Fear of Flying: Conditioned for Failure.

Hi everyone,

i was digging through some old documents i had saved from art school and i came across this article written by one of my professors about artists being unable to advance their careers simply out of fear. It goes through the various kinds of traps we set for ourselves to fail at our dreams, the fear that it stems from and their various types, the reasons we experience this fear, and ways to overcome it.

so.. what does this have to do with maladaptive daydreamers and people wasting away in lalaland? well, the article was written for artists but reading it made me think of everyone with any kind of ambition, creative or otherwise, who's in our position. I think the article is a little harsh at times as it doesn't consider being absorbed in one's fantasies as a psychological condition, but rather sees excessive daydreaming as a self-perpetuated "detour". however, i think it's an extraordinary article for thinking about our condition in terms of socially imposed fear as causality, and it's a great bit of inspiring motivation for tackling MD instead of submitting to it. Also i think the advice is useful and relevant. Since reading it i've felt like i'm in battle mode and am not letting myself sink so much, and have been really productive! let me know what you think.

p.s... the article can be hard to get through, especially since most of it isn't something we want to hear. but i challenge you all to read it to the end, at the very least skim to the section about "the nine deadly fears", and then especially part about fear of reality. hope it helps...


Fear of Flying

Conditioned for Failure

  • What excuses do you use to justify the fact that you are not a successful artist?
  • How do you define success?
  • What fear most interferes with you getting what you want?

Detours to Success


Laurence G. Boldt makes the following observation in Zen and the Art of Making a Living: “[I]t is society’s job to tame the individual, and the individual’s job to get free.” Think very carefully about your society. What are you being trained for? What are the tools being used to train you?

My personal conviction that we are being trained to be consumers of empty content and producers of wealth for a socio-economic elite is probably paranoid and simplistic. Or is it? More easily defensible is my conviction that the tools of conditioning are essentially fear and desire. Fear of failure, of loss of approval, fear of being overweight, being too short, being too tall, going bald, growing old, having small breasts, having large breasts. We live in a culture that deliberately fosters a sense of inadequacy and feeds off of our very human need for the approval of others by assailing us with an incessant barrage of information designed to convince us that approval is provisional and can be purchased. We live in a culture that defines us as either the alpha monkey, or losers. Individualism (which had a real history in the sense that not long ago, historically speaking, we were a frontier culture lacking a lot of support systems so that a person who could not function at a survival level with a measure of independence and autonomy was pretty much dead meat) has become a cult of commodity designed to keep us in a state of emotional infancy. One of the detours to success that Boldt discusses is Denial. What he means by that, is that we are encouraged to deny our social aspect when it comes to responsibility for others. After all, a sense of connectedness and responsibility might make us reluctant to accept some of the abuses to humanity and to our environment that occur everyday in the name of profit and production. To deny our social connectedness keeps us in a position of infantile dependency , because it is a denial of our very nature. We ARE social beings, and activity that is socially responsible is, in fact, simply being responsible for one’s self. If we do not mature to that realization (and practice), we remain vulnerable. Our social needs must be fulfilled somewhere, and current marketing strategy seems intent on seeing that the promise of fulfillment is held forth through the practice of consumption.

