us. It wasn't exactly like a black hole. And it wasn't exactly like an obstacle.

It had the characteristics of a sterile space (not a void, which is full of potential, but rather a place in which nothing could grow). It also had an energy-generating characteristic, too - but not "good" energy. It generated negative energy, and compelled my body to generate energy to keep that negative energy at bay. So it was a "powered" thing - a device of an alchemical, spiritual sort, rather than an inert blockage.

I noticed all this only by way of noticing it start to dissolve around its edges. It was invisible until something about it shifted. (What is that kind of vision? Like the kinds cats and T-Rex's have? Field? Background? A quick Google search turned up nothing…).

It looked like the edges were kind of lit up, like the burning edges of a sheet of paper when it smolders.

And I felt an incredible loosening around it.

As the dissolution progressed, I felt some part of my gut react - "surprised" or "startled" that a pain that I had forgotten I bore was suddenly receding. Not a pain, really - a stress. A burden getting lighter.

Act I - The Setup

It happened because my warrior friend made a comment about my situation. We were talking about what it was like for him and for me in our professional circumstances. Our careers, once on very similar tracks, had diverged dramatically. He was now a CEO of a challenging startup. He was trying to create value from a true "fixer upper". High risk, high reward, high stress. High tech.

I had jumped the track, gone off-trail. I was blazing a path from ordinary-splashy through eccentric to downright odd and perhaps even embarrassing. I had decided to open a healing arts center in conservative, white-bread, fashionably old-fashioned Los Altos. Not Beverly Hills or Berkeley where eccentricity was part of the currency, but right smack-dab in the center of Protestant Work Ethic and Left Brain Conquers All Technology Executive Land.

What was I thinking? What was I DOING?

Oddly, at the time I started Firefly Willows, it didn't seem so odd, really. It seemed like it could fit in alongside spas and nail salons and such, if we played our cards right. The business plan was based on massage, a staple in these parts.

But a funny thing happened on the way. The business plan - the massage part of the business plan - fell flat. And other parts of the action seemed more vital, more true, more engaged. More honest, in a destiny kind-of-way.

As the months have worn on, we've been very busy. Firefly Willows is a handful of a toddler. At 13 months old (ten and a half since we opened), it keeps all of us very busy like that harried but joyful parent we all know.

And in the middle of all this is me, working every day to figure out where we're going, what we're doing, where we should be investing, what we should be emphasizing.

As the original business model showed its weaknesses, I tried to optimize and re-arrange and re-prioritize. And while we have had our successes, and those around me celebrate what we've accomplished, I've had this ongoing sense of dread and paralysis.

It's been hard to describe. But with help from many of my new colleagues - practitioners, workshop leaders, and friends I would never have met in high-tech - I've shifted block after block, recognized self-defeating behaviors and set intentions. I've made amazing personal progress.

And still, the dread. The paralyzing fear.

I reflect that despite my apparently successful life, I've had a fear of failure all along. A fear of not being good enough in other people's eyes. A fear of being laughed at for my incompetence and stupidity.

Of being a fool.

Where did it come from? It's been hard to identify. I have some handy stories that attempt to explain it, but I know inside that those stories don't really tell the tale. Why, when I have been given so many personal gifts (that I can readily acknowledge) do I feel like at any moment I could be the laughingstock of the community, the pilloried neighbor, the great disappointment?

Why am I so afraid?

I could not pin it down. No matter how hard I tried, no matter who I talked to, this painful, desperate perspective would not disappear. A deep, paralyzing anxiety - fear of failure.

Fear of Failure vs. Fear of Failure

It turns out my Warrior Friend also has fear of failure. But what was weird was that his fear is entirely the opposite of mine. His is a galvanizing, active fear. In other words, he does pragmatic things to preserve and protect himself. He has a job that pays him well. He cultivates connections. He observes the landscape around him and senses the presence of opportunity or danger.

He lives in the world. He does what it takes to survive and thrive.

Perhaps one could argue that this is not a fear of failure. But in a moment of lucidity, I saw it so.

And I was envious.

