What a day at the circus taught me about letting go of the fear of failure.
Recently, my wife and I took our kids to the circus. At one point roughly half-way into the show, a juggler took to the center ring, performing a series of moves while juggling what must have been about ten rings at once. The music built to a crescendo as he approached his grand finale, attempting to toss all ten rings in the air and land each around his neck in turn. After successfully landing about half of the rings around his neck, he faltered. One ring hit the floor. Then another. Then the remaining.
The crowd let out a sigh as the juggler picked up the rings for a second attempt. This time, he succeeded in landing a few more rings on his neck but again he faltered. The remaining rings hit the ground and the audience let out another sigh, louder this time.
Clearly determined to succeed, the juggler picked up his rings for a third try. As with the previous two attempts, he landed the first half of the rings around his neck. The suspense in the building was now palpable; I found myself inching forward in my seat. Time seemed to slow down as the juggler successfully landed every one of the remaining rings around his neck. Throwing his hands up in victory, the crowd let out a roar, the loudest of the entire afternoon.
Not wanting to see him fail, the audience had rallied behind the juggler and celebrated when he finally triumphed. Soon the crowd quieted down, the juggler left the stage, and the show rolled on. I was struck by what had just happened. Surely, the juggler had wanted to nail his trick on the first try; By any objective measure, he had come up short. Yet, when he finally succeeded, he didn’t just get a polite ovation. The crowd had gone nuts. What could explain this?
The answer is simple. The juggler’s struggle and ultimate success had connected with an innate desire, present in all of us, to overcome. Struggling is part of the human condition. So it’s no surprise that we are deeply moved when we witness a triumph. It’s your baby taking their first steps after weeks of trying and falling down. It’s your teenager getting an A in a difficult subject after months of hard work with a tutor. It’s a recovering alcoholic celebrating their first full year of sobriety. It’s our favorite sports team winning a come-from-behind upset victory. All these examples stir something deep inside of us. And they all share one thing in common—the struggle comes first, and it’s the very presence of this struggle that makes the triumph so moving.
There’s an interesting paradox here, however. Even though we are moved and inspired by witnessing the struggles in others, we are terrified to let others see the struggle in us. We convince ourselves that if we misstep in front of our families, coworkers, or friends, we’ll be judged and ridiculed. So we desperately try and hide our fear, doubt, uncertainty, and feelings of incompetence. As a result, we fail to fully show up for our lives. We don’t seek that promotion; We never start that new business venture; We don’t voice our true desires to our spouse or partner; We don’t volunteer to give that presentation at work. In short, we let our fear of failure hold us back.
I am as guilty of this as anyone. If I’m honest with myself, my own fear of failure has shaped my life in countless ways, big and small. I reflected on this as I watched the juggler leave the center ring that afternoon. It’s hard to think of a sillier, more trivial setting than a juggler at a circus. But what I had just seen was a revelation. Many acts that day had been flawless. All of them had garnered applause. But the juggler’s act, flawed as the finale may have been, got the loudest applause of all. The audience had not rejected the juggler for his missteps; They had embraced him. This simple act proves just how unfounded our own fear of failure is. It demonstrated that so long as we’re willing to face our fears, then our struggles and shortcomings should not be a source of shame. On the contrary, they are a source of inspiration.