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How a driving lesson forced me to face my fear of failure and take action

A couple of Thursdays ago, I sat behind the steering wheel of a car for the very first time, finally about to do a driving lesson I had put off for far too long. My expectations for this first hour were pretty low, in proportion with my complete lack of experience. The plan was to sit and listen to the instructor explain all the different parts and safety features – nothing scary about it. If things went shockingly well, maybe I would learn how to start the car in the safety of the car park, but only if I was totally comfortable. There was absolutely no need to rush things — the road could wait until I was ready. One thing was clear: I would be facing my fear of driving, as well as an underlying fear of failure.

The sad truth is, plans rarely pan out in real life the way they do in your head. Not even ten minutes in, I found myself pulling out of the garage car park we had stopped at, right into five o’clock traffic. I felt like I was being abducted, only I knew that I had played my part by lifting my foot off the clutch. My protests were ignored and laughed off, and whether I liked it or not, I was out in the road now. So for the next half hour, I sat there, scared stiff, doing my best to steer, hoping that the middle-aged instructor (and the brakes) had good reflexes.

Putting off taking action

Let me backtrack here and explain what the previous days had looked like for me. Like most things in my life, the driving lesson was meticulously planned out in advance, secured with a phone call I had attempted to make at least three times before. Each time, I had hung up the second I heard the echoing voice of the driving school’s automated answering machine, and vowed to call them again as soon as I learned just a little bit more about driving, as soon as I felt just a little bit more prepared.

The final straw had come in the form of an Instagram memory – a picture I had put up on my story a whole year earlier of the theory test I had just passed, adorned with a customary excited cat gif. I finally realised that if I hadn’t learned that much more about driving in a year, the next week or month wouldn’t make that much of a difference. What I really had to do was take action and get stuck in.

Spurred on by the dreaded passage of time, I booked the first lesson. I spent the next few days chasing away anxious thoughts by filling my YouTube history with hours upon hours of driving videos. Fearing failure and determined to know exactly what to expect from my first lesson, I sat through cheesy montages of seat and mirror adjustments and getting up close and personal with far too many men’s loafers as the camera zoomed in on the pedal-pushing action. I read the lesson syllabus from cover to cover until I nodded off on the couch, and sent telepathic good wishes to the owners of every L plate I saw on my commute. I absorbed information from as many sources as I could find, trying desperately to make up for the one source to which I had no access – an actual car.

Planning is not doing

I think I’ve been a planner since before I was born. I was two weeks overdue, and I’m convinced I spent that time preparing for the outside world, savouring my last moments of solitude and working up the courage to meet all those waiting people. Even now, years of life lessons later, practical skills don’t come to me so quickly. I’m really more of a thinker – give me a theory test and some preparation time and I will ace it, obsess over it, research every detail, take it down unexpected avenues. Put me in a brand new practical situation though, and I will freeze and stumble before I find my footing.

This hardly works wonders for my ego, of course. My biggest fear is being caught off guard, unprepared and incompetent. I still hold out the foolish hope that I can be good at everything if I just learn enough about it, and have a tendency to put off any practical things that I haven’t yet investigated. Surely if I read enough about the backstroke, I will one day step into a swimming pool and perfectly perform it – but for now, I’ll stick to paddling in the shallow end with a pool noodle, thank you very much.

Recognising limiting beliefs and fears

The truth is, these beliefs are incredibly limiting. They romanticise the abilities of the mind to absorb and retain information that can be put into practice, while actually preventing me from trying new things, making spontaneous decisions, and even developing meaningful relationships. It is a form of procrastination like any other, just thinly disguised as active research. It is a way of feeling productive and in control, while actually not facing my fear of failure or taking any action at all. All that scrolling, watching reading, bookmarking, note-taking – they’re all various renditions of saying, “I’ll get to the real deal later.”

The real deal is what counts. As I sat behind the wheel in my lesson, judging how much pressure to put on the pedals, how far to turn the steering wheel to turn left at a busy roundabout, trying to breathe through changing gears while impatient drivers somewhere behind me beeped their horns, I realised I was in the deep end, with no pool noodle in sight. I was learning on the job and making real progress for the very first time.

