Fear of Failure, Tall Poppy Syndrome, and Nebraska Football

I don’t like doing things if I don’t know I’m going to succeed. This bent keeps me from enjoying simple activities like bowling or mini golf, but it could also rob me of the opportunity to fail, learn and grow in much more important areas.

I’m aware of my fear of failure, and I’ve been working to push past it for a while. In that fight, I’m realizing a new fear: I think I might also be afraid of wanting success, of wanting more than I have, of wanting to be better. I don’t want to be “extra” or a “try hard.”

Especially when I am doing something creative, and certainly anything public, I am afraid of the criticism, “Who do you think you are?” I’m afraid people will see what I am doing and think, “Oh, she thinks she’s so great, she thinks she’s really something.” “Well she has a high opinion of herself.”


I relate this fear to tall poppy syndrome, the human tendency to cut anyone who stands above the crowd (the tall poppies) down to size. This isn’t the same thing as personal envy, from my understanding it’s more of a crowd response that causes us (as a society or group) to resent those who succeed and even to rejoice when someone “big” has a fall or failure of some sort.

When I looked up tall poppy syndrome to make sure I’m using it correctly, I learned that it is both slang originating in Australia and also rooted in the idea of a zero-sum game (there’s only a certain amount of success or attention or prestige to go around). This comes from Wikipedia (I know) and Urban Dictionary (I KNOW), but it makes sense that a scarcity mindset would lead us to either cut down those who stand out, who seem to take more than their fair share of success or attention, or to rejoice in their downfall.

I don’t believe that success is a zero sum game – my success doesn’t take from anyone else’s, and neither does anyone else’s success mean there’s less for me. In fact, the opposite is true: A rising tide lifts all boats. But it’s awfully hard to live that way.

Even as I type this, I’m wondering if it’s coming across like I think I’m a tall poppy. “Doesn’t she have a high opinion of herself.”

So the root of my fear is what you think of me. Not necessarily YOU , but the world at large. And maybe you a little bit.


You’re probably wondering what this has to do with football? I’m not going to pretend like I know (or care) much about college football, but it’s inescapable in Nebraska in the fall.

This has been a contentious and disappointing season for Husker fans. Actually, lots of seasons are contentious and disappointing for Huskers. My college football experience (Gig’em Aggies!) trained me to never think we have it in the bag, we can always throw it away at the last minute. Husker fans have been trained to always believe a W is possible, they expect it. Perhaps as a result of that, in my 12 years in Nebraska, I’ve watched 3 coaches get fired, the latest one hitting the road last week. Again: I’m not pretending like I know enough about football to criticize or comment. And I’m certainly not criticizing Husker fans or the Nebraska football program (I’d have to leave town, for real.)

But I have been listening to 813 conversations about our latest coach’s failure. I’ve sat through football games listening to strangers (and sometimes friends) calling loudly for someone to lose their job in 2007, 2014, and again this year. At the moment football is overlapping with my own thoughts and fears of failure.

I remember the hope and expectation surrounding Mike Riley’s hire 2 years ago, and I see that same hope and expectation placed on Scott Frost now. I know more than one person who cried watching Frost’s press conference announcing he’s coming to Nebraska. That’s a lot of pressure.

My husband shared an article on Facebook this week that included this quote:  “Right now I have two homes,” he (Frost) told us. “One up there with my parents, and my home here in Orlando. If I go there and fail, I won’t have any home. I won’t be able to stay, and I will have given up my place here.”

Reading this, I found myself thinking, “Dude, stay in Florida!” (sorry Husker fans!) I’m afraid for Scott Frost, because he’s guaranteed to disappoint people.

Along with the fear of failure, and the fear of trying or being seen as an overachiever, I am also (deeply) afraid of disappointing people. Just watching the hopes and expectation placed on our new coach is causing me anxiety.

I admire Scott Frost’s courage, leaving the known, relative anonymity and success, and risking coming home to coach the Huskers. I want to be willing to take that kind of risk, knowing people will be disappointed, but still willing to take chances and lead and try to succeed in the world.


I don’t want to be ruled by fear.

I reject the fear of failure. I will try things I’m not good at. I’ll allow myself the grace and room and freedom to grow. I’ll allow myself the grace and room and freedom to fail, to make mistakes, to not always be perfect, to not always get it right, to not always know exactly what to do.

I don’t want to be afraid to succeed.

I reject the lie that success or value or attention is a zero-sum game. There is enough for all of us, so I will rejoice when others succeed. I will resist rejoicing when someone fails. I will risk failure, I will allow myself to want to excel, I won’t be embarrassed by my desire to succeed, to achieve, to try.

I don’t want to live in fear of others’ opinions or expectations.

I want to refuse to be afraid of others’ opinions. I want to refuse to let my success or failure be determined by your opinions of me or what I do. I will not allow others’ expectations to weigh on me, or to be a barrier to what I am willing to try or risk. This one is the hardest for me, I think.

Fear of Failure, Tall Poppy Syndrome, and Nebraska Football

Pictures used in my images are by Ambitious Creative Co. – Rick Barrett on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

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