I think the hardest part of being an activist is the constant fear of failure that you experience. Especially when you are the one in charge, there can be a constant fear that the dreams and programs that you are proposing or organizing will not work out. There are so many things that could potentially go wrong. You might worry that you won’t get funding. That no one will care. That you won’t make a difference.
When you have the energy and ideas to do something that you believe is important and yet you can’t get the money or the interest or the political traction to ensure that the change or the event happens – this is very frustrating. Sometimes just the fear of not having the money, the interests or political traction is enough to cause you to rethink the whole project. What happens if you decide to organize an event and it fails. What is failure? It all depends on what your goals are and if your goals are quite ambitious… what you define as failure might be someone else’s wild success.
When the cause means so much to you, when your activist identity and self are so integrally wrapped up in the activist work that you are doing, then how frightening and disabling does fear of failure become? How do we push on in the face of fear and obstacles?
Right now, I am working on a number of projects for The Antigone Foundation. One example is the cross-Canada Dreams for Women Leadership Tour. The Cross-Canada Dreams for Women Leadership tour will involve the Antigone Foundation visiting at least 5 cities across Canada where we will run one day long Leadership Boot Camps with the help of local leaders, organizations, and volunteers. We will be providing leadership training to girls aged 10-30. The purpose is to get more young women involved in leadership, politics, activism, and feminism.
As I prepare to start coordinating the Dreams for Women Leadership Tour, I am afraid. I fear that no one will want to sponsor us. I fear that we will not be able to get women to participate. I fear that we will not be able to put the tour on.
I fear all these things. But I also know that this tour will change the worlds of many young women. I hope that it will inspire people. I hope that it will lead to action and achievement and change. This knowledge and these hopes are what keeps me pressing on through the fears and putting myself and my organization out there.
Have Antigone and I failed at a project in the past? According to our expectations (which are always to take over the world), yes. But each ‘failure’ has been incredibly useful and educational. Sometimes the few people who have come out to an event have been instrumental or we have changed the mind or educated one person. To me, that is success. But an event turning out as planned is also a great success and what I always work towards.
Working towards it can be hard but it is also a mental game which takes a lot of energy. The excitement and hope for the event must be stronger than the fear of what you will lose if you fail. It takes a lot of energy because you (as an activist) must try to manifest the dream and the vision that you have for the event. And by manifesting a big dream and vision you are making yourself vulnerable. You are putting out into the dirty, mean world, an ideal and a cherished hope and dream. The world is not easy on these hopes and dreams. It will mock them, thwart them, ignore them, laugh at them, have contempt for them and do everything it does to degrade and demean them, sometimes on purpose and sometimes by accident.
I find that sometimes when I experience disappointment, I shrink back into myself for fear that this taste of failure will spread across the whole project. I begin to question myself. Who am I to believe that I can do this? Who am I to be dreaming this big? I start imagining everything going terribly wrong and then I have a hard time continuing on. I think that is one of my biggest struggles; maintaining hope and direction in the face of criticism and disappointment. I think I am learning how to do that though. And that is making me a better activist. A more resilient one. A more focused and determined one.
I have experienced things recently that I would have once seen as a failure. But these failures have been quite productive and important to me. They have made me see what is really important to me and what I really desire to do and achieve. They have forced me to focus myself on the things that I truly care about rather than diffusing my energies over a number of different sources. I am feeling something akin to what J.K. Rowling spoke about during a commencement address she gave at at Harvard:
Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was and I began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I truly belonged. I was set free because my greatest fear had been realized and I was still alive and I still had a daughter who I adored and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I built my life. You might never fail on the scale that I did but some failure is inevitable.
It is impossible to live your life without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all. In which case, you fail by default. Failure gave me an inner security that I have never achieved by passing examinations. Failure gave me an inner security that I could not have attained any other way. I discovered that I had a strong will and more discipline than I had suspected. I also found out that I had friends whose value was more than rubies. The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to know yourself or the strength of your relationships. It is a true gift that has been painfully won and it has been worth more than any qualification I have ever achieved.