What would you do if you knew that you wouldn't fail?
The fear of failure is powerful and acts as a barrier to achieving our dreams, forming new relationships, exploring the world, experiencing other cultures, and trying new things, big or small. There is actually a name for it, atychiphobia. Fear of failure is different than fear of uncertainty. The latter is related to anxiety and pre-wired into our brains (a conversation for another blog), the fear of failure and rejection triggers our deep human vulnerabilities of shame, embarrassment, and humiliation.
“Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result. It’s vulnerability that breeds with self-doubt and then is escalated, often deliberately, by fear.” -Michelle Obama, Becoming
The cause varies and is different for everyone, but it can be exacerbated if one grew up with overly critical parents or other influential adults, or experienced bullying or a traumatic event. The good news is that this fear can be busted and I will provide you some fear-busting tips at the end of this article.
Fear of failure isn’t always negative; in fact, it can be a motivator. Failure is a normal and expected part of the trial-and-error process towards success. Depending upon how one views it, it can be the end result (quitting at that moment) or simply a temporary state to navigate around. We see the outcome of successful people, but we miss observing the struggle, hardships, and mistakes it took to get there. Failures are mere setbacks on the journey to success. It’s true; let’s take a look at some great thought-leaders of our time:
Thomas Edison: “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work!”
Albert Einstein: “Failure is success in progress.” “You never fail until you stop trying.”
Michael Jordan: “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life… and that is why I succeed.” “My failure gave me strength, my pain was my motivation.”
Arianna Huffington: “Failure isn’t the opposite of success; it’s part of success.”
In her book Mindset, The New Technology of Success, Carol Dweck explains growth mindset as understanding that the ability to learn is not fixed and can change with your efforts, regardless of IQ, talent, or education. She discovered that when children learn that the brain grows in response to challenges, they are more likely to persevere when faced with failure, as opposed to giving up, because they know that failure is only a temporary condition. What a revelation! When kids are taught that challenge and struggle are helpful to their brains, they are able to problem-solve around failure, ultimately leading to success.
Angela Duckworth further researched this topic and wrote about her findings in GRIT: The Power of Passion and Perseverance and presented a TED Talk on the same topic. After extensive research across many disciplines and age groups, Duckworth found consistently that the one predictor for success was a growth mindset: learning is not fixed, failure is neither a permanent condition nor a barrier to success, but rather an expected part of the journey.
The perception of failure--a permanent barrier or a hurdle to learn from--has the power to hold you back from what you want, or to propel you forward. That is powerful! You are in control of HOW you perceive things, so changing your thoughts can change your trajectory.
You may be thinking . . . “This is interesting and all, but how do I overcome my fear of failure?” This fear is real and powerful, isn’t it? While the idea of busting fear is a simple concept to understand, incorporating this may be difficult. I get it, fear of something, even when irrational, can be paralyzing. But, I believe in you and, as promised, here are some simple strategies for you to try if your fear of failure is holding you back from getting what you want:
Start by asking yourself, “If I knew I wouldn’t fail, what would I do?”
In the past, when has the fear of failure or rejection kept you from getting what you want? When did you give up when faced with a setback? Could you have found a way around that barrier?
Identify all areas of your life in which fear of failure or rejection is holding you back now.
Challenge your inner critic to let go of negative self-talk: you know, that ongoing narrative we have in our head that is often negative and very critical. Ask yourself, is this true? Is this really true? Then ask yourself if an alternate positive version could be true and reverse your negative thought patterns. It takes practice, but YOU are in charge of your thoughts.
Change the way you think about success and failure. Neuroplasticity is our brain’s ability to rewire itself to adapt to new ways of thinking and learning. There are many wonderful books available to help you learn how to do this. Do a Google search on “neuroplasticity” or “growth mindset,” read the reviews, and see what resonates with you. Some authors that I have found informative include, but not are limited to: Jack Canfield, Jim Rohn, Brene Brown, Dr. Joe Dispenza, Maxwell Maltz, Dan Kennedy, Daniel Siegel, Carol Dweck, and Angela Duckworth. There are many more books and TED Talks available on this topic. I encourage you to do some research and see what speaks to you. We are all different in our taste and style of who we learn best from.
It's a process, and change doesn’t happen immediately. Start with small steps: practice moving past your fear of failure or rejection when stakes are small, then move onto the bigger things where the risks may be greater.
Please share your thoughts, challenges, and successes in the comments below. I would love to hear from you.