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Overcoming the Fear of Failure: A Guide for Artists

Why are we afraid of failing? Of all the fears I’ve discussed in this series, this one is fairly universal. Everyone fears failure.

Of course, what people do with that fear is very different. Some folks use that fear to spur themselves toward greater effort and loftier achievements. Others feel the fear and never try. They take the safe road, the easy route.

For many artists, the fear of failure is most pronounced when it comes to going “pro” with your art. It’s hard to fail if you’re just doing art as a hobby. Trying to be a professional artist finally raises the stakes enough so that you CAN fail.

But who says we have to be afraid of failing? And if we are afraid, how can we use that fear as motivation rather than intimidate?

Why artists shouldn’t be afraid to fail

We shouldn’t be afraid to fail because—honestly and truly—failing isn’t all that bad. If you fail, there’s usually a clear-cut reason (or several reasons) why you failed. . . and once you know WHY you failed, it’s much easier to do better the next time.

Heck, people will even point out why you failed for you—so it’s almost impossible NOT to learn from your mistakes. :)

But we all know that already, don’t we? I mean, we’ve heard it before, and intellectually we understand it. Growing up, a lot of things in life require failing first, then doing better the next time. Riding a bike, for example, or shooting a free throw in basketball.

For kids, life is pretty much one failure after another. . . but only at first. Then they learn how to do whatever it is they’re interested in, and it’s fun!

If we’re so afraid of failing that we don’t even try to achieve our dreams (such as becoming a professional artist) then we’ve forgotten something very integral to the basic human condition—that failure brings growth! That we MUST fail in order to learn.

Failure is not an endpoint, folks, it’s the mid-point. It’s life’s educational tool, and we need it. Many of us have simply forgotten that fact in our transition from kids to adults.

Unfortunately, just rationalizing the idea of failure won’t banish the gut-wrenching fear that some of us face when we contemplate paying the bills with our art.

We’re still going to FEAR having to go back to that old job, FEAR facing those co-workers, FEAR the shame of “not making it” even if it’s just until we figure out what didn’t work and how to fix it.

So how do we get past that fear of becoming a professional artist in a practical, daily manner? Here are a few methods that might help.

How to overcome the fear of failing

1. Start by risking small, not large.

But even if it’s small, start risking something today. Risk anything; it doesn’t matter what—the point is, get used to that fear.

What you risk may have nothing to do with your art. You might try a new food, a new sport, a new group of friends. Try karaoke for heaven’s sake, if you’re scared of it.

Get used to the fear, and get used to the failure. Then proceed to steps 2 and 3.

2. Write down your successes

Depending on how innately talented you are, you might find yourself more successful than you thought you’d be. Write those successes down, and keep that list somewhere you can refer to when you start to feel the fear of failure creeping back in.

Reminding yourself of past successes is a very real way to bolster your courage. You can also use this list to think up more difficult challenges you’d like to overcome.

3. If you fail, write down WHY

We fail for a reason, remember? So when you fail (and you will) start a new list that focuses on WHY you failed. The point of this list is to help you succeed in the future—to show you what you shouldn’t do next time, or show you that certain circumstances were out of your control.

Sometimes failure has very little to do with our own abilities and skills, and everything to do with timing, location, and the whims or abilities of others. We can still learn from those failures, of course. . . we just learn something different.

4. Diversify your risk

Like stocks in the stock market, we should be risking our artistic talent in as many different venues as we can. You never know where you’ll find customers for your work—or the type of work that will find customers.

I still believe that focusing on one niche target market is the best way to create a solid “brand” and increase your return customers, but there are always ways to diversify within your niche.

Note cards, art cards, t-shirts, custom work, on-location art, collaborative events, and so on. . . there are many ways to market your art, and many types of art to sell. Try some or all of them until you get a feel for what works best for you. THEN you can focus whatever brings in the biggest returns.

5. Lock yourself into attempting your goals

No matter how hard you work at overcoming your fear, it can still sneak up on you when you least expect it. I’ve found that the best way to overcome this is to commit to a course of action so that your only way out is to succeed.

This is the “fear as a motivator” approach, and I absolutely love it. I like diving into something and feeling that fear, knowing that I’m committed—sometimes financially, sometimes just by a promise that I’ve made to someone else.

Once you’re truly committed, you’ll find new energy to research, experiment, and flex your creative muscles far more than if you’d just kept sitting on the fence.

Take a look at yourself. Are you holding back from a fear of failure? If so, don’t wait any longer: start risking, start committing, and start making your goals a reality.

Want more? Drop in next week for an article on overcoming the fear of the unknown.

*Note: this post may contain affiliate links*

As I sat down to write this last article in my series on overcoming fear, I had to laugh at myself for putting this one off until the very end. Because this fear—the fear of the unknown—is one of mine. I'm a planner to the core. I like lists and schedules, and just. . . KNOWING. Anything unexpected tends to freak me out. But maybe you’re not like me (it wouldn’t come as a. . . read more

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