The Fear of Failure

 “What is your true fear?”
I must achieve my full potential. If I don’t I… fail…
“What happens if you fail?”
Something terrible…
“What happens if you fail?”
I don’t know!
“Then it should not be frightening. What happens if you fail?”
I DON’T KNOW! BUT I KNOW THAT IT’S BAD!
There was silence for a moment in the caverns of Harry’s mind.
“You know – you aren’t letting yourself think it, but in some quiet corner of your mind you know just exactly what you aren’t thinking – you know that by far the simplest explanation for this unverbalisable fear of yours is just the fear of losing your fantasy of greatness, of disappointing the people who believe in you, of turning out to be pretty much ordinary, of flashing and fading like so many other child prodigies…”
No, Harry thought desperately, no, it’s something more, it comes from somewhere else, I know there’s something out there to be afraid of, some disaster I have to stop…
“How could you possibly know about something like that?”

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

Fear is an incredibly powerful motivating force. In equal amounts, it’s a lot stronger than ambition or hedonism.  The fear of losing something is a lot more powerful than the pleasure obtained by getting something equally as valuable, even if that’s economically irrational.

In social situations, it’s common to ask someone about what they like and enjoy, in an attempt to understand more about him. But since fear is such a powerful motivating force, more than “enjoyment”, perhaps it might be just as valuable to ask someone about their greatest fear? Our fears are just as powerful in shaping us to becoming who we are today.

My third biggest fear is going blind. As someone who’s identity is shaped by my ability to comprehend and analyze complex ideas, becoming blind would destroy reading for me. Sure, it may still be possible to obtain ideas from non-visual sources, but ultimately, reading is the medium that holds the highest information density for me, since I read at around 1k words per minute.

My second biggest fear is death. As a transhumanist and an Atheist, I believe that death is the ultimate annihilation. There is no salvation. There is no afterlife.

Despair can only exist if hope exists. If we believe that death is inevitable, then death seems far less scary, because nothing is lost by dying. On the other hand, if a 25% chance of living forever exists, then death would be far more intimidating, for to die is to lose an eternity of experiences and fun. It is the slim hope of indefinite life extension that motivates me to do everything in my power to obtain it.

That’s why I write extensively on death, and my life’s plans revolves around maximizing the lifespan’s of myself and those I value. Before I became aware of Transhumanism, I did not fear death, and was willing to risk my life in many ways. Only after becoming aware that this hope exists, did I fear dying.

However, the largest and most interesting fear that I have is Failure. I am far more afraid of failure than death or blindness.

I want to achieve greatness by saving the world. There’s an altruistic aspect that motivates me to do this, but there’s also a selfish desire to win embedded within. I want to contribute to humanity, to make a breakthrough in economics, to be the Marx or Keynes of the modern world. I want my ideas to be highly valuable to humanity, and to surpass Eliezer Yudkowsky in brillance. I want to find a way to solve the Economic calculation problem, and to invent a new economic system that surpasses anything that has been previously tried.

I haven’t achieved any of these, of course. These are mere fantasies, arbitrary goals that allow me to label myself a non-failure.

I’m utterly terrified of not achieving any of these things. What if hard work and intelligence can only get me so far? The chips on the board are years of my life. How would I cope with wagering them and losing? What if I ended up being merely above average, and become forced to work in a mediocre 9-5 job, until old age forces me to retire? What if I end up succumbing to weakness of the flesh, and get married and have children?

Despair can only exist if hope exists also. It’s incredibly terrifying because I have an IQ (143) that rivals many throughout history that have achieved greatness. I have an incredible amount of passion and conscientiousness, especially after hacking my body with nootropics. In my youth, I have displayed many prodigial traits that are associated with those who have achieved greatness. (A vast majority of people who have achieved mastery at a field have displayed a propensity for it at a very young age.) Above all, I have an obsession with economics. Many people don’t hold a passion for any particular field, and remain relatively undecided about a career choice until they are forced to make one. But I’ve desired to be involved with Economics since I was 12, and have never changed my mind since.

It’s scary because I know I have the potential to do it. I can imagine a world where my ideas are incredibly valuable to human society. But there are so many who have these traits and still fail. Collapsing that world and replacing it with one where I achieved nothing would be far more painful, than being inevitably mediocre. One could say that Fate herself is teasing me – I have enough brilliance to potentially win, but not enough brilliance to definitely win. It may be better had I been born with either average competency, so I could be average without worrying, or had I been born an absolute genius, with self-control that could make the Buddha flinch, so I could achieve greatness naturally.

What happens if I fail?

It cannot be that bad. Billions of people live mediocre, average lives. It’s also pretty enjoyable. To be extra-ordinary means to shoulder extra-ordinary burdens and extra-ordinary concerns. To want to save the world is to bear the entire weight of the world on your shoulders. To acquire mastery at a field requires more than effort and interest, it requires obsession. The price of that obsession is often to disregard many other pleasures life has to offer.

And yet I cannot even imagine myself disregarding all these responsibilities for a life well-lived. An average life is an abyss of failure, and as I stare into that abyss, the abyss stares back at me.

It’s not anything rational. I can justify my fear of death and blindness by saying that it diminishes utility by a significant amount. Sure, failure diminishes utility too, but not anywhere close to that of dying. Rationally, I know it’s better to fail than die.

And yet I am utterly terrified.
I’m utterly terrified of losing my fantasy of greatness, of disappointing the people who believe in me. I’ve already done it once — it was horrible. Still, I cling on to the faint hope that I can achieve greatness through other means.

I think I’m going to be hit incredibly hard when I’m 35, when I realize I haven’t achieved anything noteworthy, that I’m merely above-average in competence, and that I’ve been a failure.

But I’m terrified of failure. So I’m going to allow this fear to motivate me. I’m going to feed this fear, and let the feedback-loop continue. I will let this fear flow through me, and define me as a person.

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3 Comments on “The Fear of Failure”

  1. I feel very similarly, still unsure whether it would be better to change this preference if possible.

    Can you elaborate on ow you managed to improve conscientiousness with nootropics? Thats one of my major limiting factors at the moment.

  2. “If we believe that death is inevitable, then death seems far less scary, because nothing is lost by dying.”

    Really? Surely the utility of an outcome shouldn’t depend on how probable it is: good things don’t stop being good when you find out you can’t have them; bad things don’t stop being bad when you find out they’re unavoidable. Of course, as you say, the more probable radical life extension is, then the more wary you should be about actions that involve a chance of death, because you’d be risking more expected life-years, but it seems odd to summarize this as “if […] death is inevitable, […] nothing is lost by dying.”


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