An hour spent watching someone else’s first lesson had taught me some things, sure. It had provided a preliminary walkthrough, a glossary of terms to be used later; but it could never teach me how it feels to drive. That experiential quality was completely absent from my learning, but I had somehow completely overlooked it. Here I was in my lesson, having an experience I thought I had prepared for, yet feeling completely and utterly lost, and having to go along with it. I was terrible! And terrified! But I was finally actually trying.

The effects of actively trying to face the fear of failure

Vincent van Gogh Quote on fear of failure

Vincent van Gogh’s advice on overcoming the fear of failure and taking action.

When the hour was up, I walked away from that lesson physically and mentally shaken. It was like a bad walk of shame – I looked around my neighbourhood, mortified that someone would recognise me as the learner driver who had held them up for an extra ten minutes on their way home from work. I held my log book close to my chest, hiding the bright orange front cover from view, out of a completely irrational fear that someone would hurl verbal insults at me, or even egg me. I was convinced that everyone had seen my mistakes, and they were out to get me.

Of course, none of that happened.

When you’re first starting out, the harsh truth is that nobody cares about what you’re doing. They don’t have the time to analyse your mistakes: they’re probably busy making and learning from mistakes of their own. The audience in your head is just that – imaginary. It’s nothing but a reflection of your fear of failure, your fear of trying something new and being bad at it. The problem is not making mistakes or failing at something. The real problem is letting those fears stop you from taking any action at all.

Nobody starts out as an expert in their field: we all have to start at the bottom of the learning curve. When you’re trying something new, the worst thing you can do is compare yourself to people who have been doing what you want to do for years. If there’s something you’ve been wanting to try but you keep putting it off because there’s people who are doing it better, it’s time to recognise some crucial truths.

Firstly, you’re a beginner. You have to give yourself permission to take time to learn and get better with time. Secondly, your experience will never be the same as someone else’s – and it shouldn’t be, if you are to create any kind of value at all. And lastly, if you don’t take that crucial first step, you are completely eliminating your chances of ever getting to where you want to be.

How to face your fear of failure and take action

Make a plan, do your research, collect all that useful information; but don’t stay stuck in the research phase, because there will always be more to read, watch, and plan. Recognise that being an expert on paper will get you nowhere if you’re hopeless in a real situation. Take that first decisive action, and then take the next one. Try, and try again. Change your approach as you go, as you notice what’s going right and what could be improved.

I know now that I might need a different driving instructor who is better suited to my learning style and needs – but that’s not a decision I could have made before I booked the first lesson, or when I was watching someone else being coached by their instructor.

Action is the only way you’ll see any results at all, positive or negative. Research is crucial, but it means nothing unless you act on it. Taking action is the only way to learn how it feels.

Why this is a great place to start

There’s a reason why I’ve chosen this to be my first post: driving is only one thing I’ve been obsessively researching over the last few weeks. ‘What Now, Nat?’ is my main object of focus. I’m a beginner at starting, designing, and running a website. I’m more experienced in writing but have never before tried it as a way of living, and it scares me more than I care to admit. The fear is precisely why I know I have to try it.

For me, this project is all about taking action, opening up to opportunities, learning about myself, saying goodbye to limiting beliefs, and trying to be more comfortable with the unpredictable nature of life. The proverbial road is wide open, and it’s time for me to press down the clutch all the way and release the handbrake.* I’ll stall a couple of times, that much is certain. Eventually, though, I’ll be well on my way.

*Please accept my sincere apologies for the awful driving clichés. The subject matter calls for them, which is a reassuring excuse, and I do always love a good pun, but that doesn’t mean I’m particularly proud of them.

Is fear of failure holding you back from taking action on a project you’ve long put off? Please share your stories in the comments or through Instagram. I’d love to hear them!

If you’re curious about reading more of my recent articles, please have a look around my blog page!

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