Live Through This

Fear of Failure

Doing less than the best made it hard to do anything at all.

Illustration by Esme

Illustration by Esme

A big important chunk of being a Creative Person With Ideas involves believing in those ideas enough that you can get them out of your head and onto (metaphorical) paper and, you know, make stuff. And sure, it’s possible that after you make stuff, you’ll look back at it and hate it and decide to start over again, or figure out a way to improve it. But what if every time you made something you hated it? And you looked at it with shame, and you asked yourself, Why bother? And these feelings grew and grew and grew until you couldn’t make anything anymore? Well, then THE FEAR has taken over and made you prisoner of your own doubts, and that’s it. You’re done.

I am well-acquainted with the Fear. We have been hanging out for more than a decade now.

Growing up, I wanted to be a fashion designer. I had figured this out as early as five or six. In the beginning, the girls I drew had no necks, big heads with eyes that looked like lowercase Ns, and sweetheart-shaped gowns. When I was seven or eight, my grandmother gave me a Crayola Fashion Designer Kit, which consisted of a plastic mold with three figures, colored pencils, and about 12 sheets with different designs to place your paper over and trace with the aid of a light box that doubled as a carrying case. It pretty much changed my life.

For the next eight years, I sketched all the time, like I was a professional designer on a commercial schedule. I would bring my drawings to school and show my classmates, and in between classes, I would draw. I loved halter necks in blues and fuschias, colors that I never tired of. Eventually I outgrew the plastic mold and tracing sheets and starting coming up with my own tight-fitting and color-blocked creations, probably as a result of my early love for Versace and their GLORIOUS ads, which I had recently starting tearing out of magazines and collecting. I was obsessed with the models in matching metallic leather skirts, and Kristen McMenamy in a seafoam-green dress pretty much defined femininity for me for the rest of my life. I spent all my time reading fashion magazines, memorizing the names of designers and models and editors and all those colorful creatures who populate the fashion world. Every time I caught an episode of the Canadian TV show Fashion File with Tim Blanks, I would daydream about being featured on it, and I kept boxes full of editorials and ads that I knew would one day serve as my “inspiration archive.” I took draping and illustration and sewing classes in high school, and a friend even had one of my sketches made into a prom dress. There was no doubt that this was what I was supposed to be doing.

Then I got to college. It was not at all what I hoped it would be. In my first studio class, I was disappointed to discover that my classmates had a more pragmatic approach to fashion: The girls loved shopping and thought Hey, why not? and the boys thought Alexander McQueen was unwearable, ugly, and unnecessary. All these years, I imagined that I would get to a place where I could geek out with my peers about the beauty of Hussein Chalayan’s mechanical collection, and instead I got a room full of people interested in real-life clothes. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but I wanted ART and DRAMA! A tiny seed was planted that soon sprouted into my entire being: Maybe I was the one who didn’t belong here. Rationally, I’m aware that it doesn’t make sense to let other people’s feelings interfere with your dreams and desires, but the brain is a crazy organ. I soon began to lose interest in my sewing class anyway, because the sewing machines were often occupied by students in more-advanced classes, and I had to go to the studio after hours in order to sew, which didn’t seem like that much fun when I could be hanging out with my crush instead.

I failed the course. I was ashamed and utterly pissed at myself. I had wanted this my whole life! Why was I acting like such a jackass? I took it again the following semester, with a better attitude and funner people, but again, I grew too distracted to dedicate the amount of work and attention needed. Worse, a lifetime of fashion-obsessing had suddenly turned against me. I looked at my inspiration archive and instead of being inspired, I felt a crushing anxiety. Compared with my heroes, I didn’t think I was talented. I was certainly no McQueen or Miuccia Prada. My drawings looked sad and stupid. I had nothing to say, no point of view. I stopped sketching altogether. My life’s passion became nothing but a reminder of my mediocrity, and during my third semester, I started thinking about other majors. The Fear had won. Scared of possible failure, I sabotaged myself, and abandoned my dream.

I became convinced that I had never thought the whole thing through, that I hadn’t seen how maybe my interests were changing and I was simply focused on the wrong pursuit. For one of my design classes, I had done an illustration on the computer, and suddenly graphic design made sense. My school offered the program with a minor in fashion, so I reasoned that I had mistaken my love of magazines, art directing, styling, and photography for a desire to be a fashion designer, when the whole time I just wanted to be responsible for the actual layout of the pages that had influenced me growing up. I was happy again. The Fear was left to rest.

