Overcoming Fear of Failure with Expert Dr. Shelley Davidow

IAOL 3 | Overcoming Fear Of Failure

Afraid of failure? Tired of not getting it “right”? The idea of failure looms dark and large in our heads and hearts. We tend to avoid failure at any cost–even when our fear of failure keeps us stuck and unfulfilled. What if failure could be turned upside down or inside out to become a positive rather than a negative? What if failure–as part of being naturally imperfect–could be a friend and ally? Join Dr. Carla and failure expert Dr. Shelley Davidow for an enlightening exploration into the hidden lessons and joys of failing brilliantly!

Books by Dr. Carla Manly:

Date Smart: Transform Your Relationships and Love Fearlessly

Joy From Fear: Create the Life of Your Dreams by Making Fear Your Friend

Aging Joyfully: A Woman’s Guide to Optimal Health, Relationships, and Fulfillment for Her 50s and Beyond

The Joy of Imperfect Love: The Art of Creating Healthy, Securely Attached Relationships

Books by Dr. Shelley Davidow:

Fail Brilliantly: Exploding the Myths of Failure and Success

Writing the Radical Memoir: A Theoretical and Craft-based Approach


Shadow Sisters

Whisperings in the Blood: A Memoir

Raising Stress-Proof Kids: Parenting Today’s Children for Tomorrow’s World

The Eye of the Moon

Connect with Dr. Carla Manly:

Website: https://www.drcarlamanly.com

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/drcarlamanly

Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/drcarlamanly

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/drcarlamanly

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/carla-marie-manly-8682362b

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/@dr.carlamariemanly8543

TikTok: https://www.tiktok.com/@dr_carla_manly

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Listen to the podcast here

Overcoming Fear of Failure with Expert Dr. Shelley Davidow

Discovering the Hidden Gifts within the “Failures” and Low Spots of Life

The idea of failure looms dark and large in our heads and our hearts. Most of us avoid failure at any cost, even when our fear of failure keeps us stuck and unfulfilled. What if failure could be turned upside down or inside out to become a positive rather than a negative? What if failure, as part of being naturally imperfect, could become a friend and a real ally?

In this episode, we will focus on this reader’s real-life question, “I failed miserably at several relationships. Now, I have lost my savings and more in a failed business adventure. I need to get my head on straight because I’m procrastinating about getting back into life. Do you have any tips that might get me on my way?” With that question as the focus of the episode, this is the show.

IAOL 11 | Overcoming Fear Of Failure

I am thrilled to introduce a fabulous guest, Dr. Shelley Davidow. She is a prolific author, a nature lover, and a university professor. One of her specialties in life is helping us learn how to fail brilliantly. Welcome to the show, Dr. Shelley. I’m so glad you have been able to make time for us the whole way from Australia.

Thank you so much. It’s lovely to be here with you.

It’s a joy. Before we get going, please tell our readers a little bit about what makes you, you.

AFRAID OF FAILURE? TIRED OF NOT GETTING IT RIGHT? DISCOVER HOW TO TURN FAILURE UPSIDE DOWN! Join Dr. Carla and Dr. Shelley Davidow for an enlightening exploration into the hidden lessons and joys of failing brilliantly! Share on X

What makes me, me is coming from South Africa originally. I feel like I grew up on a continent that was very volatile in many ways and beautiful. I had to leave quite young. I feel like the idea of running away has defined me because I feel like I have done five continents with the idea of jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

When you run away from home, you are not necessarily looking at where you are going. You are focusing on where you are running from. I have learned that that’s perhaps rather a difficult thing because maybe you need to change that and look more toward where you are going rather than where you are coming from. My life has been a runaway, and that makes me, me. That’s one of the things that makes me, me.

That’s so beautiful and poignant. That first runaway from South Africa, how old were you?

I was 22 when I left.

That’s early. What made you run, if you don’t mind me asking?