I would argue further, that it is not in the interest of consumer culture that we be either deliberate or contemplative. R. A. SchwallerdeLubicz said, “If you observe well, your own heart will answer.” Do you feel that our culture, our media, our lifestyles as they have evolved in any way encourage reflection? Everything is presented to us in bits and fragments, so that information seems to be its own entity, disassociated from experience. A Chinese proverb says, “Don’t listen to what they say. Go see.” But how do you go see when events that are apparently impacting your life are occurring half the world away? You know that I encourage a healthy skepticism in dealing with information. But when does skepticism become doubt? And when does doubt become paralysis? Who do you feel that you can trust? The experts? I recommend that you read Trust Us, We’re Experts by Rampton and Stauber. The frustration is almost overwhelming. And you find yourself in denial, as Boldt said. Denial generally takes two forms: I Don’t Care, and I Don’t Know. Either serves to isolate you - not from your community, but from yourself! The pursuit of self-interest as though it could exist apart from social interest is intellectually and emotionally immature. Immature = child-like, child-like = impulsive and need driven and need driven plays directly into the hands of consumerist culture. To be socially responsible (however you personally define that) is to be responsible for yourself. Resist the temptation to define yourself in terms that don’t care, because by your very nature, you do, and you will either actively define what you care about, or have it defined for you. Vincent Van Gogh asked himself “How can I be useful, of what service can I be? There is something inside me, what can it be?” Martin Luther King Jr. said that “Life’s most urgent question is, what are you doing for others?” Albert Einstein, “A person starts to live when he can live outside of himself.” Albert Schweitzer, “You ask me for a motto. Here it is: SERVICE.” Proverbs 29:18 “Without vision the people perish.” E.F. Schumacher, “An entirely new system of thought is needed, a system based on attention to people, and not primarily attention to goods . . .” De La Roche Foucauld, “Nothing is so contagious as an example. We never do great good or great evil without bringing about more of the same on the part of others.”

The culture of fragmentation and doubt often leads to the other form of denial, I Don’t Know, which Boldt views as a kind of last refuge for an immature psyche that isolates it from true awareness and the demands incumbent upon that awareness. I Don’t Know is the paralysis of doubt and fragmentation. In the face of so much confusion, what can you do? What should you do? First, of course, is to go as close to the source as you can. In those things that matter to you, do research. Lots of research. Listen to the enemy as well as your friends. Never assume that anyone is unbiased, and consider that if you are comfortable with something being said, that you probably have before you a mirror of your own bias. Learn as much as you can from as many sources as you can. Then begin by doing that which you know needs to be done. Leave undone that which you know should not be done. In time, you can more accurately define your certainties in the light of these small, initial steps, and your choices and decisions become progressively clearer.

So how does this relate to art?

  1. This is about aspects of your life’s work – you cannot separate your work from your world.
  2. This is about aspects of your life’s work -- you cannot separate your work from your life.
  3. You should understand that in doing your art, you are giving something to your world, something very important.

Detour # 2 is the Approval Trap. The desire to please is an integral part of our socialization. This is cross-cultural, though the sanctioned values vary from culture to culture. Western culture tends to be materialistic. Even sub-cultures that understand the complexity of our relationship to the environment think in terms of property. For example, an old Amish saying goes like this: “We do not inherit the land from our fathers; we borrow it from our children.” Husbandry and care is implicit in that statement, but so is possession. Materialism affects us in profound ways. There are two essential ways that we can sell out. We can sacrifice what we most want to do for the anticipated social approval that comes with acquisition. “I really want to do this, but there’s no money in it.” Or it’s less risky. Or it’s easier. Each compromise makes the next one easier until you are alienated from an integral part of yourself. Fascination with material gain becomes a substitute for purpose. Like empty calories, you feed on empty purpose that offers little sustenance in the long run.

Paradoxically, the second way that you can sell out to materialism, is to become anti-materialistic. To be reflexively anti-materialistic keeps you from acquiring the resources necessary to accomplish your objectives. It still prioritizes material above purpose (unless the most important thing in your life is acceptance), only in this instance it is the ritual denial of material that satisfies. In the end, reflexive anti-materialism is as destructive as materialism to the goal of living a creative life. It is another detour, another excuse for failure. Get what you need to succeed. Example of Alan Eaker

The third detour is the Availability Trap, which also takes two forms: Can’t Find It and Can’t Make It. You can pretty much take it as a given that the really good stuff in life (in terms of employment – and other things) isn’t going to be sitting in the want ads of the newspaper. You have to dig. To do research. To really investigate and explore to find the gold. Can’t Find It basically means that you are not sufficiently committed to the search. Or that the opportunity really doesn’t exist. But if you see other people doing the kinds of things that you want to be doing, you know that the jobs exist. If you know that the jobs exist, then you have to learn how to get them. That also involves research. It involves uncovering and acquiring the necessary skills base. Then it involves exercising the primary job-hunting skills, which are targeting organizations, landing an interview, and succeeding in the interview process. Did you know that the career resource center will help you with mock interviews? Granted their procedure is for corporations, but many interview skills carry over into any situation.

