Fear of Failure (And The Quest for Perfection)

A Guest Post by Sean Fontaine

Today I’ve scored another post by prolific guest author Sean Fontaine. Sean is a graduate of Regis University and a Firefighter / Paramedic for The South Metro Fire Rescue Authority. He lives in Denver, Colorado with his lovely wife Oz and their two sons Jonas and Axel.

This time out, Sean tackles an issue that all of us wrestle with, to one degree or another, whether we’re willing to own up to the fact or not. That issue is the fear of public failure.

There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm”-Willa Cather

“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear”-Ambrose Redmoon

Fear of failure and the quest for perfection go together like peanut butter and jelly, Lavern and Shirley…you get the point. However, while some people see the second two pairings as absolutely wonderful, fear of failure and the quest for perfection are often destructive.

Fear of failure can be a thoroughly paralyzing phobia, likely born from our reluctance to appear less than completely competent in everything we do, even in a skill we may have just learned minutes prior to performing it in the field. By nature of the job, most EMS workers whether fire-based, third party, or private ambulance, possess some degree of type A personality traits. Given our type A affliction, this personality trait doesn’t easily allow us to accept our skills as anything less than perfect. Here comes the wrench though, as I said in an earlier guest post, perfection doesn’t exist. Perfection is the medical equivalent of the golden city of Cibola that the Spanish conquistadors fruitlessly searched for and never found.

The concept of practicing medicine gets lost for many caregivers in the back of an ambulance. We’re expected to learn quickly, treat aggressively, and move on toward the next call. Physicians eloquently speak of the practice of medicine and yet, any one of them will likely have some ghosts in their past from their practice of medicine and the times when it veered onto the wrong tracks. Why do EMS workers forget about  this “practice”?  We, too, have all erred and caused harm in a misstep, no matter how temporary it was.  No one is perfect and every call has room for improvement.

Each of the two quotes above embodies how failure can be a great educator when looked at properly, instead of as the paralyzing fear many dread. In order for fear and failure to be our educators, I think there are three things we need to embrace:

#1 Acceptance of the fact that we will be afraid sometimes and we will make mistakes. Instead of fearing this occurrence, we need to move forward from it.

#2 Realization that confidence is a measure of skill, comfort, leadership, and the willingness to continue developing these traits – including through making mistakes and learning from them.

#3 Acknowledgement that perfection means the end of learning. This needs no further explanation or validation.

I know I once said that the presence of fear wasn’t a determining factor in your success. The real determining factor was where you put the fear. I’d like to know what you think about all of that. Do you agree with Sean’s assessment of the hurdles we need to overcome before we can progress in the presence of fear?