Much has not changed, but at the time, there was so much indiscriminate violence everywhere. You felt in that. You breathed it in. Some people can cope with it and live with it. I couldn’t. I vowed that as soon as I was able and I had enough money in my bank account, I would leave, so I did. Also, the economy was failing. It was a very difficult situation to be in. It has taken me three decades to reach square one. That idea of running away teaches you a lot about life.

On the way, running, I had jobs that were jobs of necessity, not necessarily always of choice. Eventually, what was necessary became what I chose. Life is imperfect. If you wrote the perfect script, it might be quite boring. I have learned to welcome the unexpected and turn it into something that I choose to handle in a specific way. That was my lesson from the beautiful universe, which kept shoving it in my face.

IAOL 3 | Overcoming Fear Of Failure

From what you were saying, it took 30 years for you to get that lesson.

It did. We rail against anything unpleasant or, “Why did I spend three years in the desert with a tiny baby in the Middle East? Why did I spend another three years with no work visa in a cold climate in Oregon with a two-year-old? Why did I do these things?” I railed against those at the time. Much later on, as I was writing, I started to see these are the gifts. These are the things that are most precious to me because they had lessons in patience, transformation, and evolution of self in them that I could never have received had my life been the cushy, beautiful, and white pillow pathway that I imagined for myself.

I like the white pillow pathway. I have to say, taking three decades to learn a lesson is a pretty darn good learning curve because there are so many people, and I’m sure myself included in some ways, that say, “I didn’t get that lesson even though it was in my face for many decades.” It’s almost like a snowball effect, isn’t it? Sometimes, the universe is relentless. It makes the lesson bigger until it is right in the front door, and you can’t get out the front door because that snowball got so big. You have to push it. You have to get through it.

What a journey. You are an expert in failure. When we turn and look at this episode’s question from the person who has failed in relationships and failed with a business venture, they feel very hopeless, it sounds, confused, and are procrastinating. I’m sure for most of us, that resonates with us in some way because failure isn’t easy, especially when we look at it as being a dark, negative, and horrific thing. It hurts.

You said we could turn this question inside out or maybe sideways. I want to do that. The book that I wrote, Fail Brilliantly, with my partner, Paul Williams, was based on exactly this idea that we look at our lives in terms of success and failure. I want to say that failure, when I researched it as a personal thing that happens to you where you call yourself a failure, was only a concept after the 1800s. Before that, there was no idea of personal failure. Failure meant not arriving at your destination or not getting what you had aimed to get to by a particular time. This was my life lesson because I have failed at all these things. I have failed at continents. I have failed at owning houses. I have had nothing.

What if we looked at failure as simply an unexpected outcome that has no judgment in it? It’s not what we wanted, what we anticipated, and what we planned for. That sounds pretty much like life. Life is like that. You have no freedom in picking that outcome. If it’s an unexpected outcome, then the freedom that is given to us is how do we deal with that? What is the story that we tell ourselves about that failure? It hurts.

I have divided failure into three segments. The first failure is a real failure. These are first-degree failures. That’s when planes don’t arrive at their destinations, or a ship goes down, and you will never get those people. That, to me, is real that you can’t come back from. Second-degree failures are failures that you head in one direction but end up going in another. You set out to get to the moon, and you don’t get there, but maybe you learn something along the way, or you come back alive. It’s not a failure. It’s a learning curve.

The third failure, which is the third-degree failure, is the one that we decide is failure. We draw a line and say, “This is success, and I’m trying to get there,” or, “A pass mark is 40% or 80%.” The minute we draw that line, if we fall short of it, we say, “We failed,” or, “You failed the exam.” Those are parameters that we have created for ourselves.

Me, as an author, I could say, “What does success look like?” At first, it was, “I want to get a book published.” Since I have got so many books out, it changes. The goalposts are always shifting. That’s the case, too. With every venture that fails or where you don’t reach the destination, even if you do get to that destination, the goalposts will change.

I feel like our choice is then what we make of this journey and what story we want to tell ourselves because we write the script. If I say, “This always happens to me. I’m a failure. I can never make it. I always make bad decisions,” then that becomes my identity. I can say, “I’m a resilient, enterprising hero on a quest. I’m going to get up and fight dragons. I’m going to look under the bed, and I’m going to check that monster in the eye. I’m going to be like, ‘Come out and have breakfast with me. Let’s talk about things. Maybe you can stop scaring me. Maybe we can sing a song together. Maybe you become my partner instead of the scary things.’”