Can’t Make It generally breaks down into two forms – I haven’t done it before, or “It hasn’t been done before.” If it’s been done, but not by you, then learn from the experience of those who have gone before you. Be aggressive in searching out what you need to know. Read books, attend classes, attend seminars, hire outside experts if you need to but don’t give up! If what you are attempting to do has never been done before, you have a special challenge. You must have absolute clarity as to your objectives, and absolute conviction that the objective can be obtained. You have to be able to communicate that clarity and conviction to the people who will provide your support base (employees, investors, potential clients). The bottom line is that you have to believe before anyone else will believe, and you have to commit before anyone else will commit. Overcoming these obstacles is essential if you want to define your own life.

The final detour is the Lack of Self-Confidence Trap. Boldt states rather bluntly that lack of self-confidence is, more often than not, simple laziness. “We feel confused and uncertain because we do not know. . . instead of making the effort to investigate, we procrastinate and worry. We tell ourselves we can’t instead of learning how we can.” I think that he’s oversimplifying. There are a lot of toxic social experiences that encourage a lack of self-confidence, not the least of which is an understandable aversion to the pain that accompanies failure (and I want to discuss “failure” with you in just a bit). There are class issues that foster a sense of inadequacy, often without a word ever being said. My grandparents were dirt farmers who lost their farm. They ended up as plant workers in the citrus industry. My father came from a successful California family of grape growers. Every year for Christmas we used to get boxes of raisins. But my dad earned his PHD. During the process of earning that degree he raised a family of four children. Frankly, we lived in near-poverty. We didn’t live in the best neighborhood. I had a friend whose family was upper-middle class come over to my house after school. His mother picked him up. Nothing was ever said to me, but he was never allowed to come back to my house. I wasn’t excluded. I was welcome at his house. But you don’t think that there was a message in that? You don’t think that I heard it? So it’s not just laziness. But in the end, it may as well be. As I’ve said before, there are no excuses – there are only reasons. I don’t know about you, but I’m not particularly moved by or interested in reasons for failure. And one certain and absolute prescription for failure is the failure to act. To quote Boldt again, “Lack of self-confidence is not overcome by faith but by action.” Start taking action. Success in small things breeds success in larger things. “Move in the direction that you desire . . . let your sense of . . . purpose . . . and the potential that lives within you propel you to act.”

There are two basic ways of not taking action. The first is Don’t Investigate. You have to overcome your inertia and begin to research. To do effective research you have to be able to organize information. Start with the broad overview of what you hope to accomplish, understand the general principles and practices. Then pursue more specialized information. Learn the requisite terms – the professional jargon, and stay with it until you understand it!

The second way of not taking action is Don’t Act. You can buy the book. You can even read it. But if you don’t take action on the information, you have done nothing to boost your self-esteem. You’ve just found another way to stall. Ultimately, we learn by doing, by the application of principles to our life and an assessment of the results of that application. You really don’t know a thing until you have applied it. Once you know something through experience, it becomes the base for further growth and increased knowledge.

The Nine Deadly Fears

  • Fear of Failure
  • Fear of Rejection
  • Fear of Reality
  • Fear of Losing Identity (Face)
  • Fear of Pain (and Sacrifice)
  • Fear of Commitment
  • Fear of Making the “Wrong Choice”
  • Fear of not Being in Control
  • Fear that it will Never Work

Fear of Failure is often grounded in a false definition of what failure is, and, by extension, of what success is. If failure is defined only in terms of ends, outcomes and completions, then the possibility of failure is a real one. . . [I]f failure is measured by the standards and judgments of others, it is a very real possibility. If, on the other hand, you measure your success in terms of doing your best to realize your highest potential and make your maximum contribution, failure [can be] only a failure of effort, the failure to fully apply yourself. To overcome fear of failure: (1) Value your process as well as your finished product, (2) Don’t make comparisons, except with yourself, and (3) Don’t be lazy. Make your best effort. Since we as individuals are completely in control of any effort we make, we are better advised to make our best efforts than to involve ourselves in fear and worry, which after all, can only hamper our performance. (Boldt, 202)

