Conquering the Fear of Failure

Flying by FelixTsao

Failing isn't really as scary as it looks.

Fear of failure is a seriously crippling thing. It’s also deeply rooted in our subconsciouses. How fun. Fear of failure makes us freeze out on stage and forget all of our lines. Fear of failure makes us not commit to things, to never get started in the first place or – worst of all – to purposefully sabotage projects that are going well before they really get going.

I have no science to back this claim up, but I would still bet that if you went around and asked everyone why they don’t quit their job and follow their dreams, why they haven’t sold all their junk and run off to travel the world or probably even why they aren’t trying to improve themselves that the most common answer would be – fear of failure.

Being afraid of failing is a natural thing. That being said, it’s still not a good thing. It keeps us from going where we want to go and doing what we want to do. It makes us miserable, anxious and in a lot of cases depressed. I’m sure someone smarter than I could devise a way to turn those around and harness fear of failure to make it work for them.

The Problem with Being Scared

In some cases fear is a good thing. If you’re in danger you need to know about it. Fear keeps us from doing a lot of really dangerous, crazy things. The thing is the world’s a much safer place than it was 50,000 years ago (not that I’m complaining), but our brains don’t know it yet.

Your brain can’t really distinguish the feeling it gets from turning a corner and finding an irate mother grizzly and the feeling it gets from being in the spotlight in front of a huge crowd. In one of those cases, that fear response is appropriate. In the other, not so much.

When that fear response is triggered, as I’m sure you already know, your body goes into ol’ fight-or-flight mode. That means a big dump of performance enhancing stress hormones into your brain, adrenaline and cortisol being two big players. This big release of hormones and neurotransmitters is fantastic if you need to run from a smilodon, pick up a car or fight off an assailant. They are not so fantastic when you’re trying to remember your lines, or get the motivation up to follow your dreams.

On top of those direct fight-or-flight triggers, fear of failure often grows into a sort of general dread about what might happen. Dreading something means it creates a lot of stress, stress means lots of cortisol and lots and lots of constant cortisol release means you’ll start feeling really run down before long.

That feeling of dread also causes us to do really stupid things. How many things do you wish you could do, but are too scared to do because you’re afraid of failing? How often have you passed up a really fantastic opportunity just because you didn’t think you were good enough, or you were worried it wouldn’t work out?

I have even known someone personally who had planned to start her own business, put tons of work into it, even gone and done pitches for prospective clients, but when inquiries started rolling in for work – she dropped it. Excuses were made, she said it would be too difficult, it just wasn’t the right time, blah blah blah. It was obvious though, she was just too scared that she would fail if she kept going so she chose to give up instead.

How to Fight Your Fear of Failure

Fighting isn’t really the best word for it in my opinion. I think it’s a bad idea to fight your fears, in fact, I pretty much always think it’s a bad idea to fight something that’s part of your nature. It’s too tough of a battle to really end well. Instead of fighting your fears, you need to learn to dismiss them.

As I pointed out, nowadays the physiological fear response we experience is unnecessary for 99% of the situations we feel it in. It sounds silly, but our brains don’t know that the audience isn’t going to savagely maul us if we mess up. In fact, because of our fantastic imaginations, a majority of people way, way, way overestimate the potential consequences of their actions.

We can fix that.

Next time you realize you have some dread, a gnawing fear or a deep apprehension of the future, stop and ask yourself, “Honestly, what is the worst case scenario?”. Give it some really good thought too, sit down and work it out. Think about what the absolute total worst that could happen is.

Ok, now you might be a little more scared, but bear with me. Now that you’ve come up with the worst-possible-case-doomsday-apocalypse outcome, how likely is it really to happen? Is it even that bad? What would you do if it did happen?

Now think about what probably would happen if you failed. Is it really that bad? What are you so scared of? Let’s look at a real world example.

Say you want to quit your day job and start your own business, but you haven’t yet. You’re too scared that you’ll fail and lose everything. Let’s even say you’re the sole income supporting a wife and two kids. What is the worst possible thing that could happen?

The business tanks, you have no income, you lose your house, your wife leaves you to avoid having to eat the children and you wander the streets for the rest of your life, destitute and abandoned. Then you get hit with a meteor.

Honestly though, what are the odds of that? What might really happen if you fail?

The business tanks, you support yourself on whatever savings you have until you find another 9 to 5 or try another business venture. Maybe things get so bad you have to sell your house and downsize, boo hoo. Maybe you can’t find a job and have to flip burgers for a while. Oh well. You won’t be on the streets, you won’t be starving and you won’t be dead. Why is that so scary?

If you fail, you just roll with it. Cut your losses and try something new or admit that you did your best and go find another job in whatever industry you left, or maybe somewhere else. Once you’ve actually sat down and thought things out, it’s just not that scary anymore.

Failing Before You Start

Now that you know that the outcome of actually failing – precisely what you were so afraid of – isn’t actually a big deal, it’s even worse to let fear of failure stop you from working toward your dreams.

I’m always completely amazed when people say they wish they could do something, but are too afraid of failure to start, and then get frustrated that they can’t follow their dreams. It amazes me because if you never try, all you can do is fail.

I understand completely the fear of striking out, but refusing to swing or even to step up to the plate all because you might strike out is ludicrous. In order to avoid the unpleasantness of failing, people make themselves fail from the outset by giving up.

I’m reminded of a quote from the signature of a member of a Parkour community I was a part of four or five years ago, I’m not sure who to attribute it to but it went something like this – “The only way to fail is to give up or to die, and I’m not giving up.”

The point is, as long as you’re alive and willing to keep trying, you haven’t failed yet. If that’s the case, why be so scared of failing? If giving up is the only real way to fail, why give up to avoid failure?

Getting Used to Being a Failure

If you are particularly scared of failing, I highly suggest you try this.

In the past, I used to be afraid of failure in a lot of areas. I was great at rolling with the bad stuff when it came my way, but there were a lot of opportunities that I could have taken that I passed up because I was scared of the potential consequences. Learning to look at things honestly and see how inconsequential the consequences of failure usually are helped a ton.

If you need a little more help getting over it, I suggest you try a little exercise to condition yourself to failure. Every so often, maybe once a week, find something you’re doing and allow yourself to fail at it.

It’s best to pick something inherently benign (I don’t want a flood of e-mails blaming me for failed marriages, that’s your fault) since you want to make sure there won’t be any bad consequences from the failure. Honestly, whatever you pick you’ll start to see that your failure really didn’t matter. The world is still here. No one died. Your life isn’t ruined.

After a few of these practice sessions failing, when you actual find yourself faced with something you’re scared of failing at, you can think back to those times and remember that it really isn’t such a big deal – there’s no reason to be nervous.

The only way to fail is to give up or die.

Have any of these techniques worked for you? Have you used some other way to conquer your fear of failure? Tell us about it!

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com

  • hini

    very interesting

    • Thanks! I think people worry too much about failure when it’s really a great learning tool. Was there anything in particular you found interesting?