As a story maker, I’m aware of the power of the narratives that we tell ourselves. I would say to that question about failure, what if we change the story? It’s not a failure. It’s an unexpected, unwanted outcome, but how do we turn this into a hero’s journey? I don’t know how many feats Odysseus had to go through. It was the twelve labors of Hercules. How many victories are you going to want to have? The victories are personal ones. It’s like, “How do I not fall apart at this particular juncture?” That’s my challenge. You have control over that.

It gives you a sideways look at that question, which I feel society likes to say success or failure. You can learn from your mistakes, but they are still mistakes. What if they are not? What if they are adventures and anything can happen? Maybe you will be a wiser person at the end of this. You will have something to say to someone else that will be helpful. The positives are immense and endless from what can come of that story.

What a beautiful way to break it down to shift it to, “This is an unexpected place that I arrived. I wanted to go from here to there in my relationship, my business adventure, or whatever it was, but I arrived somewhere else.” I love that piece. I also love the piece where there are degrees. The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd-degree failures. The only one that’s truly horrific is the first one because we are talking loss of something very calamitous. The other piece that I love that you brought in is the power of our narratives. You are a consummate storyteller. You have 48 books so far. Are you losing count?

I’m losing count. I have a new book coming out in 2024 with HarperCollins, and it’s a novel. That will be 49. I have another book that I’m writing with a colleague, which is about parenting. That one is also coming out in 2024. I feel like it’s probably going to be 50. Maybe I’m at 48. I don’t know.

We will give it a nice round of 50. I’m going to turn this to you for a second. Fifty books, that’s huge. Have any of them felt like failures to you?

I hate to say this, but every single one of them feels, to some degree, like a failure. It doesn’t do what I want it to do, it doesn’t have the impact, or it doesn’t make zillions of dollars. At every juncture, there’s a sense of failure to arrive at the destination that I set for myself when I was first writing. It was like, “By the time I’m this age, I’m going to be living off my writing.” I’m still not, so I’m a complete failure in terms of that. If I turn that around, then I can say, “What an unbelievable journey and gift this is.”

Would I do this even if books were not published? Even if I never made a single dime or quarter from another book, would I still write and publish? The answer is yes, I would. For me, it’s not about success and failure deeply. It’s about the process of writing, which is the process of being in the world. I’m a total failure. There are one-hit wonders. There are people who I teach writing who self-publish online and live off it. They are not even brilliant writers. They know how to tell a story, know how to market themselves, and off they go. I’m like, “How do you do that? You are amazing. Can you teach me something?” I probably have to admit that I feel like a classic failure when it comes to the goal that I set for myself as a writer.

It's not about success or failure deeply. It's actually about the process of being in the world. Share on X

Yet, here I am, sitting on the opposite side thinking, “What a success she is.” It’s 50 books, whether they make a penny or $1 million. Anyone who loves to write knows how hard it is to go through that writing process. No matter how much you enjoy it, it’s still a huge labor of love. You have birthed books 50 times. I’m looking at you with absolute awe.

Isn’t it interesting how we can turn this sideways and upside down to see that in a perfect world, you would have 50 books that would all be bestsellers and would be doing whatever you do? You’d probably be sitting in a chair, continuing to write, and enjoying nature because that’s who you are. We can see how it would be so easy for someone who writes 1 or 2 books to say, “I’m a failure. Now, I’m giving it up. I set my sights on being a New York Times bestselling author straight out of the gate. Therefore, I am a failure.” I would see the same way I’m seeing you as an absolute success. Do what gives you joy and, as much as you would like, the financial remuneration you are getting. Your heart is giving back to you in huge ways.