Fear of Rejection

We are an approval oriented society. The social definition of success is very narrow and is based on a very limited understanding of the creative process. It is easier for people to deal with and understand static and restrictive definitions than it is to understand something that is complex, dynamic, and fluid. Consider how many people first (and in most instances, last) evaluate the quality of a work of art by the virtuosity with which it is accomplished as opposed to its complexity of content. It’s amazing how many people are comfortable using “I don’t get it” as a criticism, as though their inability or unwillingness to engage a work beyond the most simplistic level, that of its craft, were an indictment of the artist and the work rather than themselves. Let’s be real. What you do is not highly valued in this society. Choices that sacrifice income, status or security are considered poor choices. Controversial content may lead to social rejection. Approval comes and goes. You have to live with yourself for a lifetime. Be clear on what is most important to you, and don’t attempt to deceive yourself. Once you know what is important, act on it. If art is your choice, this is one that you simply must overcome by the sheer strength of your conviction.

Fear of Reality

If you are more comfortable in a fantasy world, more beautiful, more talented, just, basically, more – then it may be very difficult for you to engage the real world, because, face it, you’re never likely to be as good at anything as you’d like to be. And you may find out that you’re not very good at all in something that’s very important to you. Fear of failure, and fear of rejection are a lot about how others perceive us. Fear of reality is much more about how we perceive ourselves, and it’s hard to risk those images that we know in our hearts are illusions – because there’s very little that can be more perfect than our dreams. If you pursue your career, it is almost certain that you will sacrifice your fantasies. In the end, your passion for what you do, and your desire to give something to the world are the only things that can drive you to risk coming to terms with your shortcomings. Just remember this: you can live and die knowing that you could have done wonderful things, or you can spend your life doing in the hope that something of what you’ve done will be wonderful. If you do the first, you’ve done nothing. It’s that simple.

Fear of Losing Identity

If you lack a strong sense of your Self, a strong awareness of your personal identity, you often place great significance on your place within a structure. You are defined by your relationships, both personal and business. In your professional life, the titles and positions you occupy will tend to be important to your definition of who you are. Witness the men who literally waste away in retirement, unable to find any Self that wasn’t related to their professional persona. The pursuit of a life’s work, however, is dynamic. Sacrifice and change are constants, and your success is measured, not by titles, but by how well you achieve your objectives. If you are unwilling or unable to leave the secure position you may have achieved, you may find yourself limiting your growth and your possibilities. The example of Mark Stock and his Zeppelins comes to mind. Think about the identity that Mark had established, the level of security he had obtained before he began painting the zeppelins, when we hear his talk. You must learn to define yourself in a way that is attached to your goals and objectives, not your position at any given moment, and be prepared to sacrifice in pursuit of your growth. Failure to do that leads to stagnation, though you may be defined as a success in certain areas, at a certain level.

Fear of Pain (and Sacrifice)

We’re all afraid of pain, and we’re all aware that it comes in a lot of forms. But a different way of looking at fear of pain is that it is actually a fear of making the necessary sacrifices. If your tendency is to consistently retreat from pain, you probably are being held back by this fear. It is painful for many people to confront themselves, to force themselves to be introspective enough to deal with issues of identity, reality, and the purpose of your life. The answers to those questions often take us to places we would rather not go. It can be particularly frustrating if you discover that your life’s work is going to require, on a consistent basis, more pain, and more sacrifice. You have to be prepared for pain and for sacrifice. Your work must be that important to you. Remember that pain is often greater in anticipation than in fact, and that to move through the pain to successfully grow in your work is necessary unless you are prepared to face the limitations that such fear imposes. Again, I refer you to Mark Stock and the Zeppelins.

