As the lights went down, I peered out into that historic hall, squinting through the dimness, as thousands of pairs of eyes looked back at me. I had never performed in front of so many people, and yet here I was, 15-years-old, standing in front of a huge audience in the famous Royal Albert Hall, and about to sing. Solo. The details of what happened next are hazy. I simply remember that feeling, that feeling of being powerful, yet small. The nervousness betrayed me a little as I began, but quickly gave way as I heard the voice I knew so well.
I was around three-years-old when I began performing publicly, perhaps a little younger even. I'd grown up in the safety of a church family where most of the members were literally that––family––either through genetics or marriage, and so performing on a stage for people who loved me wasn't really too troubling. I could sing, and it made me useful. It wasn't unusual for me to be asked to sing at events preceded by weeks of practice with my Auntie Brenda at the piano (she was actually my mother's cousin, but 'Auntie' was more fitting), or even to be asked to fill in at the very last minute. It became the norm. I performed. People clapped. I felt great. On to the next one.
At the age of ten I passed the auditions to join a civic children's choir and my parents were thrilled. My school was thrilled. I was thrilled. And so began the story of my time singing and performing and loving it. When I sang, people applauded. When I sang, people approved. When I sang, people smiled. Except for my little sister, who seemed only able to sob as soon as I opened my mouth. Make of that what you will, but she said that every time I sang she imagined I was going to die. One can only assume I sounded either angelic or deathly.
By 13, I was singing in the Manchester Girls Choir. No audition, just an invitation to join, and I loved it. At 15, I'd already performed at the Llangollen Eisteddfod, and appeared at the Manchester Royal Exchange in an opera specially written for that performance, set around Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I played the part of Life In Death. Perhaps my sister's darker anxiety was correct after all. Thankfully, I didn't die, and thus followed an invitation to be trained at the prestigious Royal Northern College of Music.
None of this story is to boast. Besides, I imagine some of it is a fairly common tale in north-western England where music is part of the fabric of our history. No, telling the tale is actually so I can share this last part with you.
By the age of 19, I had stopped singing. I stopped having lessons, stopped participating in choirs, and shortly after, stopped performing altogether.
I was hoping you would ask.
I stopped because I wasn't good enough. Something in my muddled brain told me that I would never, ever amount to anything vocally. Something told me that if I tried to pursue singing beyond the amateur, if I followed my dream to sing professionally, I was going to fail because I wasn't good enough. Better to quit whilst I was ahead and stick to the things in which I could definitely excel.
You see, I've never knowingly failed anything in my life. Not really. (Okay, so I failed in my first marriage, but apart from that...) And it's not because I'm a smarty-pants. It's simply because I've played most things safe and stayed away from anything I thought might see my failure scorecard blotted.
In other words, I've never failed because I've never really tried.
Did you know that fear of failure is an actual phobia? Also known as atychiphobia, fear of failure is best understood as an inability to attempt anything where success can't be guaranteed. And whilst you're in your comfort zone everything feels safe, but if you're afraid of failing then that fear can be paralysing.
'It is a fear of disappointing people and even the rejection or lack of approval of others. It can encourage people to avoid taking risks, setting goals, or participating in activities. To grow we need to do things we haven’t done before and failure is often needed as a feedback loop to learn from mistakes and become competent.' Adam Cox, Clinical Hypnotherapist and Phobia Elimination Specialist
Psychologists agree that most phobias are developed during childhood. In the case of atychiphobia, it could be as a consequence of punishment because of a perceived failure, or as a consequence of embarrassment at school as a result of getting something wrong.
At the age of 14, I had a breakdown. I refused to go to school. Generally a decent grades kind of student, I was struggling with the pressure to perform and achieve well. The school tried to help, my parents tried to help, but I'm not sure my confidence ever fully recovered. I have lived most of my adulthood in the fear that I would be caught out, discovered to be a fraud at some level or another, and rejected for not making the mark.
Can you identify with any of this?
To spur you on, you'll be pleased to know that, throughout history, there have been thousands of famous failures. For example:
Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor for lacking imagination and failing to have good ideas.
Albert Einstein performed really poorly in his school exams and, for a time, worked as an insurance salesman.
Five months before fame hit them, The Beatles were told they were rubbish and that they'd never, ever succeed.
