Cyle 3.4 Fie on Fear! Success & Failure: Two Sides of a Coin

by Janet Grace Riehl with Stephanie Farrow


Toss a coin. Success or failure? Which side do you want the coin to land on? Most of us would cross our fingers, arms, legs, or even our eyes in the hope that the coin lands on success. We’ve learned to think in terms of polar opposites: black/white, funny/serious, good/bad, Yet success and failure trot together side-by-side, not as a tag team with one in front and the other behind.

Fear of failure and fear of success also move together. If we fear failure or success, we pit one part of our psyche against another, sabotaging our creative expression. By examining and learning to work with the fears in our creative lives, we can move forward more smoothly. We need to practice treating them as friendly neighbors rather than enemies.

American mainstream culture puts a premium on success. It conditions us feel that if we fail–if we don’t measure up to what society defines as success–it means that we’re unworthy. In America success means bigness: “Big profits.” “I hit it big.” “She’s HUGE (as in a phenomenon)” Buying into this belief is a surefire road to creative sabotage.

What are your personal fears about failing? Take time in a quiet place to reflect on this. Make notes on what you discover about your beliefs. You don’t have to share them, so be honest with yourself.

Now take a look at your fears of success. Do you feel overwhelmed by the idea of being successful beyond your wildest dreams? Does the thought evoke fear that you’ll be unmasked as an imposter? Again, reflect on this question and take notes on what emerges.

Compare your lists of failure and success. You might find that they aren’t as different as you thought they would be. So toss your imaginary coin again and visualize it landing on its edge. No finger-crossing necessary!

In our next post (3.5) in our Fie on Fear! cycle we’ll discuss finding new ways to relate to our fears. We’ll then close this cycle in our third post by helping you define your own success. Why not make success safe, comfortable, attainable?


In this “Creative Catalyst” column for the SCN blog, we present each theme cycles in three posts: first, a keynote, followed by two posts to develop the theme. Our first cycle defined working creativity and regular practice. The second 3-part series looked into creative cycles. Our third cycle set the groundwork for working productively with fear. Our fourth cycle delves more deeply into our creative fears. See the Creative Catalyst archive at:

Pose questions about practical creativity; give ideas for future cycle themes; and join in the dialog in the comment section below. If you’d like to see previous articles in this series, go to

1) Buy our new audio book “Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry and Music” at

2) Catch-up on Janet’s internet audio book tour at






6 responses to “Cyle 3.4 Fie on Fear! Success & Failure: Two Sides of a Coin

  1. I love this article on fear. I am not sure my fear is failure or success, but rather fear of facing the truth; Fear of how I might react to truth and honesty about myself in a memoir that could trigger more truths creating more fears about me and what else I might learn. Fear of being found out that I had a life that shamed me, and fear of anger. There is fear that I am bad and I will have to admit it and then what? Fear of abandonment if people know the truth that I need to write about. Well I did write about it. But I have tremendous fear that no one will like me after reading my book. Now that could be fear of failure. And the final fear is fear of being mentally ill or crazy. So there are many fears that your article brought up and I have discussed them all in therapy but they persist anyway. Yes, it appears after rethinking more about the article that I have mostly fears of failure in one way or the other. So you are right.

  2. Let’s see, Judy…let’s list them out. This is a wonderful comment…a post in itself!
    –fear of facing the truth
    –…your own response…amplifying more fears
    –fear of shame and anger..that you are bad and have to admit it [Will you be punished, then?]
    –fear of abandonment
    –fear that no one will like you.
    –a type of fear of failure…or?
    –Fear of being/being thought mentally ill or crazy.
    This is a rich list you have brought together to think about and go deeper to question all our fears.
    I’ve just gone back to working on my memoir “Finding My African Heart: A Village of Stories.” I recognize many of your fears. You are not alone!
    This is helpful as we develop our themes and cycles.
    What is the working title for your memoir?

  3. The title of my book is, “As If It Didn’t Happen: A story of abuse, multiple personalities and hope.” That is just in case anyone wants to buy it soon. It is by Maggie Claire (She is me) You will be able to get it through
    Thanks a lot for your letter to me. That was nice.

  4. Dear Judy,
    That’s a lot to take on. No wonder you have some fears! Anyone would.
    Make everything safe for you at every step along the way. Know that it has been done before and you can do it again.
    Be well.
    Janet Riehl

  5. This is such a useful exercise — and the first thing my writing teacher had us do in this summer’s class. My fears mostly center around people not liking what I’ve written, or being mad about it or hurt by it.
    I was writing a memoir, and had stopped because of the latter fear. I’ve come to the conclusion that I can get my point across just as well, or better, through a novel, so that’s what I’m working on now. And it’s a lot more fun, and coming more easily, so I take that as a sign that I made the right decision.

  6. Heidi, ]
    Good point. There is an increasing blurring between memoir-creative nonfiction-fiction.
    It’s excellent that you can be clear which form you want to use, understand what your reasons are, and have the skill to execute either.
    Good luck on your project and let us know how it comes along.
    Janet Riehl

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