I was a cluster of nerves during my first design class. All the kids were familiar with Photoshop and Illustrator; other than that one project I mentioned above, I had only ever used the computer to chat on AIM, make Angelfire websites, and look at Style.com. I had no idea there was this whole world of creation right at my fingertips. I loved it, though! I dove in with excitement, and I was surrounded by some really talented kids who totally inspired and challenged me for a while. But it wasn’t long before the Fear reared its ugly head again. As the courses got more complicated—and orbited out of my comfort zone with talk of corporate identity, YUCK!—I began to hate everything I did and would completely abandon and restart projects halfway through. For each assignment, we had a group critique where we hung our work on the walls and took turns talking about what succeeded and what could’ve used more thought, and every single time I saw my work next to theirs, I felt like dying and crawling in a hole. Since I’ve always thought that I had a really good critical eye and can easily tell good from bad, I figured my feelings about my own work MUST be true.

I managed to stick it out another three years and finish the program. When preparing for my exit interview, in which I had to present the work I’d done throughout college to the professors in my department as well as a guest judge, I spent countless nights held hostage by my anxieties, completely certain that I was going to be told: “You suck and you are not getting a degree.” But the interview went well. I cried. I graduated. I was suddenly in the real world.

In the years after college, I stopped making stuff, perhaps a natural consequence of not being in an environment where I NEED to create in order to get a grade. Finding a job in my preferred field became increasingly more difficult—it was the year all the magazines started shutting down left and right, which is obviously an inauspicious beginning when you are trying to become an art director. I worked full-time retail jobs because I had to survive, and was disheartened when I sent my portfolio to a highly regarded magazine only to hear back from them that they “loved my work,” but since I didn’t have a connection or know anyone that could refer me to the position, I didn’t have enough “experience.” The real world was crushing all the progress I had made in my last semesters, and slowly the Fear wormed its way back into my soul. I started to believe I was not good enough to do any of the things I wanted to do.

It was two or three years before I sketched or collaged or made anything again. I had ideas floating inside my head, but I swatted them away like flies, too paranoid about confronting my own crappiness if I attempted to execute them. Then one day I had an idea to make a little illustrated fashion zine, and since I didn’t have access to models and clothes, I would just do simple drawings on Illustrator of my favorite pieces from that season’s collections, like Proenza Schouler’s perforated bags and Pierre Hardy’s crazy sneaker-heels—it was more an exercise to refresh my skills with the programs than anything else. I kept putting it off and putting it off, because I believed it was going to be another giant failure. But the idea persisted and finally I had some free time and just said “Fuck it!” I started working on it without any idea if it would work out. I was enjoying the process so much that I was unconcerned with the final outcome.

And then I finished it, and I didn’t hate it. I made a website and sold some copies. And some places wrote a little bit about it, and I felt good again. And a year later I had the idea to make another one, and again I let it simmer and simmer and simmer until my brain could no longer contain it. And then BOOM, I finished it, and I loved it even more than the first. I was proud. And now whenever I look at it, it’s like a little trophy that I won for beating the Fear, at least that once.

Sometimes the best way to deal with a problem is to force yourself to face it, like, say, by pitching a story about it for the website you write for. When you include the idea in the monthly email, you pray “please don’t pick this one,” but you damn well know it’s gonna get picked and you’re gonna have to write it, and you hit send anyway.

So here I am.

This is not the end of the story, because I don’t have one yet. To be honest, I don’t think there’s a magic potion for conquering overwhelming feelings of self-doubt and anxiety, but I’ve learned that persistence pays off. It’s true that you have to make a million drawings or have a million ideas that are crap before you get to the good one, the one that uncovers something about you and the world. I am still totally afraid of failure, and of being judged by my peers, and of never being good enough, but at least now I know there’s a way around it, even if finding it is hard. ♦

26 Comments

  • mustachio May 24th, 2013 3:10 PM

    Thank you so much for posting this. It’s exactly what I’m going through right now, and I really needed to know that I wasn’t alone in this! Great article!

  • Hazel May 24th, 2013 3:16 PM

    I loved this Laia !!!

  • Josefina May 24th, 2013 3:24 PM

    Thank you so much for sharing this!