In the end, a lot of our sense of failure comes from chasing material success. We have to survive. There’s that. There’s a baseline. It’s Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We must first eat and feed our families, have a roof over our heads, and all of that. When you are in the existential part of aiming for success, then that is real. That’s evolutionary. We must survive. Beyond that, it is like, “Do I need a new car? Do I need a bigger house? Do I need all of these things?” That would be lovely, but at that point, it becomes the chasing of material goods. You don’t take any of that with you.

I have had a personal family loss. I lost someone very dear to me. It highlighted what was precious in life and what is it that we value. It comes down to the people that we love and the moments of connection that we have with those people. That, to me, is everything. It’s what we have done. It is how we have been with each other. It’s the conversations we have had. It’s the other knows that they have been loved. That is what is the most precious. That completely lands in terms of how we feel, show, and connect to others. It always takes something a little bit dramatic to highlight what’s precious, even in our own lives.

It was when I faced illness and struggle that I treasured life and being well. When I was a teenager, I would complain endlessly that my legs were fat and had all these complexes. As I grew older, I would see people who had much bigger struggles than that. It is like, “Maybe I need to rethink this complaint because it’s completely ridiculous now.” The same things in perspective. Not to undermine our struggles but there are degrees of struggle, and this is not right up there on the list. You can manage this. You need to manage this.

Thank you so much. First off, I’m so sorry for your loss. Loss, although a part of life, is something that can tear our hearts apart. My thoughts are with you. I am with you. I’m sorry. When you look at what you are illuminating here, how sometimes loss brings up a chance for a reset to say, “I might be feeling like a failure here, but do I have love in my life? Maybe I don’t have the house of my dreams or the car of my dreams, but do I have love in my life?”

Maybe some people are saying, “I don’t have love in my life.” That also is a pause. We can pause right there, do a reset, and say, “How can I get love in my life?” How can I succeed at giving love and at receiving love?” I know we are on a tangent here, but sometimes, that means good self-care, good self-love, volunteering, being with nature, and taking it back to the basics again.

With Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we sometimes forget that we do need all of those things at the basic, like food, clothing, and shelter. We go up the pyramid, and at the very top is self-actualization. It is that part of realizing who the self is. We can make our journey that simple. For the reader who wrote in saying, “What do I do? I failed at relationships, and now I failed at this business venture,” maybe it’s time for a reset.

What do you think is a chance for this reader to look and say, “Did I learn something from each relationship?” If we learn from relationships, then they are not failures. Maybe the relationship imploded or exploded, but if we can take something away from it, it’s not a failure. It was an experiment that went a little wonky with a business venture. It is horrible to use up all your savings and more. What would you say about that part of the journey for someone who’s at a material place where the bottom level of the hierarchy of needs is, “Maybe I don’t have enough now for food, clothing, and shelter.”

That is a real struggle, and I have been in that position. The survival kicks in, and it’s like, “What can I do immediately to survive? What do I need to do?” The Philosophical part is if there was a gift in this. I’m not saying there is because sometimes, there isn’t, or there isn’t for a long time. My question to myself would be, “If there was a gift in this, what would it be? What could it be? What could I take out of this whole failed experiment that I can carry with me as something in my toolkit that will serve me in the future?”

I also have a failed business. During COVID, I got a whole tea business going. I had an online Shopify site. I designed these wonderful packages and had all these organic teas. I realized I’m terrible at marketing and also, I don’t have the stomach to go the distance. I can’t lose for five years, which some people can. What I learned from that is I needed to pull back.

I took everything down. I have a huge box of wonderful organic tea that I am giving away for presents. Everyone will get tea for the next 100 years. I realized that I’m the person who needs a regular income, and I’m not going to be a millionaire from that. I need to work in my position. Keep my day job is what I’m saying. I don’t know individual circumstances, but one has to sustain oneself.

That morning that you wake up after you have decided this business is closing, it is like, “What is the next adventure that is possibly going to put food on the table and make this survivable?” I have done it. I have left continents for other continents and had no money. I worked in cafes and did whatever it took. I cleaned apartments and cleaned toilets.

