In my experience, fear of failure is the biggest obstacle to being creative or productive in my woodshop. It’s certainly not a lack of tools; I’ve got plenty of those. Nor is it a dearth of ideas; I’m literally bursting with them as well. What slows me down most, and sometimes stops me dead in my tracks, is the fear that whatever I’m trying to do will end up a failure.
Fear of failing is the biggest obstacle to moving forward on projects I long to build. Even projects well underway can be delayed for uncounted weeks, months or years as I wait for the “right time” to pick them up again. That’s the case with a set of bedside tables that have lain unfinished for far too long. Instead of plowing through to completion, other interests—in my case photography or even new woodworking projects—have sprung up to divert me from the need to finish the tables.
These fears also stifle creativity. We each carry around inspiration—perhaps hidden—for unique ways to express ourselves in our chosen media, be it woodworking or some other venue. But fearing failure, often coming as internal criticism, we may silence our own voices to prevent what seems like inevitable embarrassment. In my case, it convinces me that my own ideas can’t possibly stand alongside other designers’ creations as worthy of expression.
As a rule, our fear of failing results from old messages we received as children. Cautionary or critical comments by parents, teachers and other persons significant to our development often had the unintended consequence of convincing us that success lies beyond our grasp. In extreme cases, we may have learned to believe we lacked even the right to succeed and that we should not even try.
But these messages belie the truth. While unavoidable, failure is a normal part of life. Failing is no more than one result from an experiment. It is a key process by which we learn and perhaps the most reliable source of information available to us. And its consequences need not be inescapable. I learned this when I tried to join two pieces of teak with pocket hole screws, only to watch the teak split apart in every attempt. But because I tested the joinery on scrap pieces, I avoided destroying my project and things turned out just fine.
The hardest lesson to learn is that failure is, in fact, only about a trial and error method. It reflects only on our practice, our technique, our effort. It does not relate to us and our worth as persons. Failing does not mean that somehow it is we who are bad, only that something we tested did not work.
In the end, the only person who can define our success is ourselves. No one else can do it for us, and we should not let them try. To seek approval from outside sources—be it money or laudatory comments—is to subject ourselves to continued domination by the old message that we are not really good enough, that we do not have the right to succeed.
So here’s my advice—and I’m speaking now primarily for myself, for whom these lessons have come very hard. Give yourself permission to try and fail. Not only will it teach you useful things about what works and what doesn’t, but—even better—it is bound to unleash unexpected creativity and productivity in whatever you choose to undertake.