    I used to be a full-time art enthusiast (I can’t say artist, as I’m talking about before I hit high school), but as I approached my teenage years I became a target of bullying at school as well as depressed and anxious. The worst part came when I got sick with an eating disorder, and then I found myself drawing less and less, out of a lack of energy and also because I thought everything I did was absolute rubbish. The Fear asphyxiated my creative being, and I never drew again. Very recently I realised I had to face The Fear and get back to practise, even if I’d find it embarrassing at first.

    My point is that I find it relieving to find someone who has felt self-depreciation, failure, perhaps hatred for her own work, given up and then got back on track. Sometimes one has talents that we don’t fully know how to exploit. Perhaps you had very defined aesthetic preferences, creativity and drawing skills, and thought at first that fashion was your thing because that’s how you got to explore that passion. Maybe I’m really good at something because I know I have a decent bit of talent, but I’m not sure what for. Your essay made me think of that as I read about the turns your life took to find what you’re doing now. :-)

  • eeka May 24th, 2013 3:31 PM

    Ugh, thank you. I’m going into 3rd year at university, and have just dealt with a crisis of being threatened with being held back a year, due to missing 3 seminars out of ‘Fear.’ Except I had no idea what it was, until now.
    Your article puts its finger right on the problem I’ve been despairing over for 2 years!

    Thank you. It’s so, so reassuring to know that other people feel like this, and that it’s overcome-able. <3

  • whoabecca May 24th, 2013 3:43 PM

    amazing and encouraging! thanks so much!

  • oleander May 24th, 2013 4:04 PM

    Just sitting here working on my first identity and website for a client with The Fear crushing my chest right now. Perfect timing. Thank you!

  • nikkiduck May 24th, 2013 4:05 PM

    I loved this! I’m an art student, and so this definitely hits home for me. It’s nice to know that there’s hope for me finding happiness and success in the real world, even when my brain likes to tell me there isn’t. Thank you for writing this! xx

  • Cerise May 24th, 2013 4:20 PM

    Thank you so much for sharing! This is totally my life: The Fear is something I’ve been trying to fight for the last couple of years so I can really put myself out there and write (among other things). Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one doubting myself, so it was super encouraging to read this, and excellent timing, too! <3

  • enthusiastictruckdriver May 24th, 2013 4:21 PM

    I’ve read a lot of articles on Rookie that really rang true to me, but none of them have made me feel as connected to the Universe as this one. The Fear has basically been defining my life for the past few years, but I am trying really hard to wipe it out with all the cool stuff I’m doing! I hope I can do it, and I hope all you Rookies can do it, too.

  • jane alice May 24th, 2013 4:23 PM

    This article is really fantastic and highly relatable! I love that rookie finds ways to put into words the experiences of young women everywhere. It’s beautiful and comforting.

    http://femmefutures.blogspot.ca/

  • Cynthia May 24th, 2013 4:25 PM

    Thanks Laia for taking us on your journey, it’s so encouraging and your work is awesome!!

  • sepiawriter May 24th, 2013 4:55 PM

    Thank you so much for this Laia! As a high-school graduate, making a choice about my major has been difficult because of the ever-present Fear. I feel like whatever I choose will define my whole future and any mistake will make me a lifelong failure.

    I’ve been motivating myself recently and reading this and some of the comments made me feel less alone and a teeny bit more secure.

  • Kaetlebugg May 24th, 2013 5:40 PM

    this is GREAT. Thank you for being so honest!

    embarrassingurl.blogspot.com

  • elliecp May 24th, 2013 8:07 PM

    such an lovely honest post, so lovely to hear other people going through similar things to me!
    Fear is the one thing stopping me with my artwork at the moment, as I’m just so scared to attempt anything in the fear of it failing miserably. I’m trying to be more adventurous though, but these things take time haha :)

    http://roseandvintage.blogspot.com/

  • prouddaydreamer May 25th, 2013 4:18 AM

    This is so relatable for me as an art student. Lately ‘the fear’ has been trying to take me over a lot, but like you said, persistence is key. Also, I’m in LOVE with the fashion zines you made. Thanks for sharing and inspiring :)

  • Carlos V May 25th, 2013 5:54 AM

    Dear Laia,
    Your post totally reminded me of the days of trying to start rock band. My cool concepts and power vocals falling on deaf ears and I remember watching my friends, night after night, slowly convert their dreams to Miller High Life. That fear was there then, and that fear stops so many people from completing whatever it was they started. It’s almost always worth it to keep working; art thrives on the schlock of culture as much as upon the high pinnacles of Madison Avenue, and you never who is going to look at what you do.

