Jerry Rice claims “fear of failure” got him to the NFL Hall of Fame. And that’s sad.

August 9, 2010

Tears of joy…or relief?

Over the years, I watched Jerry Rice catch an awful lot of touchdowns and so on Saturday night I watched him give his induction speech at the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton Ohio. Many people consider Jerry Rice to be the best who ever played the game. I wanted to hear what motivated the best of the best.

Like a short screen pass, Jerry got right to it. He said it was “fear” that got him where he is today. “Fear of failure,” to be exact. He was scared to let his father down. He was scared to let his coaches, teammates and fans down. Not the fastest guy in the NFL, Rice claimed no one could catch him because he “ran scared.” The remark got laughs but they were nervous ones. He correctly added that this fear factor flew in the face of most sports psychologists’ theories of winning strategy. So be it. Rice understood the idea of letting go one’s fears but, apparently, he just couldn’t do it. Or wouldn’t do it? Hard to tell from the speech he gave.

I worry and wonder about that. Typically, I find fear to be a defect of character, maybe the worst one there is. Yes, fear is what keeps us from bodily harm. It’s what makes us get off the subway when a bunch of gang bangers get on it. Fear also prevents us from doing stupid things, like jumping out of airplanes or swimming in shark-infested waters.

Jerry Rice & Eddie Dibartolo -NFL Hall of Fame ceremony, Canton, Ohio.

But obviously that’s not the fear Jerry Rice was talking about. His fear was more interesting and, frankly, worrisome. By his own admission his fears kept him from enjoying himself. It was like living with a gun to his head 24/7/365. Yes, he went on to become perhaps the greatest NFL player in the world but instead of exultant tears of joy, he stood before his peers, on national television, looking more relieved than anything else.

So, was it worth it? Was Jerry’s fear-driven path to greatness a good one to take? If we take him at his word, the best answer is… maybe. For how can it be anything more definitive? Fear of failure is strong coffee. I think too much and you become miserable. And chances are you make those around you miserable. People driven by fear are sad spectacles and worse. They can infect their families with it, causing loved ones to cower or eventually resort to the only reactions possible: fighting or fleeing.

The same thing happens in companies, ad agencies being no exception. I’ve known several people whose fear of failure drove their every move at work. God forbid we shared meetings. Evaluating creative in an environment of fear is awful. Risk taking goes out the window. Creative recipes quickly become mashed potatoes. The only thing worse is trying to create something when one is scared. Frankly, I’m not sure good creative, let alone great, is even possible if and when the creators are scared.

That said we are all driven to some extent by fear. As it was for Jerry Rice, it can be ambition’s coal. While I loathe the fear Jerry spoke of I cannot deny how ever-present it is –in my business, in my life, in me.

I admire Jerry Rice for his many, many honors but I also can’t help but feel sorry for him. His candid speech made me sad. Every morning and night when I say my all-to brief prayers I almost never fail to ask God to take away my fear and anxiety. Unlike Jerry Rice, I’m no good to anyone, especially me, when I’m scared.

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8 Responses to “Jerry Rice claims “fear of failure” got him to the NFL Hall of Fame. And that’s sad.”

  1. jim schmidt said

    i met rice once and asked what made him so good. he said he prepared better than anyone–even after he became a superstar. he was out on the field before games running patterns while other folks were standing around chatting. he’s the same way with golf now, his new love. practices all the time. i’m sure fear had something to do with it–he came from a small college and had to prove himself–but he also came across as a perfectionist–obsessed with being the best.

  2. Ron Lee said

    one of my favorite definitions of courage is the ability to do something while you’re afraid i.e. you don’t necessarily overcome your fears, but you manage to perfrom despite them.
    on a less serious note, one of my friends “met” Jerry Rice at SFO airport. he was getting the rental car while his wife was trying to wrangle their luggage at baggage claim and watch 2 kids. seeing she was struggling, Jerry Rice came over and helped her with the luggage.

    • SRP said

      Totally agree with your definition of courage. Rising above one’s fear of something is courageous. The fear of failure, however, usually breeds fight or flight instinct, which is far less healthy.
      Why the Jerry Rice thing is so fascinating…

  3. tjay said

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

    Steffan, I hope, as you say, Mr. Rice did not suffer through all of his, apparent to us — maybe not to him, success. I hope his fears did not chase him daily into the arms of dread. Maybe he’s just a better athlete than public speaker. Maybe what he meant to say came out all wrong. Maybe he’s nothing like TO.

    Maybe he did enjoy the wind at his back as he ran to victory. I doubt it though. Trouble with success for most people is that it’s really hard, damned lonely, not so obvious from the inside, even sometimes unnoticeable from the outside. And yes, sometimes victory comes with fear on its heels.

    I have watched Mr. Rice’s flight path with admiration. Of course, I could only see the defenders chasing. I know nothing of the man he is. I have only watched him run, and run, and run. I hope he did not, does not allow his fears to chase away his life and those who would embrace him as a man. Maybe he learned to manage that fear on the football field and to leave it there. I hope so.

  4. Taylor said

    I thought the same thing you did, in my experience fear cripples creativity. But maybe that’s why were not in the NFL.

  5. Zoilo said

    I would agree with everything everyone has said about fear. It’s crippling in most cases and poison in an agency setting.

    There is one exception though. In my case, I live in constant fear of totally sucking. It’s what makes me get up and try to do something good in this industry.

    So I guess it just depends of what you’re afraid of.

    Cheers to all.

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