I was at a really intriguing music conference this past week, where one of the sessions centered around the fear of failure. The question was, how can we help young musicians, particularly in colleges and conservatories, develop a more courageous, resilient, and risk-willing (or whatever the opposite of risk-averse might be) mindset?

Why should we care about such a thing, you ask?

Well, it’s been argued that success in today’s marketplace is increasingly dependent on the level of creativity and innovation we bring to the table – not just in music, but education, engineering, medicine, business, and heck, pretty much everywhere else.

And if it’s true that “If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative” (Woody Allen), learning how to develop the courage to take risks, go for the edges, and face the possibility of failure is a key skill that our futures all depend on.

But, as one of the students in attendance asked, “What if we’ve set a goal for ourselves that is unattainable? Where we just may not have the talent, ability, or good fortune to ever get there?”

Hmm…that’s a toughie. How would you respond?

The end of history illusion

There is an interesting study which came out just last week that I think provides some interesting insight. It was called The End of History Illusion and described how 19,000 participants, ranging from age 18 to 68 consistently underestimated how much they would change over the next decade.

They were asked to evaluate how much they had changed over the last ten years – from their personality, to core values, and likes/dislikes. Then they were asked to predict how much they would change in the next decade ahead. Interestingly, no matter how young or old they were, even though they acknowledged how much they had changed in the previous ten years, they consistently underestimated how much they would change in the next ten years.

What does this have to do with courage?

I suspect that we not only underestimate how much our personality, core values, and likes and dislikes will change, but how much we will change in the domain of expertise and skill development as well.

For instance, ten years ago, I swore to my wife that we would never live in NYC, let alone raise kids in such an environment. I insisted on grass, a yard, grocery stores with wide aisles, malls, Target, Costco, cockroach and rodent-free housing, and a place to kick around a soccer ball with the kids. Well, turns out I don’t like maintaining a yard, prefer walking to the grocery store than driving, and love raising kids in the city. In fact, as of this moment, I can’t imagine wanting to live anywhere other than NYC. Of course, given the end of history illusion, who knows what I will be saying in another ten years…

Likewise, it’s mind-boggling to think of all that I’ve learned, and the skills I’ve developed in the last ten years. Never in a million years would (or could) I have envisioned most of what I now do on a daily basis.

The problem with not being psychic

Even though we will probably learn, grow, and develop just as much in the next ten years as we did in the previous ten, because we’re not psychic, it’s nigh impossible to imagine exactly who we can or will become in ten years. Given this massive blind spot, we are likely to underestimate the capacity of our future self, and thus make decisions about our future based on who we are today.

Meaning, we are likely to avoid taking on projects or pursuing avenues that appear to be out of our league – or more accurately, the league of present-day us.

But, haven’t you ever taken on a project without realizing how difficult it was, and then got so deeply entangled in it that you had no choice but to rise to the challenge and deliver results even if you may have been in over your head?

Isn’t it remarkable what future you is capable of, if you just give him or her a chance?

To borrow from one of my favorite quotes, “How often in life we complete a task that was beyond the capability of the person we were when we started it.” (Robert Brault)

To go back to the student’s question above, we can’t possibly know in advance with 100% certainty what we are or are not capable of. And if we fail to start until we can know for certain, we’ll likely never start anything worth doing. The more important question is whether the path or avenue excites, inspires, or motivates us. That drive, that intense need to pursue something, fix something, change something, learn something, can be priceless.

Take action

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life.”

If indeed we are to make the most of our gifts, talents, and abilities, and if indeed growth occurs at the boundaries of our comfort zone, then doing one thing every day that makes us uncomfortable, that stretches us slightly forward, will help us become the person we have the capacity to be.

Whether it’s simply smiling at a stranger, asking the checkout person at the grocery store to double check a questionable price, or stopping in the middle of a crowded street to pick up a penny, these tiny acts of courage will become a habit, which in turn will become part of your character and give rise to a more courageous future you.

It may help to remind yourself that these daily acts of courage are not about success or failure. The more important question is, do you want to be the kind of person who acts courageously despite the fear? Or the kind of person who succumbs to the fear, and fails to act?

I think all of us know which person we’d rather be. It just takes some practice, patience, and committment to make this a habit. Heck, I’m still kicking myself for failing to pick up a penny I saw on the street earlier this week. Which reminds me, a dose of self-compassion certainly doesn’t hurt either…

photo credit: jinterwas via photopin cc