    For my part I’ve always been partial to thrift and vintage looks; modern is always so sheer and isn’t hard to change.

    Sincerely,
    @strongfixion !! ^.^ !!

  • dragonfly May 25th, 2013 6:40 AM

    Thank you. I was just realising today and thinking about how much I fear failure. This is so good, and I really love the illustration too!!!

  • Melissa @ WildFlowerChild May 25th, 2013 10:17 AM

    This is wonderful! I was just listening to a podcast the other night about how one needs to overcome fear to get anywhere, and this article is a fantastic reinforcement of that! Thank you.

    Melissa
    http://wildflwrchild.blogspot.com

  • jfate May 25th, 2013 1:36 PM

    I’m always struggling in the realm of self-doubt, but keep on pushing and it’s articles like this that help the struggle feel worth it. Thanks :)

  • kellbell May 25th, 2013 3:24 PM

    I just wrote an english paper on my fear of failure, so when I saw this I freaked! Totally relatable.

  • Becca May 26th, 2013 11:39 AM

    MY LIFE!!!!!
    Ugh. This is me in two areas of my life: Filmmaking and singing.
    Filmmaking is what I’ve wanted to do since I got my first video camera when I was 9 or 10. I saved up for a long time and I now have a really nice camera. I put together little short films all of the time but like 98% of the videos I make never see the light of day. I watch the finished product over and over and over until I’ve convinced myself that it’s not worth showing anyone else. The thing is, whenever someone happens to see something, from like over my shoulder while I’m editing, they tell me that it’s really good and I should enter film festivals and whatnot. But The Fear tells me that it’s just not good enough.
    And it’s the same thing with singing. I LOVE to sing. Anyone who’s close to me knows this. I sing so much that it annoys my friends and family. But when they’re not annoyed by it they all tell me that I’m “wasting my talent” because I have this ridiculous fear of singing in front of a crowd. My brother plays in clubs and at open mic nights all the time and he’s always trying to get me to do a duet with him. I really want to but I chicken out every single time. The Fear is taking over my life and I need to stop it. Like now

  • abby111039 May 26th, 2013 3:12 PM

    This is so relevant for me right now because I LOVE to sing and I have auditions for these two very elite singing groups at my school next week and The Fear is just incredibly intense right now and it needs to stop. It already prevented me from trying out for the musical last winter (which I still really regret). I’ve already had my faith in my abilities shaken because I didn’t get into the top choir like I wanted (I got into the one right below it), and now The Fear is always using that as a reason why I’m not a good enough singer and that I should just quit it altogether. It’s exhausting because now I’m convinced that I’m shitty at doing what I love and that I should just not do it, but I can’t stop doing it because I love singing so much…*sigh* Well that’s just my struggle. Thanks so much for writing this extremely-relatable article. :)

  • neenbean May 27th, 2013 12:20 PM

    I really relate to this as well. I used to write a lot and in the last two years it’s been harder and harder for me to keep thinking that what I create is worth anything. It doesn’t ultimately matter though – we all feel we have to create, don’t we? It’s just sort of in our bones. When I don’t make anything, I go more than a bit crazy.

    Failing ultimately doesn’t matter, because you can always try again and do more and more stuff and just get better. I want to listen to my own advice about that, haha. Also to everyone: it really doesn’t matter if you don’t study art/fashion design/creative writing in university or college! You can still always do that stuff without the training and etc. So it’s all ok.

    http://greybluedreams.blogspot.com

  • loonylizzy May 28th, 2013 4:18 PM

    thanks so much for this!!! i suffer from The Fear as well, as many other creative folks do. for me there’s always this underlying feeling that even though my friends and family are generally impressed with my work, i’m really not that special because there are other people out there who are much more talented than me. it’s scary, and it makes me second-guess my dreams of pursuing a creative profession all the time. i’m one of those people who is scared to death of failure and always HAS to be the best, and the thought that my ideas might not be as good or well-received as someone else’s ideas is really intimidating. i’m glad to know that i’m not the only one who has this problem! awesome article. :)

    http://www.theflightoftheflamingo.blogspot.com

  • ItsNina May 31st, 2013 9:43 AM

    thanks for writing this article, it felt like you were in my brain the whole time:)

  • Tabitha Carver August 17th, 2013 3:06 PM

    Thank you!