Jerry Rice claims “fear of failure” got him to the NFL Hall of Fame. And that’s sad.
August 9, 2010
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.
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.