I did whatever it took, so I can speak from experience and say I believe that as long as we are alive and we have our health, we can put something in place to survive. I hope that’s true for everyone. I know it’s not always true. There’s no single answer to every single question. I believe in humanity. I believe in our resilience. I believe in that reader. If that reader had the capacity to start a business and had that creative vision and went for it, that is the gift. That’s the superpower. There’s vision, creativity, and courage. Harness those.

As long as we're alive and have our health, we can put something in place to survive. Share on X

I have to pause to say thank you for sharing such personal experiences that allow us to learn that we don’t need to be embarrassed about failures. They are a fact of life, and we need to pull from them. You are being so courageous. Here, you are the expert. You are saying, “I have done this. I have had to do that. I failed here. I have had to clean toilets and all of these things.” Yet, here you are, bright, shining, and just an incredibly exquisite human being and saying, “I picked myself up. I learned the lesson, and I did the next thing.”

I don’t know how low this reader feels. It sounds very like, “I’m procrastinating. I’m not wanting to get back in the world.” When life feels big, dark, awful, and like, “I’m so embarrassed. I have so many failures,” how can we take that next step? How do we awaken our superpower and say, “You can do this, be that little engine that could?”

The great healer is nature. The first step is to go and find a beautiful spot and sit in that beautiful spot. For me, it’s by a lake, on the beach, or under a tree. It could even be in a corner of your house where you can see out of a window. Be as close to nature as possible because there’s a resonance between us and living things.

I know people laugh at tree huggers, but we know enough to know that nature is energy. It’s full of the energy of growth. We are part of nature. It’s not humans and nature. It’s us, human nature. We are nature. I would sit in a place that is full of nature. I would breathe slowly and deeply, connect with the moment, and put all thoughts of, “What do I do next? What do I think? How do I feel?” Put that all outside and focus awareness on breathing. Do it for two minutes. Start with two minutes each day in that position with nothing.

For me, strength comes. It is given. You don’t have to go and grab it. You don’t have to get it, find it, or pull yourself out when you have no strength. That gets given to you. It’s an awareness of presence, and then something comes. A bird lands next to you, and you feel a connection with that living thing. It could be a bird flying past. In my case, maybe a giant lizard walks across your path, and you think, “That is something exquisite. I haven’t ever seen something like that so close up. What a miracle.”

Slowly, the feeling of being alive and part of this ongoing process becomes part of our awareness. Without even wanting to feel better or feel joy, I feel that comes. For me, it’s very simple. Go into nature and breathe. Start with 2 minutes and extend it to 5. You don’t have to meditate or make any big plans. Be present and watch what happens. Watch where strength comes.

I have a question. You and I are blessed. We have nature accessible within walking distance. What about someone who lives in the middle of a big city where nature seems far too remote to access maybe once a month? That would be extremely difficult, much less trying to do it every day. What would you say?

Close your eyes and sit anywhere you want. Put on some beautiful music or even a visual on YouTube of trees or the ocean. Get sound and sight involved. If you can’t have smell and touch, your senses can still be stimulated by sound and sight. In that space, travel in your head to where that place feels nourishing. Put all the thoughts out of your mind and breathe in slowly and deeply. Focus on that presence, the memory of the beautiful place, and the anticipation of the beautiful place. Make a plan to get there when possible and if possible. In the meantime, create that.

Our bodies respond every moment to our thoughts. Our physiology, the fight or flight system, can be transformed. Our nervous system can be impacted by thinking relaxed thoughts. It’s not a fantasy. It’s not some woo-woo idea out there that by breathing in deeply and looking at nature or listening to beautiful music while thinking about a beautiful place, you can calm your entire nervous system. I would do two minutes of that in the morning, in the evening, or both. Focus on yourself as a generative and amazing miracle that will do amazing things that you can’t even anticipate at this moment.

Our bodies respond every moment to our thoughts. Our physiology—our fight-or-flight system—can be totally transformed, and our nervous system can be impacted by thinking relaxed thoughts. Share on X

Thank you for bringing it down to such an accessible level. I appreciate it because sometimes the idea of getting to nature seems very difficult. For our readers, don’t worry. You can envision. One of my favorite places, when I’m in the middle of a building, is to envision being in a field of lavender. I often carry lavender oil with me. It takes one whiff and closed eyes, and there I am in this gorgeous field of lavender that I have created.

