I Just Can't

I am the only child of two people scarred by the Cultural Revolution under Mao’s China. Our little family immigrated to Toronto in the ’80s during an economic recession. Life was definitely tougher for my parents than I was aware of as a kid. Even now they often speak about their struggle living in a foreign country where they didn’t speak the language. To them, life has always been about survival. They worked in jobs they didn’t like so they could provide for our family and give me the opportunities they didn’t have.

“Fear kills more dreams than failure ever will.” — Anonymous

As a result, I experienced a lot of pressure from them. They got me into the best public school in Toronto and sent me to private math and piano lessons. Even though they didn’t force me to become a doctor or a lawyer (because these are stable careers where you can always find employment), they constantly discussed the benefits of being in the medical profession. Even now, if someone they know has gotten into medical school, they comment about how good and smart this person is.

Fear doesn’t help you make better decisions, it just clouds any clarity you do have. The new job was safe. I was safe. Fear won out, once again.

Being a parent is tough. In retrospect, I understand my parents’ actions. I also understand how their mentality was driven by fear. Fear that I would miss out on life like they did; fear that without a good, stable career I would always struggle financially; fear that I would always be behind everyone else in life. Their fears fed their actions, which inevitably affected me.

In my family, taking a risk was seen as illogical, irrational, and something you just didn’t do. And whenever someone I knew did step out, they failed horribly: they went into debt, abandoned their families, or were labelled a failure. I didn’t even want to try taking a risk; defeat was unacceptable, shameful, and had consequences that affected everyone around you. So, in my mind, if I never tried, I would never fail. What a great way to become a boring person.

As a kid, I just wanted to be an artist. I wasn’t very confident, but my art projects were always well-received in school. Until grade 9, when the teacher said my architectural piece was too unrealistic and would be impossible to construct; I had failed in both perspective and composition. After that, I stopped taking art all together. I went into the sciences and didn’t draw creatively again until a couple of decades later. Even though art was still very important to me, it was also very unsupported in my life. I didn’t want to become a “starving artist” — the chance of succeeding was so small, I didn’t even practice doing it. I didn’t want to fail at something I loved so much.

I never became a doctor, I just couldn’t find interest in it. So I became a medical illustrator instead. The decision was less about the art and more about not wasting my science undergraduate degree and easing my parents’ nerves about me becoming a starving artist. By this time, I also feared instability. (Ironically, my career was geared towards a really niche market. Oops, didn’t think that one through!) After almost a decade in, I quit my full-time career as a medical illustrator. I had failed to make much of that career. I had stayed in my position for too long, and I wasn’t growing. I was terrified about what else to do, so I took the next comfortable job that came along. That’s the irony — fear doesn’t help you make better decisions, it just clouds any clarity you do have. The new job was safe. I was safe. Fear won out, once again.

After about a year, I took a chance. I told my employer that I was looking to leave my position unless he allowed me to work part-time, and only on aspects of the job that interested me. To top it all off, I asked to work from home. And guess what? It happened. All of it.

I can’t say I’m in a better place financially or even that my fear of failure has disappeared, but I’m more joyful on the whole. I’ve started thinking about goals and dreams and moving in a direction to make something great. I’m taking small steps that I consider risky. But that doesn’t mean the fear of failure is easy to get over. It takes practice and time.

Though I haven’t figured out how to make a living by being a “real” artist, I’m not so obsessed with it anymore. I realize now that I had gotten so wrapped up in the idea of being an artist that I neglected being disciplined in making art and finding my visual voice. Accepting failure is critical to this process. Because in grade 9 I couldn’t accept my failed art piece, I couldn’t accept the artist within me. This could be a metaphor for everything else in my life. I recently found that architectural drawing. On the bottom left hand side of the page, my teacher had marked it a 9/10.

Right now, it’s like I’m walking in the desert. I feel like I can see something in the distance. It could be my destination or just a mirage, but unless I move closer to it, I will never know.

If you’re afraid of letting others — or yourself — down, if you have an overwhelming fear of failure, you’re not alone. We want to talk to you. You can use the form below to get in touch.

Photo Credit: Justin C.