Fear of failure and fear of success

Posted by DannyFratina, 02.09.2013 There have been 1 comment(s)

What is stops us from achieving big things? What keeps us from growing and becoming the artist we want to be? I consider the launch of this website to be measurable proof that success is possible. However, this is actually difficult for me to admit. My musical life has been successful all along, but has been interrupted by several destructive events that would negatively impact me as a musician and as a person. While there are many more positive moments in that same time period that have done even more to influence my life, it’s the damaging ones that stick out and heavily skewed my perception of myself. This post is an attempt to encourage others that success is inevitable, so hopefully my honesty here can be valuable.

Like many of us, I struggled early on with music. 7th grade, my first year in music, was actually a success. At least as far as 7th grade musical achievements go, i.e. learning the basics of operating a complex musical instrument, figuring out a few tunes, making friends in class, having a good relationship with my band director, Mrs. Garmon, etc. Things started to get rough in 8th grade though. For months I would get to class and try to warmup and just not be able to buzz. I suddenly didn’t know how to anymore. I had been playing horn for over a year but this was new. This was much harder than before. This was embarrassing. Last chair in top band was not what I wanted. The inability to play an F below the staff was not what I wanted. I didn’t have a private teacher, so I was completely on my own here. I began to doubt my abilities to handle a musical instrument and was in danger of losing the music that I had so quickly fallen in love with. I was 12 years old, and I was disoriented and lost.

I wouldn’t find out until several years later that a very common effect of Acutane, which I took early on in 8th grade, is dry skin. This was a major revelation for me - no wonder my lips were so dry that I couldn’t buzz! The acne clearing up permanently from my face was pretty awesome, but I couldn’t play my horn with the ease I was used to anymore. Studies started to come out showing that dry skin was the least worrisome side effect of the medication. Cases of depression and even suicide were growing, so Acutane was pulled off the market. By then I had learned to manage my dry lips, but not before spending several years secretly filling with trepidation every time I was about to play a note in public.

I had another major setback in college. My first ensemble teacher knocked the wind out of my sails with a very discouraging confession, admitting to me two weeks into the semester that she didn’t care for trumpet, and stressing the need for me to play low and play quiet. At 28, in retrospect I would have said “thanks, but deal with it,” but at 18 I said “well, you’re the teacher, so if you think that the trumpet works better below the staff barely being heard, you must be right!” It took several years to shake off that miscomprehension. And of course in retrospect it’s ridiculous because I studied with Lin Biviano, who helped me understand and execute some serious lead trumpet. I separated lead from everything else and treated the two aspects of trumpet completely differently, with my lead playing being cultivated and cared for and my “other” being ignored and left to wither by two very different teachers. The most formidable ensemble I played in during that time period was the Berklee Concert Jazz Orchestra, where I barely played the traditional lead I had gotten used to and was expected to blend seamlessly between lead and “other.” This was confusing and unhealthy (not the experience, but my reaction to it) and it wore me down. I even developed a deep guilt; I thought that I was unworthy to play in such a world-class ensemble. This guilt snowballed over time, wrapping itself up with my fear of failure.

Eventually I started to understand how damaging that first ensemble was to me, and I began to repair both my playing and the way I thought about playing, something I am still working on almost ten years since I took that college class. (If you ever have any doubts and it’s at all possible to be self-aware of them, please know that you are awesome and need to talk to more validating people, like me!)

These events, and their protracted repercussions, would create an unhealthy attitude towards success and failure. I never thought I would be successful. I saw success all around me and couldn’t understand how it was achieved by my peers. It didn’t matter that I obtained success in different ways; by the end of college I had won several awards, performed in every major large ensemble, and led my own unique band through three recitals, all while receiving some very esteemed praise. I had even had good grades, something I struggled with in grade school. At times though, it didn’t matter because success was the norm and failure was graphic. While success often comes in small steps, each minor shortcoming stands out and often feels like a major step backward.

It can get to the point where big successes can shock you. Something must be wrong you think. The big events up to this point have been negative, not positive, so I must be missing something here. I think this is what fear of success is, at least for me. It’s fear of the big things, and ultimately fear of change. While normality is positive, you get used to the big things being setbacks so that when a major positive thing happens it initially feels wrong.

A good example of this brings me back to this website. Just getting it up felt like a big accomplishment, but I was also sort of terrified. If it doesn’t go well, I can handle that because I’m used to the feeling of big failures. It has, however, gone well - in small steps. The traffic has slowly picked up, I have slowly made more sales, got more quote requests, and received very encouraging emails from readers. This is my new normal and it’s not scary anymore.

But my first sale was almost a disaster. I had high hopes that I would be selling charts like hot cakes, but when the first sale came in a few weeks after launch (unsolicited and from a complete stranger!) I froze. This can’t be. Why would a stranger, out of the blue, want to buy something I made? Why would he think I am any good? What if he hates it? What if I made a performance-crippling error? Is it an agent for the music publishing industry trying to set me up and find a loophole in my copyright records to use against me? Yeah, it gets pretty paranoid pretty quickly.

It took me four days to summon the courage to press forward. I printed the parts, taped them up, bound the score, bundled them in the colorful title folder, stuffed it in a padded envelope, and mailed it off. Each step along the way was nerve-racking. The doubts lingered. The dread was escalating. When I finally walked out of the post office, it hit me: I own a business now, it works, and I’m going to be OK. I’ve worked hard over the last few years, assembling a library of hundreds of top-notch transcriptions and arrangements, and I’m good at this, and I’m going to sell them legally and be paid for it. Over the last few months, this has set in as the new normal, and as the years go on it becomes easier and easier to mitigate the anxiety.

A fear of failure was introduced early for me, which gave way to the fear of success. Just know that this is more common than you think. Remember, success is regular (for undeniable proof, record yourself today and check in on that recording six months from now. If you’ve used your instrument regularly since then you’ll be shocked at how much better you are now). Don’t let the failures side-track your career, because they say nothing about your ability or talent. They are temporary and fleeting. Resumes are filled with accomplishments. Biographies are filled with successes. They contain all the things that happened, and none of the things that didn’t. You are better than you think and you’ve done more than you can even remember, and it’s only going to scale up over time. Stay positive, love what you do, and success will come.

In the comments I’d love to hear your own stories of fear, struggle, and revelation. You’re in friendly territory here :)


This post was posted in Notes from the Arranger and was tagged with Failure

1 Response to Fear of failure and fear of success

  • micha says:

    Thank you for posting this and for reminding me that not only CAN we be successful, but that we are ALREADY successful. Wishing you much love and success.

    Posted on 02.09.2013 at 5:52 PM