Fear of failure is deeply embedded in our minds. To a large extent it's a cultural thing.
Most motivational speeches have an anecdote that features how someone
dealt with their fear of failure, overcame tremendous odds and yet came
home a winner.
The personal development and self-help world is steeped in case studies and analysis of success.
We Celebrate Success And Ignore Failure
studies have been undertaken on successful people to understand what it
was that they did to become so successful, how they did it and when
they did it - and we are led to believe that we too can achieve
comparable success if we replicate this.
We are told by the self-help gurus:
“You can be anything you want to be, if you put your mind to it.”
“Your thoughts have resonance and if you think enough positive thoughts for long enough, they will manifest.
But what the self help gurus tell you is just not true.
This focus on success is very odd given that:
Success is the exception rather than the rule
Every scientific discovery, every new invention, every great innovation, every new idea of substance is the product of innumerable failures.
Hard work, skill, focus and persistence are not enough without the randomness of chance and the alignment of many factors, principally being in the right place with the right offering at the right time in the right environment.
Shane Parrish has observed:
“If failure is so ubiquitous, you would think that it would be treated as a more natural phenomenon; not exactly something to celebrate but not something that should be hidden away either.”
Failure is the norm
Life itself is driven by failure. Evolution is driven by failure; approximately 99% of species that ever existed did not adapt and did not survive. The surviving 1% is the exception and not the rule. The exception adapted and survived… until they died.
In the philosophical and spiritual world impermanence is recognised as the true nature of things celebrated in the homily “this too will pass”.
Nothing lasts, ultimately everything fails. It is a fundamental truism of most major faith traditions that death is the portal to new life, whether in this world or the next.
Understanding our forgotten failuresAs Oliver Burkeman has noted:
“… it is also worth
considering the subject of failure directly, in order to see how the
desperate efforts of the ‘cult of optimism’ to avoid it are so often
counterproductive, and how we might be better off learning to embrace
Here are some pointers to help you understand:
First some hard truths - these are examples of some of the wonky thinking that skew your perception of success and failure:
Now for some of the emotional factors that blindside you:
Here are some practical tips, based on my own experience:
Sitting alongside our fear of failure is another powerful factor and that is fear of uncertainty. Psychologist Dorothy Rowe in "Beyond Fear" has nailed it:
Our fear of failure sits alongside - maybe on top of - our fear of
uncertainty and it's grip on our sense of self and well being is
Dorothy Rowe argues that we fear uncertainty
more than death itself –
and we will go to extraordinary lengths and take extreme risks,
sometimes even fatal ones, to get rid of our fear of failure and our
deeper fear of uncertainty.
Goal induced comfort and the myth of fixed goals
What lies behind so much of our efforts and investment in goals and
forward planning is this deep seated dread of our feelings of
We project this fixed and idealised view of our future because we tell ourselves that if we achieve it then everything will be OK and we will feel certain and secure.Taken to extremes, and as Shane Parrish has documented and illustrated so well in "Goal Induced Blindness", this can cause us as a minimum to lose the flexibility to adapt to changing circustances and worst case to get ourselves wiped out - literally or metaphorically!
Decisions made to ease the emotional stress of uncertainty in the present moment
How many of our major life decisions are made with the aim of easing our stress at uncertainty rather than from a reasoned or intuitive sense of it being the right decision?
Reflect on any significant decision you’ve ever taken that
you later came to regret. This could be a relationship you got into even though you had a vague sense that it wasn’t for you, or it could be a business or professional position that you accepted even
though, with hindsight you can now see that it was miss-aligned with your gifts and strengths.
Ask yourself if, at the time of making the decision, you felt the tension of uncertainty in your gut? Then, did the tension surrounding that uncertainty ease once you had made your decision?
Now, the moment of truth, is there a possibility that your primary motivation in taking the decision was the urgent need to ease your present moment emotional stress of uncertainty.
Is it really better to be decisively wrong rather than to be indecisively right?
There are 2 simple but powerful strategies that will enable you to embrace your fear of failure and your underlying fear of uncertainty, the first deals with the emotions and the second builds on the release from these emotions with a cognitive approach.
We are talking about acceptance and flexibility.
"The only way to cope with all this uncertainty is to accept that it is so." [Dorothy Rowe]
Fear of failure and fear of uncertainty are emotional states. I make no apology for repeating a point that I have a number of times in this series of articles and that is the transformative power of acceptance.
This is a simple yet extremely powerful mindfulness practise that will release you from the powerful hold of these negative emotions and free you to respond in life in a more flexible way.
Just sit quietly for a moment, take a deep breath and observe the feelings and emotions and thoughts that are associated with your fears.
Follow these brief and simple steps and your fears will disappear, and you will feel calm, centred and ready to do what you need to do.
Do not be deceived by the simplicity of these steps, they are very powerful. They work.
If you feel any kind of resistance to doing this - just do it anyway and see what happens.
Adopt an unconventional approach to learning: an improvisational flexibility not merely about which route to take towards some predetermined objective, but also a willingness to change the destination itself. [Professor Saras Sarasvathy]
Professor Sarasvathy made these observations in an indepth study of 45 successful entrepreneurs and her surprising and counter-intuitive finding was the most valuable skill of a successful entrepreneur “...isn’t vision
or passion or a steadfast insistence on destroying every barrier between
yourself and some prize." Rather, it’s flexibility.
Henry Singleton is not very well known but was one of the most successful business ever - and highly rated by Warren Buffet [amongst others]. His track record shows 18% growth year on year for 25 years!
