Failure is Not an Option


LeanIn (you know, the wildly popular campaign sparked and spearheaded by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, that aims to encourage women to pursue their ambitions in business, and Lean In to their careers) has been doing this great photo series that asks women, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

I love it.  Every time I see one of the photos pop up in my Facebook or Instagram feed, it prompts me to ask myself that question.  When I view it through a professional lens, I see it as a great example of social engagement, and through a personal lens, I see it as a great question that we should all probably ask ourselves a little bit more often.

If you need to know what my two constant answers are, here they are:

  1. I would pack up my bags, and Ellie and I would go to an Island for about 6-8 weeks…and totally decompress, reset, and not have any access to the Internet, email, or text messaging. (other guests TBD)
  2. I would fall in love. (I have already fallen in love 1,000 times over with my daughter.  I mean with a member of the opposite sex, and at some point marry him, and let them move into my apartment and touch my stuff – I can feel my chest tightening – and, gasp, share my closet, and let him see me on my really, really bad days…like the ones where all I want to do is what episode after of Sex and The City and put my phone on silent.)

But regardless of whether or not I do either of those two things (I plan to do both, btw) that photo series got me thinking about fear, with all it’s benefits and pitfalls, and I thought back to the very beginning of my career.

My first job was as a script coordinator for a network news morning television program.

Crazy. I know.

But here’s what’s even crazier.  When I look back at that job, and the pressure that it involved, along with the sleep deprivation (the hours were 11pm -10am),  and the high stakes of delivering scripts to the entire technical and editorial staff – along with two of the most well-known people in television news, under super tight time constraints – I felt no fear.

Like…none.  I was more afraid of figuring out how to take to the subway to wherever I needed to go on the weekend, than I was afraid of failing at my job…which is frankly, bizarre.  That job was crazy intense, and the industry as a whole, even more so, but I just dove right on in.

Early on, I remember major changes to the show resulted in a sprint out to the studio floor, with my heart pounding in my ears, and the  “In 10, 9, 8, 7, 6” of the stage manager counting down till we were live…

I shuffled through the pages, furiously licking the tips of my fingers, to swap out old copy, with new copy, when one of the anchors smiled at me, and said with a wry smile, “Don’t screw up…”

I looked back at him and said with an equal smile, “Don’t worry about that…” as the stage manager finished her count, “In 5, 4…” and then physically (but gently) removed me from shot.

All pages changed.  All parties smiling.

Somehow, despite the fact that this is where news was made (the weight of that fact, was never, will never be, lost on me) and the fact that I was surrounded by people I admired enough to write college term papers about – I never once even entertained the possibility that I’d fail.  And because of that, I had no fear.

Sure I’d get nervous, and sweat would trickle down my neck when I’d hear, “Hurry, there are changes!!!” shouted out at 6:59:05, but I never feared I’d fail.

Looking back, I am not sure if it was arrogance, or confidence or ignorance…or a combination of all of the above.  Don’t get me wrong, I made mistakes. Misplaced scripts, accidentally deleted a line of copy – and I got yelled at. A lot. But fear never coursed through my veins.  If it had, it would have stopped me dead in my track.

Is the fact that I had zero fear a bit insane? Totally.  But it is certainly the reason I went so far, for so long (on very little sleep).

I can’t put my finger on exactly how that boldness manifested itself.  It’s not that I was afraid and pushed it aside.  No, no.  I was just so hyper focused on my goal (of becoming a network news producer by 30) that I couldn’t see anything else.  Nothing.  Perhaps it was because my parents support my decisions 100%, and continue to, no matter how crazy endeavors…or maybe I was just so incredibly focused on achieving my goal, that I didn’t see fear waiting on the sidelines.  I honestly have no idea.

The first time I really felt the fear of failure was when I found out I was pregnant.  Nothing could make the whole deck of cards that I had built  (on a foundation of being single and focused on my rewarding and punishing career) come crashing down like a tiny little human.

And not only did I feel fear, I felt pure intense panic, because now I was solely responsible for not only myself, but another person.

Now that is f*cking crazy.

After many tears, and more hours of phone conversations with friends and family and an awesome therapist – that fear motivated me to build an infrastructure to support my daughter, and myself – while also focusing on the next phase of my career, which I had become more than ready for.  And I started saying out loud and in my head, over and over again…”Failure is not an option, failure is not an option, FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION”

And today, I’m three months in to working in that next phase of my career, on what is, by far, the biggest project of my career.  I have never felt more poised to succeed in the goals we have set for the project, nor have I enjoyed the work I’m doing more than I’m enjoying it right now.

But for reasons I can not quite figure out, when I got up to go to the bathroom the other night at 3am,  out  of nowhere, a thought popped into my head, “What if I fail?…What if this sucks?….Oh my god, this would be the highest profile failure of my professional my life!!!!”

When I got back into bed, I turned the light on and contemplated doing work.  Then I realized I’m fighting a week old cold and sleep would serve me better than anything else.  So I tossed and turned for an hour and fell back to sleep…

The thing about fear is, once it’s there, it’s really hard to talk out of the room. I used my standard coping skill of using it to motivate me to work harder and focus more on how to make this project a success.
But I have to wonder if those blissfully ignorant and brazen days of not even entertaining fear are long gone – and are replaced by a more practical adult who is smart enough to be afraid…

Or maybe it’s not such a great thing…perhaps I am holding myself back because I still haven’t let go of that fear of failure that appeared front and center in my life about 3 1/2 years ago…I am not quite sure…which is why I’m so fascinated by the question, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”