When Pablo Picasso was an old man, he was sitting in a cafe, scribbling on a napkin. He didn’t know it, but a woman sitting near him was looking on in awe.
A couple of minutes later, Picasso finished his coffee, crumpled up the napkin, and was about to throw it away, when the woman stopped him and asked, “Can I have that napkin? I’ll pay you for it.”
“Sure,” said Picasso. “That will be $20,000.”
The woman was stunned. “What? It only took you two minutes to draw that.”
“No, ma’am,” Picasso replied. “It took me over 60 years to draw this.”
Picasso lived to be 91. When he passed away in 1973, he had amassed a net worth of around $500 million. His output was exceptionally prolific. The total number of artworks he produced has been estimated at 50,000, comprising a large number of paintings, drawings, sculptures, ceramics, prints, tapestries, and rugs. By honing his craft for decades, Picasso eventually reached a point where he could charge $20,000 for a two-minute napkin scribble. Or, at least, deliver a pretty damn cool one-liner about it.
Anyway, the takeaway here is that mastery takes time. Therefore, we need to be consistent in our practice. And to do that, we need to be able to make mistakes without losing momentum or giving up.
Why Failing Is So Scary
When you were a kid, you didn’t think twice about learning to walk. It didn’t matter what the results happened to be in one single attempt—you just kept on trying no matter what. You stood up, took a step, fell, hurt yourself, maybe cried for a minute or two, and then tried again.
Giving up never crossed your mind. At no point did you stop and think, “Man, I suck at this. I guess walking isn’t for me.”
Clearly, avoiding failure is something we learn later in life. We learn that it’s embarrassing to fail, and that others might hold it against us or make fun of us for it. And when that happens, we tend to stick to what we’re already good at.
We start failing at failing.
The problem with this, of course, is that it severely limits us. As soon as we buy into the idea that failing is something to be avoided, every unsuccessful attempt sends the signal that we should stop trying. And while that reasoning keeps us feeling safe, it also robs us of the opportunity to realize our highest potential.
Success demands failure. So, we need to take action despite our fear.
But how do we do that?
The Sphere of Choice
In Stoic philosophy, there is a concept known as “the sphere of choice.” This idea makes a distinction between:
- Internals: things we can control. For example, our character, values, and behavior.
- Externals: things we can’t control. For example, the past, much of the natural world, and the thoughts and behavior of other people.
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus believed that we should focus exclusively on the internals and let go of the externals. Only when we stop worrying about what’s outside our control and instead turn our attention to what’s within our control can we have peace of mind.
I’ve found the sphere of choice to be very effective for dealing with my own fears. Pretty much every time I sit down and write, a series of fearful (and quite mean) thoughts run through my head. Usually, they go something like this:
Who do you think you are? Nobody is going to want to read this. Man, your writing is dull. You don’t have anything to say, do you? Let’s throw this article in the trash and go do something else.
And since that’s the case, my thoughts belong in the category of external things. I can’t control what thoughts happen to pop into my head at any given moment, and therefore I don’t worry about them.
My writing, on the other hand, belongs in the category of internal things. It’s completely within my control—I can always decide to keep on typing. So, that’s what I do. No matter what my brain is yelling at me, I just keep on typing away until I’ve met my writing goal for the day.
Others’ opinions is another part of writing that used to be a big problem for me. If you’ve ever created something and put it out for the world to see, I’m sure you can relate. If you get 100 positive responses followed by one negative, it’s that last one that’s going to stick in your mind.
So, to get really great at what you do, you simply can’t care what other people think about it.
Remember, the thoughts and behavior of others belong in the external category, and therefore you need to treat them with a healthy dose of indifference. You’ll never get the approval of everyone, so don’t waste your time trying.
From now on, whenever you’re experiencing a fear of failure, remember the sphere of choice.
Be like a kid who’s learning to walk. Fall without concern about how it looks or what other people think. Then, do it again. And again. Measure your success not by your ability to avoid mistakes, but by your ability to show up and do the work no matter what.
Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.
Picasso was willing to create 50,000 artworks to build his legacy. What are you willing to do?
This article was originally published on Selfication.com. It has been republished here with permission.