Our fear of failure

You have heard all the excuses: ‘Thursday’s session is still in my legs’, ‘its not really my distance’, ‘I prefer the trails’, ‘I was treating it as a training run’, ‘  and, of course, ‘my granny died’.

Legendary coach Percy Cerutty admonished sound advice when he implored runners to stick the excuses or stay away from the races. A manly and womanly ideal now somewhat forgotten. I believe this presents a significant problem to our culture beyond the general annoyance it presents to those around the ‘excusenik’.

In a different domain, multi-millionaire Dan Pena hits a sore spot with his mentees on a regular basis when he asks them to accept that they are not taking sufficient risks to succeed in business due to a basic lack of self-esteem.

‘Fear of failure is caused by lack of self-esteem and confidence. Dealing with fear is key to super success’ -Dan Pena

He is right. We live in a culture that has come to celebrate mediocrity because we all grow up expecting a pat on the back for the most basic achievement. ‘Resting in yourself’ and ‘seeking no clamour’ are things of the past as we post our 3 km training run through several social media sites and hungrily wait for the applause to rain down on us. Now, resist the urge to comment and call me a person who is ‘down on people of moderate ability’ and reflect for a moment. Do we really believe it represents a healthy culture when we cannot do a simple healthy thing or a small challenge without the need to have our egos stroked? Does this not rather represent a collective lack of self-esteem and general lack of sufficient self-love when we have to seek this kind of digital adoration? I do believe this culture harms us all – not only does it set the bar for ‘achievement’ lower and lower. When everyone is a hero, no one is a hero. It means that seeing a 5 km time of 18:30 as a fabulous time for a male athlete becomes the norm rather than 17:30 (random example – insert any distance and time you wish). As our bar get’s lower and lower, running cultures like the Kenyan get’s higher and higher. Imagine the Eldoret conversation: ‘What do you mean you only ran a 2:15 marathon? Are you ill?’

To improve our running culture, we must kick our own backsides and the backsides of those around us. If you are not an alpha-male (or woman) this does not have to be through tough love – but through proper motivation rather than ‘ra ra’ applauding as someone manages to tie their shoe-laces properly. We owe it to ourselves to set proper standards and to be brutally honest with ourselves about why we make excuses for our own performances. You can be entirely certain that no one cares about your excuses except yourself – and that people will judge you lesser because of them. Vow to never make another excuse – put up or shut up – and set a strong precedent from which a culture of high performers can grow. Begin to do things for their own sake and for personal reasons – stop doing it merely to try and impress others. I do not advice killing all praise or becoming a Zen Monk – indifferent to the opinion of others – but you have to ask yourself ‘am I merely doing this because of how I think it makes others view me?’

Running a poor race does no more make you a bad person than running a fantastic marathon makes you a superb individual. It merely tells us something of how an individual with certain talents performed on the day. A person of medium talent performing splendidly tells a tale of someone with great dedication getting just rewards. If he does not boast about it, we respect him or her even more, although, it should be said, exceptions exist and many of us admire the Muhammad Alis and Conor McGregors of this world. The reason, we admire these people is the same reason I wrote this post: these champions possess courage that most lack especially when we have not yet admitted to ourselves that our self-esteem is not what it should be . Ali, McGregor et al. put themselves out there and like all high performers they don’t waste time thinking about what other people may think of them. And that is the crucial point if we want to move our collective running culture forward: STOP caring what others think – do it for your reasons and be yourself. Put your opinions and your actions out there and if people don’t like it – well tough for them. You’re too busy getting ahead in the world and doing the doing.

Authors note (02/05/2016): I hold coaches, and myself, largely responsible for developing the confidence necessary to abandon our collective fear of failure and put an end to excuses and other symptoms of low self-esteem. Coaches are the teachers. But we absolve athletes of all responsibility – they must be willing to listen and take some honest criticism. The generation grown up believing that praise is the only valid form of feedback will never reach super-success. They must listen or we must abandon them until they wake up and smell the roses.



2 thoughts on “Our fear of failure

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