I never thought a Marvel movie would teach me something about early retirement but that’s exactly what happened the other day when I watched Dr. Strange (shout out to my pal and Marvel fanboy Alan Donegan who showed it to me).
For those of you who haven’t seen the movie, the gist of it is Dr. Strange, a world-renowned brain surgeon and with an ego as big as his ridiculous goatee, gets into a car accident, loses the use of his hands, and his identity as a result. In a request to heal his hands, he heads to Tibet to convince “The Ancient One” to heal him. But instead, he inadvertently finds a purpose bigger than himself (and his hulk-sized ego).
The scene that really stuck with me was the one where “The Ancient One” speaks to him and says:
“You always excelled. Not because you crave success but because of your fear of failure.”
Dr Strange: “it’s what made me a great doctor.”
The Ancient one: “it’s precisely what kept you from greatness.”
And later on, the great irony of the story is that Dr. Strange has to learn to fail over and over again to fulfill his destiny of saving the world.
This scene really spoke to me because at that moment I realized that I related to Dr. Strange. Up until I became financially independent and retired from my 9 to 5 job, all my successes were fear-driven. I only succeeded because I was terrified of failing.
Fear is Useful
I don’t completely agree with “The Ancient One” that fear holds you back. Fear is an instinct we developed over millions of years to keep us safe from predators. Without fear we wouldn’t be afraid of touching strove elements, running into the busy street, or falling off balconies. Some amount of fear is healthy for driving us to accomplish things, to mitigate risk, and simply just to keep us alive.
It was fear that drove me become financially independent, so I’d never have to experience poverty again. It was fear that drove me to get an engineering degree so I wouldn’t have to rely on my parents, who had the financial burden of supporting their parents and family members back home in China.
Fear helped me become who I am today.
But the problem with fear is that too much of it can hold you back. And like “The Ancient One” said, “it’s precisely what keeps you from greatness”
When Fear is No Longer Useful
It was because of my hyperactive amygdala, and all that cortisol coursing through my veins that I nearly gave up on early retiring. I thought I’d be tap dancing out of the building when I gave my notice to at a job I hated, but instead I had a mini-panic attack. I was terrified of failing and never being able to work again. Now, looking back, it seems ludicrous because few things in life are that black and white. But with fear clouding my head, all I could think about was “I’m either an engineer” or “I’m a nobody”. The idea that I could not only become an author, but be successful enough to earn a living wage, was beyond my wildest dreams. This is what happens when fear becomes too strong and takes over.
Had I given in to that fear, I never would’ve improved my health, travelled to 40+ countries in the past 7 years, written a best-selling book, found my FI tribe, and healed intergenerational traumas that have been plaguing my family for the past 20 years.
I would’ve missed out on so much if I’d let my fear take over my life.
When Fear Holds You Back
One of the most frequent reactions from readers regarding early retirement is: “I’m afraid of quitting my job because I don’t know what to do with my life afterwards.”
I’m not talking about readers who love their jobs and choose to continue working after they reach Financial Independence. I’m referring to readers who don’t like their jobs but can’t fathom what they would do without it. So, they hang on to it, like a bad marriage.
And instead of taking the time to work towards something they’re passionate about, they waste that time being afraid and continue to work a job they don’t love just because they’re afraid of failing. If you don’t try, you don’t fail right?
How I Stopped Fearing Failure
WRONG. You’re failing by default. Had I not taken the risk of early retiring, I would’ve failed at life by missing out on all these amazing experiences and friendships.
I now realize that failure is not a foe, but a friend.
After all, we can learn way more from our failures than our successes. I know that sounds way too much like a bumper sticker but it’s true.
I also know it’s easier said than done, given my upbringing. My parents grew up in a time of extreme turmoil, where they experienced famine, civil war, and being forced to work in a labor camp for 10 years. To them, failure meant death. If you fail to forage for food, your entire family starves. If you fail to convince the red guards that you’re not an anti-revolutionary, you get sent to “re-education camps” or executed.
I’m fortunate enough to never have had to experience that level of trauma. I have the option to learn from failures rather than avoid them, because for me, failure isn’t life or death.
What has helped me tremendously, in getting over this misguided in grained fear of failure, is the “failure log table” described in the book “Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life” by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans.
Since I’m not a fan of “woo woo” books and prefer pragmatic advice, this book about lifestyle design, written by a Standford University engineer and a designer, speaks to me.
The single piece of advice that stuck out to me the most is how the authors advocate for “failure immunity”. By writing down your failures, categorizing them, and converting them to growth, over time, you can completely reframe your thinking.
Here’s what their “Failure Log” looks like:
Here’s how it works:
You describe your mistakes in the “failure” column. Then you classify it as “screwup”, “weakness” or “growth opportunity”.
Screwups are simple mistakes that don’t need to learn anything from. You normally get it right, you just glitched this time, so just acknowledge it and move on.
Weakness are ingrained habits. Instead of beating yourself up over it or expecting never to make the same mistake again, simply chalk it up to “this is just a weakness of mine, I will expect it to happen again, and I need to put systems in place to mitigate it.”
Growth opportunity is a mistake that doesn’t have to happen again the next time if you find the fix and learn from it. Usually this happens when it’s the first time you’re doing something and you simply don’t know what you don’t know. Don’t beat yourself up, learn from it, and move on.
And finally, the insight section is where you put your insights on how you can learn from these failures.
So for example:
|Forgot to pack sunscreen||X||Oops. Should’ve checked my packing list more carefully. Will buy sunscreen abroad and check packing list carefully next time.|
|Paid more taxes than I need to because I didn’t tax optimize my portfolio||X||I don’t like math and I’m not good with spreadsheets, so I will outsource this to a fee-based financial advisor or use an online calculator.|
|Missed the ferry going to Finland from Estonia||X||Didn’t realize that for ferry travel in Europe, you need to arrive at least 30 mins early, unlike buses where you can just arrive 10 mins early. Will put reminder in calendar 1 hour ahead of time in the future to account for this.|
Using this system, you can analyze your mistakes and use them to help you rather than let them crush you and never try again because you’re afraid to fail.
What I especially love about this system is the “weakness” section. I used to get beat up by my mom for mistakes that I made as a child. At the time I just chalked this up to good old fashioned authoritarian Chinese child rearing. But I’ve since realized that punishing someone for their weakness or habits doesn’t help. It just causes them to have anxiety, low self-confidence and become terrified of trying new things, to avoid making mistakes.
Using this system to analyze my mistakes and weaknesses/bad habits has made me forgive myself and see failure as a learning opportunity.
How You can Stop Fearing Failure
If you relate to Dr. Strange’s method of achieving success by fearing failure, you can reframe your mind with Burnett and Evans’ “Failure Immunity” technique. Once you become FI, you no longer need to be afraid because financially you have an armour to protect you.
At this point, you can use the Failure log to analyze you mistakes so they can help you learn rather than make you afraid of trying new things.
What are some things you are afraid of doing because of a fear of failure? Can you use the Failure Log System from the “Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life” book to help you analyze your mistakes so you can learn from them instead?
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