I am incredibly, wildly, strongly passionate about failure. Why? Because I believe that the way we think about failure, and respond to failure is a vital ingredient that determines whether or not we succeed in our goals. When I reflect on my life I can see that every bold success I have had was preceded by risk and failure. And every missed opportunity was preceded by fear and inaction. More than anything else, it is a fear of failure that has held me back from success.
What is failure?
Failure, by definition, is a lack of success. But in goal setting and everyday life, failure is more than that. Failure can be not only how we measure our success, but how we define a situation, measure our worth, or even how we define ourselves. We have created a strong stigma around failing that makes it feel unacceptable. The consequence of this is that our common reactions to failure are to hide it, deny it, try to un-do it (often making the situation worse), or to blame it on someone else. Or worse, not try in the first place. The way we view failure leads to a fear of failure.
How do we know if we are experiencing a fear of failure?
Signs of fear of failure include:
- Reluctance to try new things
- Self-sabotage – procrastination, making excuses (a “reason” that has no foundation), and lack of follow though
- Experiencing consistent background anxiety
- Low self-esteem and negative self-talk
- Perfectionism – the willingness to only follow through on things that guarantee us success, that we feel good at
Fear of failure is common. And let me say here, that at its core, a fear of failure is also natural. At a base level, fear of failure is an instinct designed to protect us from harm. It is our body and brains response to a threat. However, fear of failure is ever present in contexts where there is no real threat to our person. And allowing these fears to make our decisions for us sets us up for the ultimate failure: not trying at all.
The benefits of failure
Change is inevitable. Things happen around us. We grow and develop, people come in and out of our lives, situations change, opportunities come and go. Change is inevitable, but progress is not. Progress in the direction that we want requires us to get behind it. To drive progress in the direction we want it to go requires us to meet this fear of failure head on.
Why? Because,to avoid failure completely results in a hefty consequence: if we avoid failure, we also avoid success. For within failure is opportunity.
Failure presents the opportunity to gain:
- Experience to support our progress toward our goals
- Knowledge that can be applied to create a stronger and more effective action plan toward success
- Resilience to support us when the journey toward our goals in challenging
- Growth in who we are and how we respond to the situations around us
In her Harvard Commencement Speech in 2008, J K Rowling said the following on the benefits of failure:
You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live 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.“
[Watch the full address here]
What does this mean?
Seeing the value in failure allows us to be more open to try. Does this mean we should all aim to fail? No. Of course our best case scenario is a straight road to success. And we should set ourselves us for the best possible chance of achieving the success that we want. But by embracing the view that failure can hold value, we gain a powerful contributing factor toward success. We gain the courage to try. We allow ourselves to take (measured and thought out) risks. And when things don’t go to plan, instead of calling it quits, we can take value away from that experience and use it.
Denis Waitley said:
“Fear should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”
How to move past fear of failure and achieve success?
1. Work on Your Mindset
Start by reflecting on your own experience with success and failure:
- Think of the times in your life where you have experienced a setback that was followed by a success. How did that “failure” contribute your success?
- Consider a time that you took a risk that paid off. Perhaps you said “I love you” first, applied for a job that you didn’t think you would get, connected with a stranger and established a friend, tried something new and found something you love. How did you feel when you experienced success? How would your life be different if you had not taken that risk?
- Consider a time when you experienced regret. What choices did you make that lead to that feeling? What would you do differently if you were given the opportunity? What value can you take from that experience?
- Can you identify any areas where you harbor a fear of failure? Can you unpack that and identify where it comes from?
2. Become a Critical Thinker
Rather than being critical, become a critical thinker.
- Instead of writing an idea off, analyse the options in front of you.
- Explore the potential outcomes of each and every option
- Look at the worst case scenario. But instead of assuming that it will happen, consider how likely it is to happen.
- At the same time, look at the best case scenario. How likely is that to happen? Are the potential benefits worth the likelihood of the risks?
- If you feel like something is a beneficial option, but you are still feeling the fear, ground yourself in what you gain from trying rather than the potential risk involved.
3. Practice, Practice, Practice
Start small and build your confidence:
- Create a safe space where you can try new things and the consequence of failure isn’t too high. Afraid of feeling silly at the gym/yoga class/acting class/stand up night/*insert your desire here*? Get a private lesson. Do a small class with trusted friends. Start with some youtube tutorials. Then build from there.
- Remove emotions from the table – when you identify a fear, look at it rationally rather than emotionally. What are the chances of that fear happening?
- Practice thinking positively – when you think about, talk about, and experience failure, take note of the language that you use. What impact does that language have? Does it allow you to gain value from the experience? What action does it block you from taking?
- Have a plan – identify what the potential failures and challenges could be, and plan for them. When we know something might happen it is far easier for us to deal with when it does. Have a contingency plan up your sleeve just in case.
- Know what gives you courage, and use it when you need it. The aim is not always to remove the fear, but to understand that fear should not make our decisions for us. True courage happens in the face of fear.
4. Remember This
“When we give ourselves permission to fail, we, at the same time, give ourselves permission to excel” – Eloise Ristad
Without failure in our lives, we cannot succeed. We cannot learn, grow, develop, progress. Without failure we become stagnant. Don’t get me wrong, failure is hard. It can be complex, painful, and challenging. But remember what you have to gain, as well as what you have to lose.
So go boldly forth and embrace failure, when you can. And when you miss an opportunity, when you feel you have failed, take heart. Learn from that experience and you have the opportunity to spring forth with greater knowledge and experience supporting you.
Important note: sometimes a fear of failure can be a symptom of a more serious mental health condition. If it affects your day to day life on a consistent basis, it is important to speak with your doctor and seek further support. Please look after yourself first.
Feeling brave? Share with us your BEST most VALUABLE failure of your life! Let’s celebrate together…