When Pablo Picasso was an old man, he was sitting in a cafe, scribbling on a napkin. He didn’t know it, but a woman sitting near him was looking on in awe.
A couple of minutes later, Picasso finished his coffee, crumpled up the napkin, and was about to throw it away. But the woman stopped him and said “Can I have that napkin? I’ll pay you for it.”
“Sure,” said Picasso. “That will be twenty thousand dollars.” The woman was stunned. “What? It only took you two minutes to draw that”.
“No, ma’am,” Picasso replied. “It took me over 60 years to draw this.”1
Mastery Takes Time
Picasso lived to be 91. When he passed away in 1973, he had amassed a net worth of around $500 million, and his art had become famous all over the world.
His output was exceptionally prolific. The total number of artworks he produced has been estimated at 50,000, comprising a large number of paintings, drawings, sculptures, ceramics, prints, tapestries, and rugs.2
By honing his craft for decades, Picasso eventually reached a point where he could charge twenty thousand dollars for a two-minute napkin scribble. Or, at least, deliver a pretty damn cool one-liner about it.
Anyway, the takeaway here is that mastery takes time. Therefore, we need to be consistent in our practice. And to do that we need to be able to make mistakes without losing momentum or giving up.
To become really good at what you do, you have to be comfortable failing at it. To become remarkable, you have to be willing to fail more than anyone else around you.
Why Failing is So Scary
When you were a kid, you didn’t think twice about learning to walk. It didn’t matter what the results happened to be in one single attempt; you just kept on trying no matter what.
You stood up, took a step, fell, hurt yourself, maybe cried for a minute or two, and then tried again.
Giving up never crossed your mind. At no point did you stop and think “Man, I suck at this. I guess walking isn’t for me.”
Clearly, avoiding failure is something we learn later in life. Somewhere along the way, most of us become afraid to fail.
We learn that it’s embarrassing to fail and that others might hold it against us or make fun of us for it. And when that happens, we tend to stick to what we’re already good at.
We Start Failing At Failing
The problem with this, of course, is that it severely limits us. As soon as we buy into the idea that failing is something to be avoided, every unsuccessful attempt sends the signal that we should stop trying.
And while that reasoning keeps us feeling safe, it also robs us of the opportunity to realize our highest potential.
Because the only way to become great at something is to be willing to fail at it. Over and over again.
Success demands failure. So, we need to take action despite our fear of failure.
How do we do that?
The Sphere of Choice
In Stoic philosophy, there is a concept known as “the sphere of choice.” This idea makes a distinction between:
- “Internals” — things we can control. For example, our character, values, and behavior.
- “Externals” — things we cannot control. For example, the past, much of the natural world, and the thoughts and behavior of other people.
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus believed that we should focus exclusively on the internals and let go of the externals.
Only when we stop worrying about what is outside our control and instead turn our attention to what is within our control can we have peace of mind.
Let Go of What You Cannot Control
I’ve found the sphere of choice to be very effective for dealing with my fears of failure.
Pretty much every time I sit down and write, a series of fearful (and quite mean) thoughts run through my head. Usually, they go something like this:
“Who do you think you are? Nobody is going to want to read this. Man, your writing is dull. You don’t have anything to say, do you? Let’s throw this article in the trash and go do something else.”
In the past, these thoughts would often get the best of me. But I have since learned that I am not my thoughts — I am the one who hears them.
And since that’s the case, my thoughts belong in the category of external things. I can’t control what thoughts happen to pop into my head at any given moment, and therefore I don’t worry about it.
My writing, on the other hand, belongs in the category of internal things. It’s completely within my control. I can always decide to keep on typing. So, that’s what I do.
No matter what my brain is yelling at me, I just keep on typing away until I’ve met my writing goal for the day.
The Opinions of Others
This is another part of writing that used to be a big problem for me. If you’ve ever created something and put it out for the world to see, I’m sure you can relate.
Getting good feedback feels quite nice. But getting bad feedback feels downright awful.
If you get 100 positive responses followed by one negative, it’s that last one that’s going to stick in your mind.
So, to get really great at what you do, you simply cannot care what other people think about it.
Remember, the thoughts and behavior of others belong in the external category, and therefore you need to treat them with a healthy dose of indifference.
You’ll never get the approval of everyone, so don’t waste your time trying.
How to Overcome Your Fear of Failure
From now on, whenever you’re experiencing a fear of failure, remember the sphere of choice.
- If you find that your concern is about something external, practice letting it go. Remember that it’s a waste of time to worry about things you cannot control.
- If the object of your concern is internal, use it as a trigger to take action. Stop thinking and start doing.
Be like a kid who’s learning to walk. Fall without concern about how it looks or what other people think. Then do it again. And again. And again.
Measure your success not by your ability to avoid mistakes, but by your ability to show up and do the work no matter what.
Picasso was willing to create 50,000 artworks to build his legacy. What are you willing to do?
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
— Pablo Picasso