Fear is a very powerful emotion that can lead to high levels of paralysis and inaction in our personal and professional lives. When naysayers tell a person he or she cannot do something, fear of failing tends to be amplified and false barriers to success are erected. If you look at a group of talented individuals, many times the only difference in their ability to achieve success is how they manage and control their fear of failure. Unsuccessful people allow fear to “own” their action. They make decisions based on the emotion of fear rather than looking at the true risks of failure.
One way to avoid letting fear “own” you, is to separate your emotions from the facts of a particular situation. Ask yourself the question, “what would I do if I knew I could not fail?” Write down all of the things that could happen, positive and negative, if you made a particular decision or took a specific action. Then, without emotion, evaluate the downside risk if things did not go as planned. Although you may reach the same conclusion to not move forward, the key will be that the decision was made without the emotion of fear.
One of the most important things to understand about overcoming the fear of failure is that failure itself does not mean that you are a failure. People fail at moments in time, but that does not define you as a person from that point forward. Some of the most successful people in the world in business, athletics, or other professions fail. For these people, failure can teach, motivate and sometimes inspire. It does not become who they are, but rather it is just something that happened in their success process. They view failure as a setback, but not something that defines their next opportunity to be successful.
For less successful people, failure can begin to impact self-esteem and how a person thinks about their own worth. If you believe that you are a failure, versus the idea that you experienced a failure in the process of success, you will have allowed fear to take over and you likely will experience more failure. If you believe you are a loser, there is a good chance your actions and reactions to individual losses will lead you to continued losing. Therefore, it is critical to separate what you believe you are from what you experience along the path to success. Failure is a moment in time, but success is determined over a lifetime.
If you have ever had the unique opportunity to observe the behavior and development of young children, you would notice something astounding. Young children have little or no fear of failure. They are keen to explore new places, engage in new activities, and attempt physical feats that can make the heart of a parent skip a beat. Children have a bold curiosity for the unknown, and concerns about risk or failure rarely enter their minds.
However, as children develop they begin to learn to fear failure. Parents often tell them “no” or quickly shelter them from the risk of negative outcomes, such as injury, disappointment or losing a game. On the one hand, teaching kids to be smart about what risks they should not take, such as touching a hot stove, can benefit their development and allow them to make more informed decisions. On the other hand, parents who do not allow children to experience some types of failure may condition them into thinking that failure is unacceptable or that they are entitled to succeed. This is common in youth sports today where many kids receive trophies even if they are on the losing team. In this case, children will be conditioned to think that there is no such thing as failure, and it will lead to a greater fear of failure as adults.
By the time most people reach adulthood, they have had many years of conditioning around the fear of failure. Those who grew up in very protective environments may have larger fears of failure, while those who experienced more failure will often take greater risks and be less fearful of negative outcomes. In either case, the fear of failure can be one of the biggest limiting factors in achieving personal success as an adult, whether it is a career, a personal aspiration or life in general. However, with the right focus adults can learn to control and even overcome their conditioned fears of failure to achieve things they never thought were possible.
While most people will never completely overcome all fear of failure, there are some important skills and behaviors that one must focus on and develop in order to reduce that fear or even harness failure to create a higher level of success. Over the coming weeks we will take a journey through different approaches to overcoming the fear of failure, but it all starts with recognizing and embracing failure as part of the success process. Although many of us have heard the saying before that “failure is not an option,” my hypothesis is that failure truly is not an option, but rather it is a necessity for achieving at a high level.
– J Stoiber