October 13, 2007

I was driving to the airport this afternoon, and a old dear friend of mine in the car was sharing his latest thoughts on the human condition. He has been noticing how many people of our age group (let’s just say somewhere between 40 and 60…yeah, the dreaded baby boomer) are constantly struggling with the fear of failure. Our generation can’t seem to get enough of the cocktail combination of fear, failure and a sense of uselessness. Though we have sought to accomplish more than any other generation in history, the sense of accomplishment seems to have been robbed from us. How did this happen?

At the same time, I just concluded a week teaching a group of twenty-something-age Christians (a group I would love to adopt and bring home with me btw), and I noticed this element missing among them: Though they probably haven’t achieved any more of their life goals than their parents, they really don’t have as much fear of failure as mom and dad. How did this happen?

As Andy and I talked, it occurred to me that the answer might be found a generation further back. The “Builder” generation refers to those people who survived the Great Depression and World War 2. At the conclusion of that time period, the Builders finally felt they had weathered all the disasters and started to have children at a record pace. In fact, 1957 marked the very heart of this Breeding Frenzy, a milestone marked by the veritable explosion of 50th birthday parties this year. More people were born in ’57 than any other year in the history of the human race. The Baby Boom experience was a much different feel than the depressing and murderous years that preceeded it. So with the increased optimism of the Boom, why do the Boomers fear failing?

I believe it is a combination of two elements. First, the Builders themselves did not emerge from the Depression unscathed. Many of them adopted a mindset that centers on fear. As I have talked with many Builders, I hear a repetitive attitude that shows they fear the return of the poverty and violence that epitomized the 30s and 40s. This fear caused the Builders to work extra hard and to fear anything which might usher in disaster. This made the “Cold War” especially difficult for them. As a result, they are a careful, cautious and paranoid generation. But hard work often tempers those things and so they remain unphased by their bondage to this fear of poverty.

Not so with their kids. The Boomers grew up with a veritable song of fear playing in their ears. The Builder parents did not want their kids to slack off or to be victims of the atrocities they had to face. So to help them, they constantly spoke of the consequences of not working hard, of not achieving, of not doing more than their parents did. If the parents did not graduate from High School, that was a must for their kids. If the Builders had no college, the kids had to go. If the Builders were Blue Collar, the kids had to strive to achieve whitecollardom. How many of us were driven forward with the warning, “Do you want to dig ditches for a living?”

Try using that as a threat today. I think it would be fun to operate a backhoe.

It’s strange. My wife and I are both professionals whereas none of our four parents were (though my dad did finally finish his engineering degree later in life before he died). But as I look at our kids, I see a strange metamorphosis. One wants to go into business; one wants to be a policeman; one is content to be a housewife; the last is currently hanging drywall and loving it. These are mostly jobs that our parents wanted us to avoid.

The Builder generation left fear as a legacy to their children. The Boomers took up that fear like a baton in a relay race and unfortunately did not temper it with hard work. Fear of disaster and poverty, without the modifying factor of hard work, is a breeding ground for the constant fear of failure.

In the Book of Deuteronomy, it says that God will visit the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation. It is an inaccurate translation to say that he “punishes” to the third and fourth generation. What the Hebrew words are saying is that it takes God three or four generations to get rid of certain sins from a family or a culture. If you have seen alcoholism, child abuse, rage or any other familial problems running through your family, you know it takes awhile for the work of God to touch a new generation. Many times it takes several generations to rid a family of a sin.

In terms of our culture, God is working through the emerging generations to get rid of this constant focus on failure. The reason for this is simple. Failure really doesn’t exist. It is an illusion, a shadow of the reality. Guilt exists. Pain exists. Broken dreams and sin exist. But failure is a hopelessness that settles in after these things. Failure is a lie that says no good thing can emerge after our goals are not accomplished. The opposite is actually true. God can turn any mistake into a positive thing. We can learn from mistakes and grow. But the fear of failure is that we will be stuck at that place forever.

I observe the generation from age 15-30 seem more willing to learn from mistakes without the misguided belief that they are now doomed to disaster and poverty when they don’t immediately meet their goals. May your tribe increase.



  1. Being 31 and reading this article brought somethings to my mind. I don’t know if this helps futher any discussions, but I thought a younger persepctive may help.

    What you said about the different generations rings true with me. I don’t have this overwhelming fear of failure lingering in the background of my thoughts, even when my life seems to be in “failure.” The only time I sense it is when other people(from your generation) point it out, and then I feel like I am either blind to it and am missing something, or I don’t care for it nor that persons insight.

    I don’t want to live in ignorance of being mislead in my pursuits because some decisions aren’t good ones, especially if they are done alone. The bible is very clear about the “counsel of many” leading to wisdom and success. So in looking at my life most of my decisions have been based on the cousnel of many leaders. This has lead to a freedom to “open and close” opportunities in my life. I guess the only time I feel like a failure is when a “closed” opportunity is called failure and that really doesn’t happen by my peers, more like by my dad. So the only time I struggle with failure is when I do something without bringing in the wisdom of the many.

    (This next part is something you and have talked about many times, and I think I finally figured something out) It’s interesting to read your article because it explains many of the reasons why I struggle with going to conferences where they are run by people 10-20 years older then me. I always walk away feeling guilty for something I should have done or don’t care to do. The presentation is always great, but the heart of what they are saying is missed by their undesireable expectations to “succeed”. I walk away loving the material and disliking the speaker. And then on the otherside going to conferences with people my age where they seem to want to react in rebellion to sound wisdom, practical advice, with things that really do work,or postmodern thought, whatever. Sometimes I feel stuck. But with this article I feel like I am wiggling free.

    Anyhow, thanks for sharing. It helps to continue the path of learning more about my relationship with you and you with me.

    Mike M.

  2. Thanks Mike for your comments. I agree with you that conferences can be difficult for the generations. I think over the years I have struggled most with Christianity when it comes to one generation trying to communicate their ideas to another in a conference setting. For the most part, it is one-on-one when these things are best passed on.

    Thanks for the confirmation of observations about failure.

  3. Nice post , i really appreciate ur judgement . keep posting. How you get these minute details into ur post . Do tell me . do visit mine http://fearfactor.xaapa.com/

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