Rejected by Oxford University, and suffering from clinical depression following a period of domestic abuse, at the age of 38 JK Rowling considered herself a failure in every aspect of her life.
Vincent Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime.
Whilst the desire to succeed can simply be put down to the desire to survive, we weren't made to survive; we were made to thrive.
Yet while we're suffering through the gut-wrenching pains of failure, we're not often thinking about thriving. Our sole focus is on surviving because, when we fail, it causes us to question everything, right at the very core of our being, about who we are and why we've been put on the earth in the first place. However, the experience of failure is a necessary part of life. It's the pathway to our goals. And the avoidance of failure? Well that serves only to make us ill most often. We end up living a small, closed life that is safe, yes, but without adventure, without expansion.
The longer I've lived, the more I've had to deal with failure. It's inevitable. What frightened me half to death in my early years I now accept as part of being human. And I think that the key to overcoming failure is recognising that it can be beneficial. Yes, you heard me right: BENEFICIAL. God wants us to learn from our failures. He especially wants us to learn not to make the same mistake again and to realise that, by the grace of God, we can turn our failure into victory.
I'm not a believer of the old adage, 'You can do anything if you just try.' Sometimes we fail simply because we're humanly incapable of accomplishing a certain goal or task. This hefty physique of mine was never going to make me a medal-winning sprinter no matter how much my PE teachers forced me to run that 100-metre track. (Remember the trouble with big heads? Click here to read my post for a reminder!) Being a good singer didn't inevitably lead to a future career in music. But not achieving the things you want doesn't mean you're a failure. God doesn't call you to do something unless He equips you for it. Please don’t spend the rest of your life feeling like a failure because you couldn't succeed at something you were never made to do.
And here's a thing: Sometimes we overlook our successes because we focus all our attention on what we cannot do.
We also need to remember that God knows our weaknesses! He planned for us, put us together. Nothing about us surprises Him. So when we don't do as well as we'd hoped we would, He doesn't turn around and say, 'Well colour me surprised!' He reassures us we're fab whilst knowing our limitations too... and we also need to accept them too (Jeremiah 29:11). Thriving isn't about avoiding failure, but learning what to do with it.
And despite what I said about not being able to do everything we set our minds to, one of the greatest lessons I've learned is that it's better to attempt something and fail than to never actually try just because you're afraid of failing.
Overcome the Fear of Failure
Fear is more damaging than failure. I have spent nights and days worrying about what might go wrong, and it's glued me to the spot. If I had the means, I'd shout from the rooftops that we all need to stop being afraid of failure and set out to succeed. Resolve to move ahead with determination, remembering that worthwhile achievements involve taking some risks, even just the risk of looking stupid.
Fear and anxiety can paralyse your creativity and generate a confusing inner conflict resulting in erratic and indecisive behaviour; if you can't think straight, you'll never be able to function properly. The Bible clearly teaches that we're not to worry about the problems of life, and I get that it's easier said than done. But not worrying doesn't mean that we have a magic red button somewhere that we can hit to batten down the hatches against the worry. What it really means is handing everything over to God, rather than carrying it alone. We're human. We become anxious. That's the reality. But when those waves of fear come crashing on the shore of your mind, that's when you need to step up and start praying. We have a choice, but believe me––it takes practice!
Overcome the Fact of Failure
Many people never overcome their failures because they never forgive themselves for failing. There's a whole mess of stuff caught up in this including self-inflicted guilt, discouragement, and defence mechanisms. If you've failed, just admit it and start again. There's no shame in going back to the starting line.
To fail is not to be a failure. Let's face it, we all fail sooner or later. Even Georgina Bryant, whose scores were top of every test sheet in my school. Confessing the failure helps you conquer the fear of it, whilst hiding it will just haunt you.
So, forgive yourself, accept God's forgiveness, and move on. And remember: It's not about you anyway. God's strength is enough for you and you weren't created to be good at everything. You must believe that God is greater than your failure and that His strength is perfected in your weakness. If you make pleasing God your primary goal, I can guarantee you'll succeed.
Oh––the last thing I want to say is, don't believe the lie that you're too old to try again. I have no idea who needs to be reminded of that today. Maybe it's you. I'm 48, and heaven knows I'm still trying some things, at least. I am not, however, trying to win the 100-metre race or to roller skate. Know your limitations, I say.