His fear of failure was so tractable, so manageable. So CONCRETE! Mine was so amorphous. I was not sitting on my hands; on the contrary, I've been working more, longer, and more productive hours than I have in most of my career. And yet this paralysis…

The Trickster Fixes the Game
Then my warrior friend said the magic words.

"You bet on yourself, John."

It was the last piece in a diabolical plan concocted by Coyote, the Trickster. Coyote medicine is the kind that you have to learn to love, after hating it for many many years. Coyote medicine is when the only way you'll learn what you have to learn is to be pantsed in front of the homecoming crowd at halftime at mid-field. And you get to have a good laugh at yourself while you figure out what just happened, because there is most certainly a valuable lesson that is much deeper than the obvious one.

That's Coyote. And he was sitting right next to my warrior friend, with a cunning, deranged grin on his face that night.

"You bet on yourself, John."

The words echoed in my ears and down my throat and into my heart. I really had bet on myself. There was nobody else. I was standing in the middle of a maelstrom of my own making. And I was in good and deep.

How could I have done such a thing without realizing it?

As the months have progressed at Firefly Willows, I have heard, occasionally, people say to me that I'm the motivating force, the center, the dynamic piece, the unique differentiator of Firefly Willows. I have always felt uncomfortable with those comments. I thought it was because of some kind of modesty. I held it as modesty.

But that's not why it made me uncomfortable. The truth is, those statements made me RESPONSIBLE. Responsible for Firefly Willows, for its success, for its vitality, its purpose, and its efficacy. And its costs - both financial and personal.

I did not realize it until I heard those words. "You bet on yourself, John."

I had? I had. I really, truly had.

I would never have done such a thing if I had known I was doing it. I would have chickened out. I would have backed away. In fact, I've been chickening out and backing away for a very very long time. I don't know when it started, or why - that's work for another day.

Today, I realize that, ummm, well, I … uhh... bet on myself.

And Coyote rigged the game not so that I would win or lose, but so that I would actually place the bet, knowing, as he does, that if I had been aware of the game, I would have kept talking about the table, but never stepping up to it.

The Art of the Con
As the incredibly well-orchestrated machinations of the Trickster culminated in this great "reveal", I stood stunned. Stunned at the amazing con. Stunned at my obliviousness. Stunned at the artistry of my guiding spirits providing me with the plethora of distractions required to keep my attention elsewhere while they get everything into position.

I feel like a character in either the The Sting, or A Hitchhikers Guide. The joke, to my ongoing amazement, is on me, played artfully by myself. And it's not a cruel joke, but a loving one.

Student and Teacher

They say when the student is ready, the teacher appears. I know this is true. I know
this is a fundamental part of the wiring of the Universe, of the presence of God in all things. The Coyote is the perfect illuminator of this fact, because of the way he operates. The truth it seems, is that I am my own teacher. Somehow, the divine in me is orchestrating the whole thing. When Coyote is in the house, it's just all the more unavoidably, painfully, amusingly obvious. I see that at a very deep, subconscious, transcendent level, I am the one creating the obstacles and the opportunities through which to learn, grow, and discover, whether through others or through the circumstances of my reality. And I recognize myself as the perpetrator of the mess and the teacher of the lesson all at the same time. Some part of me is waaaay ahead of me.

What Next? Fear Transformed
I felt - observed, because it was multi-sensory - that black alchemical fear device dissolve. I exclaimed to my Warrior Friend what was happening. He was surprised, too, and joyful for me. He wanted to know how and why.

What was happening was that my nameless, faceless, paralyzing fear - my anxiety - was becoming grounded. It was alighting, for the first time, on something tangible. Instead of "not knowing" why I was experiencing this fear, it became very obvious. I was now capable of experiencing the same fear of failure as my Warrior Friend. A pragmatic, practical, tractable fear, resolvable by taking direct action to secure my position, husband my resources, choose my path.

For the first time.

