Five Steps to Overcoming Your Fear of Failure
by Ashley, Nourishing the Soul
September 20, 2011

Jeremy was absolutely brilliant. Not only that, but he was intuitive, capable, and extraordinarily hard-working. Jeremy was the kind of guy you go to high school with who you expect to hear about ten years later at the helm of a Fortune-100 powerhouse or systematizing a way to provide vaccines to every child in Africa.

But Jeremy hasn’t achieved that kind of notoriety, nor has he been successful professionally or financially. In fact, he’s kind of your average dude these days – working at a job he at best finds mildly stimulating and washing down the deep gnawing inside him for something more with a can of beer each night.

It’s not so much that Jeremy’s job is unspectacular or that he enjoys his nightcap, but the travesty here is that what holds him back from living a life he values is fear. Jeremy suffers from an affliction with which many of us can relate, but that we rarely discuss – a fear of failure. It’s Jeremy’s fear of failure that has held him captive in a world that continues to disappoint him.

If you’re anything like Jeremy, you’ve been served the platitudes time and time again. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained!” they tell you, urging you to take what feels like a flying leap out of your comfort zone. What do I gain, you wonder. Terror? Pain? Inevitable shame?

The good news is that like any other fear, a fear of failure is malleable and doesn’t have to continue to stand in your way. Consider these strategies to tackle the beast.

1. Recognize that not only is failure okay, it’s necessary.
Somehow we’ve created a society in which failure seems like the ultimate loss, when in fact it is the birthplace of innovation. Take Thomas Edison, who according to legend made over a thousand attempts in creating the carbon filament for our light bulbs. When asked about how he felt to have failed so many times, Edison reportedly retorted, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” What Edision understood was the necessity of the experience of failure. While rare, there are people and organizations who recognize this fact. Regina Dugan, head of the defense organization responsible for the internet’s precursor and GPS, supports failure in her staff. She said,

It’s understood that for us to have those really big wins, we’re going to have failures as part of that. Failure isn’t the problem. It’s the fear of failure that’s the limiting factor there. We have to push through. We say at Darpa, you can’t lose your nerve for the big failure, because the nerve you need for the big success is the exact same nerve—until the moment you know which one it’s going to be. Not before.
2. Remember it’s won’t be as bad as you think it will be. [It’s never actually “EPIC.”]
I’ll go out on a limb here and make the statement the anticipation of failure causes significantly more pain than failure itself. It’s what we sometimes calls anticipatory anxiety – the fear of of a future outcome that causes us distress. Those with panic disorder are all too familiar with this idea, and it’s why the first line treatment for panic disorder involves exposing individuals to their fear (having a panic attack) and helping them become aware of the fact that, hey, I’m alive! Similarly, the experience of failure most often doesn’t end up nearly as catastrophically as we envision. It can help to recall a time that you did fail. It might have hurt or produced embarrassment, but for most of us the experience didn’t lead to our ultimate demise. Unless you fail at at swimming with man-eating sharks. Now, that’s a failure.

3. Fail intentionally. Seriously.
Yes, you read that right. I want you to go out and screw up. Screw up big time, in fact. Just like with battling panic, exposure to the feared stimulus is ultimately the way to resolve intense anxiety about something. So if you’re something is failing, it’s going to be important to have the experience of failure and recognizing coming out on the other side. That might be mean setting up opportunities to fail. For me, that could involve tackling a physical activity that requires a lot of coordination. I know, and have accepted, that I am not a particularly coordinated person, and that I will likely fall flat when I make attempts at things like rollerblading or yoga balance poses. Knowing this and doing it anyway helps me see it’s okay to struggle, it’s okay to not be perfect, and it’s even okay to get pissed off about it.

4. Develop your sense of competence.
Adam McCaffrey at Carleton University did some interested research on procrastination – the sneaky relative of fear of failure – and found that the relationship between the two is more complicated than we once thought. It would make sense that fearing failure would lead to us to putting off tasks, but what McCaffrey found was that when we control for our perceived competence, fear of failure no longer predicted procrastination? In English? This means that even if we fear failure, perceiving ourselves as capable of tackling the task at hand leads us to not putting it off. So we can fear it and still do it. Easy breezy, right? Certainly not, but this gives us another place to look to address the way in which our fears are impacting our lives. We can work on building our sense of competence by practicing things we find difficult. And then practicing them again.

5. Recognize if you’re undermining your own efforts so you can stop trying. And then stop!
Our minds are sneaky like this sometimes, and I see this happening with my writing. I’ll be so excited to write a post and it’ll be brewing inside my mind for days as I sort through ideas and word choices. And then the time will come to sit down and write and… and I’ll watch TEDx videos. Or surf facebook. Or plan an imaginary trip to Argentina. I’ll do anything but write. If you know me, you know I’m not a procrastinator, but I am someone who gets caught up in fears of failure. So I’ve learned to recognize my attention deficit as my brain’s way of protecting me from struggling through writing and risking failure. With this knowledge, I can go into my work with a greater sense of awareness and refocus myself when the urge to hit YouTube shows up. I can acknowledge my fear and draw upon my sense of competence to realign myself with my purpose – not to avoid failure, but to create something great.

A final thought, and one that I think is simply but eloquently stated by William D. Brown: “Failure is an event, never a person.” We can fail, but we are never truly be a failure. I don’t know about you, but that’s incredibly liberating to me. So take a risk, make a move, and allow yourself to fail miserably. Unless it’s swimming with sharks….