I ran into an old friend recently and was talking to him about an upcoming golf tournament that he was going to play in. “I’m playing really well”, he said, “I just can’t score”. “I’ve always been that guy who hits it really well but never scores well. I been playing a lot and playing better than I ever have, but can’t seem to post the scores that I should. Honestly, I just need to work on my short game. I play three times a week, and if I’d spend that time chipping and putting, I’d be a really good golfer. Instead, I just want to go out three times a week and see how far I can hit my driver.”
Now, it’s clear that “being a good golfer” is important to my friend. He wouldn’t be playing three times a week in preparation for the tournament if he didn’t want to be good. What’s more, he wouldn’t be talking to me for 20 minutes about the state of his golf game heading into the tournament if he didn’t care about being good at golf. He wants to be good.
So, my friend clearly wants to be a good golfer, says he could be a good golfer if he’d only work on his short game, but refuses to work on his short game because it’s not as fun as just going out and playing. There are several possibilities here. It could be that my friend is exactly right and just made a very honest confession. Perhaps he really has the talent to be good, but just chooses not to be because the cost of being good is more than he wants to pay.
We see this phenomenon plenty. People fail to reach their potential because they are not willing to pay the price that it takes to achieve it. There’s an old saying that “the will to win is worthless without the will to prepare.” Everyone wants to (i.e., has the will to) win. Not everyone is willing to pay the price, to put in the work, and to maintain the focus day after day after day to win. Now, when it comes to an amateur golf tournament, who cares? If you get more enjoyment playing three times a week than spending that time practicing, then go play and forget practice. But when we’re talking about more important issues: our marriages, our children, our careers, our health – that’s when the willingness (or lack thereof) to put in the work matters.
But having the discipline, focus, and work ethic to accomplish great things is not really my point today. My point centers around another possibility with my friend’s story. Perhaps my friend isn’t lazy or lacking discipline. Perhaps he hasn’t made the cost/benefit decision that he’d rather experience the immediate gratification of playing rather than the delayed gratification required by practicing. Instead, perhaps he’s scared.
Perhaps he’s scared that, even if he practiced his ass off, he still wouldn’t be any good. Perhaps he can’t bear the idea that he simply doesn’t have what it takes to be good. So, instead of facing that potential reality, he simply refuses to try (i.e., practice) and soothes himself with the story that, if he tried his best, he’d be really good.
I have no idea about the truth of the matter with my friend, as that’s not the point. The point is that the relationship between what goes on in our heads and what goes on in the outside world is tenuous and fragile. What’s behind this fragility? More often than not, it’s fear. We’re scared. Scared of failing. Scared of finding out that we don’t have enough talent, that we’re not smart enough, that we’re not good enough; that we simply don’t have what it takes to succeed.
This fear too often causes us to stand on the sidelines; to refuse to try. And when we don’t try, we create stories that make us feel better about not trying. These stories aren’t necessarily lies. At least, they’re not bold-faced, we-know-for-sure-they’re-not-true lies. Our stories are plausible. They might be true. They sound good. But far too often, we know they’re probably not true.
Some examples of the stories that we tell ourselves:
- “I didn’t go after that promotion because I don’t care about money. Life is about more than material things. And besides, the boss has never liked me, so I probably wouldn’t get a fair shake.”
- “I’d be a really good father if my ex-wife would let me. She just tells my kids that I’m awful. It’s not worth the effort since she’s filling their heads with lies about me. I don’t really have a chance, so there’s no use even trying.”
- “If my wife doesn’t like me as I am, then she can find somebody else. She hasn’t exactly aged well either. Why should I try if she’s not going to?”
- “My son would be a great player if the coach would just let him play the infield. He gets bored in the outfield and loses focus, which causes him to strike out a lot.”
- “I’d rather just hang out by myself. I’m more of a lone wolf. I don’t really need friends. Those guys don’t care about me, anyway.”
- “There’s no sense in working out. I don’t want to look like those guys at the gym. Plus I don’t really have time.”
- “My kids would rather play with their stuff or hang out with their friends, so I’m not gonna force them to spend time with me.”
- “We don’t really have the money to do a date night right now. My wife would probably just complain the entire time anyway.”
- “If coach woulda put me in in the fourth quarter, we woulda been state champions. No doubt. No doubt in my mind.”
Okay, that last one was Uncle Rico, but you get what I’m saying. Too often, instead of putting ourselves out there and seeing what we can do, we hold back because we’re scared of failing. In order to make ourselves feel better about our unwillingness to try, we create an excuse for why not trying was the right move.
So here’s our point of growth for the week: where are you creating excuses to mask your fear of failing? Where are you telling yourself a story that makes you feel better about not taking a step that would help you improve?
We all do it. There’s no shame in finding out where your fear has held you back. The shame is in being unwilling to face it. Before every game, I give the teams that I coach the following instructions: “Don’t play scared. Go out there and play fast, fly around the field, and make plays. Don’t be afraid to mess up. Be a playmaker”.
I want them loose and ready to do great things on the field or court, having no fear of failure. Fear is a killer. It rarely pushes us to new heights, almost always holding us back from achievement. Players and teams who are fearless are faster, tougher, and better. Players and teams who play “not to lose” are hesitant and indecisive, which causes them to make more mistakes and miss their potential.
Likewise, in life, those who are afraid to fail will not reach their potential. They’ll play it safe and stay with things they know they can manage. While they’ll never face the discomfort of risk, they’ll never taste the joy of high achievement. The stories we tell ourselves aid and abet this failure to achieve. Let’s stop telling them. Today.
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