Failure is the most likely outcome for your dream. So what’s stopping you?
Pay attention to the inspirational memes and posts that come through your social media this month.
The stories that get told and retold are the ones about success. Often, unusual successes.
Stories like these: Julia Child didn’t start her culinary career until she was in her 50s. Alan Rickman didn’t start acting until his 40s.*
But those are the notable exceptions. A lot of people start cooking later in life but don’t end up with their own TV shows. A lot of people pursue acting later in life but don’t end up in two of the most popular Christmas movies ever.
And a lot of people who want to cook, act, paint, write, sing, or even just change careers later in life never actually do it.
Many of them blame “fear of failure,” but I think most people don’t really understand what they mean by that.
Since the only benchmarks for success we have are stories like Julia Child’s and Alan Rickman’s, people don’t adequately think through what success and failure would look like for their own dreams.
“Success” (as defined by others) is not within your control
What rarely gets talked about is how much of success comes from luck, timing, and connections.
Skill and tenacity are necessary ingredients for success, but they’re not sufficient. Not even true genius is sufficient.
You also need to be lucky.
All you people who are about to shout “I make my own luck,” simmer down. You don’t. If you’re successful, you had a lot of help along the way… whether that was by birth, by timing, by privilege of your demographics, or by luck. There are plenty of geniuses just as skilled and tenacious as you but simply less lucky.
The only thing that is truly in your control is your own effort.
When you create a thing, the only outcome that’s guaranteed is that you have created the thing.
You can’t guarantee your novel will get published, or that you’ll land an acting role, or that your consultancy will get any clients, or that your cupcakes will be loved far and wide, or that your social media posts will go viral.
You can take steps to improve the chance of those outcomes, but there is no way to guarantee any of them. In fact, the odds are stacked against you.
You already know this.
But you can’t win if you don’t play.
You already know that, too.
So why do you spend your creative energy promising you’ll do the thing and then beating yourself up for never actually doing it? Why don’t you spend that creative energy actually doing the thing?
I have some hypotheses.
Why you don’t do the thing
Here are my observations based on personal experience combined with observations of clients, friends, and acquaintances over the last 30 years.
Maybe you’ll recognize yourself (or someone you know) in these:
You haven’t defined what success means for you
We all dream of hitting it big, but most of us, in our hearts, don’t actually need to hit the best-seller list or win an Emmy or have a million followers to feel happy. It’s crucial to figure out what your own definition of success is. Otherwise, you’ll be trapped in overwhelm at how impossible it is to “succeed” according to society’s measure.
Vulnerability and fear of being judged
Few things strike a person’s deep vulnerabilities like artistic expression. When you create something new from your own imagination—a poem, a play, a painting, a song—you feel intimately exposed. The judgments that follow can feel intensely personal. It’s important to recognize this and be intentional about either accepting the vulnerability and going for it, or deciding it’s more than you’re willing to risk and stepping back.
Paralyzed by fear of wasting time/money/effort
The types of pursuits I’m talking about require a significant investment in time, money, or effort. But we live in a society obsessed with return on investment, so if you can’t articulate the ROI of your thing, then other responsibilities always seem more important. This overdeveloped need for productivity may keep pushing your dream—which we know now is doomed to fail by ROI standards—to the bottom of the list. If you are ever going to start, you have to get okay with investing in yourself, with the only return being your happiness.
Staying in “creator mode”
A friend recently complained that they have started 16 novels but never finished even one. They felt like a failure. But I think they just really like being in creator mode. Why should finishing be the measure of success? If you love tinkering, then tinker. If you want to finish, then finish. Either way is fine; there is no need to be so judgy of yourself.
Staying in “dreamer” mode
While it’s true that you can’t win if you don’t play, it’s also true that you can’t lose if you don’t play. Having a dream is a lovely state to be in, but the dream dies the day you begin to pursue it. It moves out of the realm of fantasy and into reality. Some people just want to stay in the fantasy. And that’s okay.
It may not actually be your dream
I am fond of saying, we make time for what is important. By that, I mean that our behaviors show us what is meaningful to us. When you say you want to do something but never seem to find time for it, it may be time to examine how much it really means to you… as opposed to how much you like to think it means to you. Sometimes we hold on to ideas because they used to be important to us, or because they seem like they should be important. If it’s not truly important for some identifiable reason, you may want to let it go.
Two exercises that may help
I’m not going to say it’s easy to get unstuck when you’ve been stuck a long time. If it were easy, you would already have done it.
The critical thing, I have found, is to focus on your own output rather than a hoped-for outcome. You don’t go from graphic designer to movie star after one acting class. You don’t get in Oprah’s book club after writing one chapter. But you can take a class or write a chapter. And when you do, you will have accomplished that thing.
I’ve found there are two simple exercises to help when you’ve got something you really want to do but can’t seem to ever get around to doing it. These won’t solve your problem, but they may help you figure out what your problem actually is.
First: If you strip away all the things that are outside your control, how would you define success?
For every Alan Rickman, there are a thousand Gary Goldstars. A regular person with a regular job who had talent, a dream, and a goal… but who managed only a fraction of Rickman’s achievements. Does that mean they all failed? Rickman never got an Oscar. Did he succeed or fail?
The point is that there is no universal measure of success. So define what would be good enough for you. What’s the lowest bar for success? This is not you new target! Dream your dream and shoot for stardom. Why not? But articulate the lowest standard you would find acceptable if you never got any farther.
Simply by articulating it—if you can define it and tell it to another person—you will figure out a lot about yourself and what, if anything, you should invest in pursuing the dream.
Second: Interview your future self.
Every day you make decisions that mold the identity of your future self. Imagine traveling into the future to meet the person you’ve become in twenty years’ time. This is a different person from who you are today. Interview that person about their life. Some questions you might ask:
- What are you most proud of in the last 20 years?
- What do you wish you’d done differently in the last 20 years?
- Who were the most important people to you during that time?
- What do you want people to remember about you?
- Who are the most important people to you today?
Specifically think of questions that get to meaning, values, and self-image unrelated to the dream you’re wrestling with. You need to get your current self out of the way. Your current self is the one that’s causing all the problems. Be curious about that other person.
This kind of visualization exercise isn’t for everyone, but if you can do it with an honest and open mind, you may see your life today from a very different perspective.
Being honest with yourself is really hard
People who tell me they’re super self-aware are some of the least self-aware people I know. They believe what they want to believe about themselves—or they believe what others tell them about themselves—no matter how much evidence there is to the contrary.
It is human nature to be ignorant of your own role in the current dysfunction.
If you were aware of your own role in the current dysfunction, you would change your behavior.
This is why it’s so hard for people to get unstuck.
It’s also why coaches like me exist.
When you can’t see your own role in the dysfunction, you need someone impartial and unattached to help you see it. I know this is true because I’ve experienced it, just as I’ve helped others through it.
This is true in workgroups, in the C Suite, in family settings, and with individuals.
So if you’ve gotten to this part of the post, and you’ve done the exercises I suggested, and you’re still certain you want to pursue that dream you’ve been holding on to…
What’s stopping you?
I can help
I work with top executives and middle managers to improve their leadership skills and the effectiveness of their teams. I also help people who are hungry for change move forward. How would you like to be better, or prepare for the next step in your career?
You can help.
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I got this from some source online (I thought it was Google’s Bard, but I cannot recreate the prompt and result, so it might have been somewhere else), but upon further fact-checking after writing this post, it appears to be only partially correct. He started acting when he was in his 20s but did not have his first major film success (Die Hard) until he was 41.