Commenting on goals and flexibility Singleton said:
“I know a lot of people have very strong and definite plans that they’ve worked out on all kinds of things, but we’re subject to a tremendous number of outside influences and the vast majority of them cannot be predicted.
So my idea is to stay flexible. My only plan is to keep coming to work. … I like to steer the boat each day rather than plan ahead way into the future."
Oliver Burkeman concludes: "‘See what happens’, indeed, might be the motto of this entire approach to working and living, and it is a hard-headed message, not a woolly one".
where things happen. It is where the opportunities – for success, for
happiness, for really living – are waiting.
Let's finish with a final observation from social psychologist Erich Fromm:
Return from "Fear Of Failure" to: Walking The TalkContact me
Steer The Boat Each Day Rather Than Plan Ahead Way Into The Future. Going with the flow is about learning to become comfortable with uncertainty, and learning how to exploit the potential hidden withi…
A Timeless Foundation On Which To Build Your Success. There are Universal laws and processes that work to support us and guarantee that we achieve all our goals. But first we need to know what they ar…
A Love That Will Not Let You Go. I had a loving father. I knew that I did, but I never felt it. My father was a good man but very damaged and unable to show his feelings. So I grew up knowing in my he…
How To Stay Connected To Your True Source Of Power. Approximately 2,500 years ago the Israeli town of Kafr Qasim was close to the site of two battles between the ancient Israelis and their neighbours…
How To Deal With The Attrition Factor. The Stockdale Paradox is named after the late James Stockdale, former vice presidential candidate, naval commander and prisoner of war during the American-Vietna…
We Celebrate Success And Ignore Failure. Numerous studies have been undertaken on successful people to understand what it was that they did to become so successful, how they did it and when they did i…
How You Got Into The Wilderness Matters Less Than The Lessons To Be Learnt There. The wilderness years can be described as any lengthy time, longer than a year, that is spend aimlessly; without an imm…
We Live In A World That Glorifies The Results And Not The Process. We all know what we should be doing, but the trouble with that is that sooner of later we get bored. The enjoyment fades, the excitem…
You Can Master The Art of Creating Your Own Luck By Mastering 4 Key Principles "The Luck Factor" is the title of a book published 20 years ago based on the research of Professor Richard Wiseman who fo…
Just Because You Have A Spectacular Failure Doesn’t Mean The Game Is Over. The thought that you could fail can really slow you down. But the problem is not the failure, the problem is your relationshi…
Are You Lost In Transition? To be in an alien North African city, late in the evening, in the dark, completely lost in transition from the main market square back to the obscure location of our Riad…
Do You Believe What You See Or Do You See What You Believe? Like the characters in "The Matrix" we are fooled by the illusion that what we see is how things really are. Why? Because this is the mind's…
What Impact Will You Leave In The Lives Of Others? If you knew you were going to die tonight and you were given a few minutes to reflect before that happened, what would you say was the meaning of yo…
If You Want Others To Be Happy, Practice Compassion. If You Want To Be Happy, Practice Compassion. Compassion is derived from the Latin words "com pati" meaning to suffer with. It has been defined as…
The Power Of Expectation Of An Outcome Regardless Of The Lack Of Any Substance To That Expectation. Traditionally, the placebo effect occurs when false, or dummy, treatments of inert substances [that…
This Is What Will Happen After You Take It. "This is your last chance," rebel leader Morpheus tells Neo, holding a coloured pill in each hand. “You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in y…
This Has To Be One Of The Best Ways For Living The Best Life You Can Possibly Live. An online search on life hacks will invariably provide you with multiple links to ways of increasing your productivi…
The Blessing And The Curse Of Impermanence. There is a story of a king who sought wisdom. Eventually he heard of a man living in a remote part of the kingdom who had a reputation for great wisdom. The…
The Stories That We Tell Ourselves Are A Matter Of Choice. The stories we tell ourselves form the backcloth and the tapestry of our lives. These narratives shape and define our sense of self and how a…
Trust Is A Choice And It Creates Your Reality. Nothing in life is permanent and nothing lasts forever. Every relationship ends in tears. Somebody leaves or somebody dies. This is how things are. This…
Finding This Hidden Value Is The Key To A Huge Upside. Most of us spend our lives working to linear rules where there is an equal relationship between effort and result. Work hard you get a result. Wo…
How To Be There When Preparation Meets Opportunity. The growth mindset holds the core belief that your intelligence and personality is something you can develop and that you can expand and grow. The p…
If you can't think of the right thing to say, say nothing. The concepts we employ, the categorizations we apply and the words we choose and use to articulate a direct experience put us in a double bi…
To Believe Or Not To Believe - That Is The Question. Nothing has inflicted more suffering on humanity than its beliefs and dogmas. The religious and cultural beliefs that sanction and allow or impose…
How To Stay Far From The Madding Crowd. Herd mentality describes how we make decisions based on what everyone else is thinking and doing. It is also known as a mob or crowd mentality. We follow the he…
We Suffer Every Time We Believe A Thought That Argues With What Is. When your mind is perfectly clear, what is, is what you want. If you want reality to be different than it is, you might as well try…
Slack Is The Capacity To Effect Change And The Resource To Deal With The Unexpected. Many organizations are obsessed with efficiency and try to ensure that every resource is fully utilized to its full…
Less and less do you need to force things, until you arrive at non-action. We are brought up to believe that we get what we want in life as a result of what we do, by the actions that we take, that ha…
Is It Helping You Or Hindering You? Your point of focus is the central point of your attention. Your point of focus is a binary choice and the result of that choice is critical to your happiness, your…
To accomplish any success in life, you must identify accurately what it is that you hunger for, thirst for and long for. The purpose of this article is to look at the foundation of the secret for succ…