19-20-21/365

Strange that I miss days of writing in threes.

I have a fear of failure. I’ve accepted this several times in the past, but I’ve never been able to rationalize this. Today’s post is an attempt to figure out what the root of my fear of failure is.

But first: context

I figured out I feared failure first in the 11th Grade, when we were asked to write our strengths and weaknesses. I understood at some point that I couldn’t get over small failures in the past. The failure to impress a girl, the failure to meet grade benchmarks I set for myself. The failure to finish books on time, the failure to be in the quintessential ‘in-group’ in class.

So I listed it as a weakness. And I told my mother. She didn’t understand why I felt that way. My dad couldn’t figure it out either.

I understood at some point that I feared failure because of I was afraid of the type of reaction that I would get from society. There’s a general image that one creates for themselves, and that’s an image you strive not to lose – you believe it’s very essential to who you are as a person. Well, from the start, I was the nerd – the academic guy, the guy who didn’t play sports, but knew sports trivia and statistics. I was the guy who never set foot on a football field but could tell you things about Manchester United from the darkest corners of the Internet. I was the guy who went prepared for exams and did well.

Which is why, when I forgot to study for a Class Test in the 7th Grade (in Geography), I cried when I saw the paper. And I sprinted across to the Counselor’s room, wailing. I told her that I failed my test (I didn’t), and that I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t admit this at that time, but I wasn’t scared from the inside. There were two external factors I was very, very worried about: 1) What would my parents say? and 2) How would my friends react?

Let’s deal with each of these individually.

(1) is a pretty easy question. See, my parents put a lot of academic pressure on me at a very young age. I think they feared I’d become very laid back (which I did in Grade 8), and hence, they ensured I was studying at all times. In fact, I had specific rules that operated around exam time: restrictions on TV time, computer time, my storybooks disappearing, and so on. It’s so infused in our family culture, that even my grandmother got involved – snooping on me during exams and reporting to my mother about my progress (or lack thereof). Hence, failure was not an option. Failure meant having to listen to a lecture on how irresponsible I was. But heck, who cared about responsibility? I didn’t. So yes, I was scared of what my parents would say. And you can’t isolate this only to academic failures. It ended up becoming a recurring pattern – the pressure came from them (although it’s always been positive), and subsequently led to fear, which made me work, and then I did okay – in whatever activity. So when I thought I failed that Geo. test, it created a lot of trauma for me. I couldn’t contemplate the things I would have to hear: ‘Do you go to class and waste your time?’, or ‘What do we buy you books and stationery for?’ (Amma/Appa: not being critical of your parenting style – I love you, chill)

(2) is another simple thing. See, I wasn’t ‘cool’. Nor do I purport to be ‘cool’ now. I didn’t have any striking, defining features, and most of my pursuits as a child were really, really boring. So, being known as a ‘nerd’ gave me a social identity. I was scared because if I lost that, there was really nothing my friends would ever ‘need’ me for. Every kid has a fear of not fitting in, commonly abbreviated in 2016 as FOMO. And I had a pretty bad case. See, people spoke to me when they needed to figure out what exam portions were, or what to study. And I liked getting some attention then (sounds narcissistic, but it’s true). I hated that if I failed, people would poke jabs at me, and someone would replace me as the ‘portion guy’.

I grappled with this in Grades 11 and 12, and it hit me really, really hard at two of my lowest points in school life. The first was when I got 68% on a Board Exam in Physics, and the second was when I was rejected post-interview by my dream University. 68% for me was failure. And that’s when I cried over the phone to my parents. I didn’t know how to come to terms with it. The same thing happened with the University. I broke down and sat at home – didn’t go to class for two days to avoid pity stares from friends.

I had not a clue what to do.

The fear of failure haunts me even today, and I believe that on some level, it haunts all of us, because we create an internal pressure mechanism for ourselves. We don’t live life all that carefree anymore – there’s a need to ‘succeed’ and a weird notion of what ‘making it!’ in today’s world entails.

Now this sounds extremely profound, but it’s 3:30AM in the morning, so I can be forgiven for these thoughts, but I’ve come to accept my fear of failure by figuring out that the only person I will ever feel bad about letting down is myself. I mean, it still hurts me when I let down my parents – because their hard work has made me who I am. But, I can’t live under the fear of not living up to someone else’s standards of judgment of who I am, or rather, who/what people expect me to be.

I’m now less scared of this ‘failure’ thing. I mess up, I learn. And while this is no endorsement of irresponsibility, or treating botch-ups casually, I feel like we, specifically as Indians, need to learn to live for ourselves, and on our own terms. Not selfishly, not by any stretch of the imagination, but just to, at some points, prioritize our own happiness in the choices that we make.

And don’t worry guys. I’m not going through some sad phase of life as I write this. But, I’m about to embark on a week that’s going to be the defining story of my second year. I just really don’t want to be scared as I do that.

See you tomorrow.

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