Fear of Commitment

Our popular concept of freedom is freedom from commitment or obligation. If we view freedom as simply a hedonistic lack of restraint, we are unlikely to equate it with the discipline necessary to be our best at anything. Discipline must be embraced as the road to freedom; we expand our freedom by leading lives that are fully integrated, by doing our best to practice what we preach, by putting our ideals to work. (Boldt, 205) The best you have to give requires commitment. Period. Anything less is less.

Fear of Making the “Wrong Choice”

All creative activity functions within limits that force you to make choices. Materials impose limits. Comprehensible syntax imposes limits. Time imposes limits. Limits require decisions. Decisions require actions that may lead to a dead end, to error. That’s the reality. In order to minimize the dead ends, the failures, you have to deal with limits as realistically as possible – you can’t do all things at once, you can’t be all things to all people. Identify what you are about as an individual and establish the priorities in your life. Understand that if you choose to follow a particular vision, it may require that you sacrifice, at least for a time, several others. You have to choose. You have to make the best choice possible at the time, and understand that if it is not your ultimate choice, you have plenty of time to refine and reconsider your course. The important thing is to begin. To do nothing is the worst choice you can make. The best choice is choosing what you love the best. It is possible to make a wrong choice. Sometimes a wrong choice will cost you something that is irreplaceable in the sense that the particular thing, or person, or opportunity will be forever lost to you. But it is my experience in life that if you make your decisions with integrity (by which I mean with consistency in terms of who you really are, what truly drives you, what you truly desire) you will find that there are multiple opportunities in life for love, for achievement and for happiness. The trick is not to smother yourself in fear of error, but to make certain that error, when it happens, is a learning process.

Fear of Not Being in Control

Basically, fear of getting in over your head. Fear that there is too much to do, too much to learn – that you just can’t handle it. This one is relatively easy. You have to establish the parameters of your area of expertise, then take it step by step. Continued focus and study will increase both your knowledge and your confidence. You cannot control how much time you have on earth. Sometimes you cannot control how you use it – but the truth is that you usually make choices about how you use your time, and to overcome fear, you need to make the most of it. Be deliberate, take it step by step. Control what you can; forget the rest.

Fear that it Will Never Work

This is basically an issue of self-esteem. At some point a person who operates under this fear has been beaten, and they haven’t gotten up yet. They’ve been defeated by life. Actually, it will work. Look around you – you can see it working for other people, and they weren’t all born rich, or lucky – though either or both helps. In order to address the issue of low self-esteem, try to identify the point where you stopped believing in yourself. What events precipitated that loss of faith? Objectively analyze the situation. First, have you actually failed? In what way? What events led to the failure to achieve the results you wanted? Did you lack adequate information? Did you not work hard enough? Did you listen to people who told you that you would fail? Whatever the reason, identify it and correct it. Identify specific reasons for past failures, and you free yourself to try again.

By Richard Olinger

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Comment by Katrina on December 14, 2010 at 9:20am

btw what are you getting your MD in?

Comment by Katrina on December 14, 2010 at 9:18am

well it sounds like  you are doing something, recognizing the need for change.  a friend of mine once said that self aware people are VERY rare, and i agree... so count yourself among the blessed that actually care about anything beyond the mundane! 

fear of rejection is a tough bastard, isn't it though! .  For me,  fear of failure is wrapped up in that package.   ..  but the worst part is, you can understand your fears and irrationalities on an intellectual level, but tackling it on a subconscious level a whole other ball game.  because this whole problem isn't an intellectual fault.. it's a deep rooted perception of our reality, no?  

Comment by Matto on December 13, 2010 at 7:09pm

I'm feeling this way right now.  I'm feeding the I can't monster more than the other one.  I guess it is fear of rejection.  Be it getting fired from jobs I haven't even had yet or my social life, I worry about rejection.  Maybe rightfully so, maybe not.  But one thing is for sure, the ability to focus in a school and work environment is crucial to any success at all.  So I feel my worries about my MD are warranted.  I should still do something instead of being lame though.

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