You are so right. With that breathing parasympathetic, the nervous system comes on board. The heart rate decreases. The fight or flight response decreases. All of that is because our thoughts are anxious thoughts. When we are telling ourselves we are no good, and we are failures, we are causing ourselves to go into fight or flight mode because we don’t want to fail. The tiger that’s chasing us is our mind.

From what you are saying, by dipping into this quiet space of nature, specifically of nature of which we are a deep part, the parasympathetic nervous system is coming on board, and there is a reduction in stress neurochemicals. There we are, halting our fight or flight response and going into a place where our unconscious brain can come up and maybe be a little more forgiving, a little playful, and a little more loving if we continue to do this day after day. Did I get you right?

Yes. We create new pathways. Our brains love what is familiar even if it’s not good for us. If we are always being triggered and we are always rushing off into the panic, that’s what we will do as a baseline response. The more we spend time allowing the parasympathetic nervous system to kick into gear, the more that becomes the new baseline. You are right.

When you do that 2 minutes in the morning and 2 minutes in the evening, and you have your lavender oil and your lavender field, you are changing the way that your body responds to the situation. You are making a new neural pathway and a new way of responding until that becomes the new baseline. I have used this method myself through all kinds of stress. I can’t say that I’m a Buddhist monk, but I have learned to manage my stresses and panics better. I do have a shifted baseline. It is not an entirely new one, but a shifted one.

What you are saying is you create this new baseline where there’s more resilience, less reactivity, and less of the right-wrong type of thinking of, “If I didn’t do this, then I am a complete failure.” We have more mental space and emotional space so that when we do face challenges, we don’t become immobilized and stuck in fear. We might feel horribly for a while, but we can learn the lessons, pick things up, and then do the next wisest step.

IAOL 3 | Overcoming Fear Of Failure

More love, less fear. That’s what we want for each other and ourselves.

That is a perfect note for us to end on. Thank you so much. Where can our audience find you?

It can be found on my website, www.ShelleyDavidow.com. That’s probably the best place to find me. I’m the only Shelley Davidow that I know of in the world, so I don’t think you could go too wrong. That’s the best place. My books are all on my website. Fail Brilliantly, which has a lot of what we talked about in it is there. Any new work or any workshops that are coming up will also be on the website

As of 2024, you will be able to pick from 50 books. I’m stunned. I knew you were prolific, but I had no idea it had gotten up to 50. I’m so impressed. You are the epitome of if one must fail, let’s fail brilliantly like you. I would love to share one lovely ending piece. It is a wrap-up quote that is a gift from you to all of us. “Life is not a static-walled city with a single entrance.” That’s so beautiful and something that we can all hold close to our hearts. There are many entrances, and sometimes, we don’t see them at the time. Thanks again for your time. I’m most grateful.

Thank you so much for having me on your show. It’s been such a joy.

Thank you.

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About Dr. Shelley Davidow

IAOL 3 | Overcoming Fear Of FailureDr. Shelley Davidow is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at the University of the Sunshine Coast. She’s a facilitator in Restorative Practice and runs national workshops in building social and emotional health. She is a founding member of Write on the Coast and runs national and international workshops in creative writing.

Dr. Davidow is originally from South Africa but has spent two decades living and working all over the world. She has lived in England, Qatar, the USA and is now based on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. “I wasn’t exactly aspiring to be such a globe-trotter, in fact, I coveted stability, but living in diverse places has given me a far-ranging experience of humanity which is never a bad thing for a writer,” she says. “But Australia is my fifth and final continent.”

The author of 50 books, she writes across genres. Her latest works include Writing the Radical Memoir, the memoirs Runaways with Shaimaa Khalil, Shadow Sisters, Whisperings in the Blood , the highly acclaimed parenting book Raising Stress-Proof Kids, as well as the poetic immigrant memoir The Eye of the Moon.