I know that sounds weird, but its true. For the first time, I see that my destiny is unavoidably and unequivocally my own, in ways that are concretely practicable. I have a responsibility to myself and my circumstances that I have never felt before. I have a clarity of obligation that goes very deep. Perhaps I have just come around to an old awareness at a new and deeper level, that spiral of growth where we walk old ground in new shoes, observe it with new eyes. It certainly feels different.

I now have a healthy fear of failure. The kind where I actually know what's bothering me, and can face it, and address it.

Breakthrough, Not Success
I've learned that every time I get one of these amazing breakthroughs in awareness about myself and my path, it's not a victory. Rather, it's just an opportunity to gather myself for the next period of growth. It can be exhausting, because finding the trail out of the woods is nice, but seeing that the trail leads steeply upward is…well…humbling?

And my old fear is replaced with new ones - Have I awakened in time? Who the heck is this clown that I've bet on? What are his skills? Can I count on him in the clutch? Is he ready for this kind of responsibility?

(Clearly, as we've already established, had I known I was betting on him, I wouldn't have.

Too late for that, though…heh heh...)

After Enlightenment, Chop Wood, Carry Water
I feel much better. I have a much clearer grasp on what is in front of me. I have much more sense of choice and free agency. I see how I can hold (and, unwittingly, always have held) the reins. I see, frankly, that I MUST hold the reins, and do so with awareness and integrity, for it is MY life expression that hangs in the balance, and it's MY responsibility to live it to its full potential. What others think about what I do is informative. What I think about what I do is essential. To abdicate that responsibility is to sully something sacred.

Now the work begins. Focusing my intention. Being honest with my reality. Asking for help. Saying no to that which does not serve me.

Wish me luck.


  1. I read your post chuckling at the shock in your voice and hearing a murmur of 'pay attention' traveling through my mind in parallel. Betting on yourself forces you out of hiding - you either live what you believe using all your gifts, or you fail. Going to talk the talk, now walk the walk. It is indeed an integration of all you were in the corporate world and your shamanic calling. Good luck and leave signposts. I may need them. :)

  2. Thanks, anet. I surely will leave signposts - in case somebody needs to come rescue me...!!

    It's interesting. On the one hand, the only real failure I see is choosing not to step up and get into the game. As you put it, to come out of hiding. And really, to come out of hiding is the real risk.

    In flashes, I see that the putative "failure" is really only an illusion.

    On the other hand, to come out of hiding is, at the moment, really scary - to show up as I am, imperfect, needing help, occasionally lost.

    Wow. This is hard work. Thanks for your support.

  3. A month old post, but was led to read this. It is very much a big deal, you're opening this place, and you've experienced its organic growth, its own independent formation which, like any child, you will not be able to fashion into your own image. At least, not completely.

    Query, though: Isn't 'failure' one of the greatest tests of our being alive? To deal with it, learn from it, and then to discover what we were building was not really who we thought we were, or what we wanted.

    Yes, we are, of course, our own teachers. But there are great spiritual teachers very much alive, and very much available if you seek them; I have found a few and they truly did retrieve my soul from the netherworld.

    One of those teachers started a school at a time when such schools were considered crazy; it was the 1970s and anyone who was studying 'consciousness' was mostly written off as doing drugs. But this guy had a Ph.D. from Harvard, and his partner had pretty strong credentials, too, so with that clout on their side, the school eventually became accredited and is now one of the few schools in the world to get an accredited Ph.D. in something that is still on the fringe of reality.


    If you talked to him today, he would not say his real spiritual path began with that school. It did not. It began when he met his spiritual teacher from Istanbul, who came to his school on invitation to introduce the students to sufism. One look from that teacher and it was cataclysmic for him.

    Real teachers are rare, and you have to want them in your life desperately; then, yes, they do come.

    As to failure, career, what others think: The only thing important in any of that is what your intention was. If it was a good intention, all will lead you to your next role. Don't think it finishes here, and...don't think what you're creating is any more important than some kid staring at an ant wondering if it can talk.

    It's when we think we are doing something important that we get caught up in fear of failure. All we are really doing is just living, and trying to love, unconditionally, and hopefully, make good decisions to grow in that direction.