Lesson 2.5 - Dealing with fear of failure
Alright, my friend, you’ve made it to lesson 5 of this second module. We’re going to tackle a fear that you’re all too familiar with.
Failure. The big f-word.
Fear of failure is the biggest reason we get stuck in unsatisfying careers or situations that don’t serve us. That devastating feeling when something doesn’t go to plan is so deeply built into us, that we very rarely even question it. We try something, it doesn’t quite work out as planned, and we feel like we’ve failed. We do that enough times and we start choosing not to even try, in order to avoid that feeling.
I admit it, failing at something is not the nicest feeling. Ever. It can be embarrassing to the max, even heartbreaking at times. And yet, making mistakes is a surefire way to learning. You grow more through failure than you do through your successes.
So, let’s take a deeper look at the fear of failure.
What fear of failure looks like
In what way does fear of failure show up in your life? What does it look like? These are the most common (and sneakiest) ways.
We make ourselves and our world small
One common way of reacting to our fear of failure is to make our world small, so that we only do things we’re good at, things we can get good at quickly and things that are socially acceptable to be ‘bad’ at, like dieting.
By shrinking our world, we can feel successful without having to leave our comfort zone and risk rejection.
The problem is that while it feels safe, it’s not satisfying. And by shrinking our world, we forgo opportunities to be challenged, to learn, to grow and to have a bigger impact on the world.
Obviously, procrastination does not protect against failure itself. But it does protect us from the pain of ‘true’ failure because it gives us an excuse.
If we procrastinate and then fail, we can console ourselves with the story that we would have done better if we tried a little harder.
If we procrastinate, we won’t have to deal with emotions like hopelessness and humiliation when we think we’ve done our very best and it wasn’t good enough.
But the truth is that procrastination is costing you. More on that in module 5.
We wait until the ‘perfect’ time to start
This is a form of all-or-nothing thinking: that if something isn’t perfect then there’s no point doing it at all.
We need more free time before we can start working on that big project. We need it to be Monday before we can start eating healthy. You might have guessed already, but this is NOT a winning strategy.
If you can relate, it’s time to create a deadline for getting started (one that’s not too far away) and stick to it. And remember, there will never be a perfect time.
Failure as a symbol
Now we know what fear of failure looks like, but the deeper truth is that there’s a lot of symbolism involved.
We don’t necessarily fear failure, but we fear what failure means about who we are.
Studies have shown that the pain associated with the FEAR of failure is usually more intense than the pain following an actual failure.
Let that sink in for a minute: the pain associated with the FEAR of failure is usually more intense than the pain following an actual failure.
So, when we do a cost/benefit analysis here, this is the conclusion we come to: the fear of failure is costing us more than any actual failure itself.
This should be a big relief, because failure is an inescapable part of life and critically important for a successful life. When we’re in a place where we fear failure, we can tell ourselves: “I might as well just go for it and see where I end up, because it’s costing me more to stay stuck in fear.”
Having an aversion to failure (which is different from a fear of failure) is normal. Nobody likes to fail, so a healthy aversion will motivate us to take precautions and work harder to achieve success. But still, we will fail on occasion.
See this as a learning opportunity. We can only learn to deal with failure by actually experiencing failure and by living through it. This will leave us better prepared to deal with the inevitable obstacles along our path.
Over to the worksheet. Think back to a moment, a recent moment or maybe it was a while back, where you were stuck in fear of failure for a long time before taking the necessary steps to move away. Describe that situation, that being stuck in fear.
Maybe it was a work project that you were putting off and procrastinating on because you had no idea how to get started and do it perfectly and you just knew it was going to be a big failure. But, once you’d started to work on that project, it was challenging for a while but the project didn’t take as long as you’d expected. In fact, it was done before you knew it. On the worksheet, describe the process and how you felt when you were done with that thing.
Next, answer the question of how much your fear of failure cost you in that particular situation. Think money and time, but also stress, ease, and peace of mind. Fear of failure also comes with a lot of catastrophic thinking: “The world will end!” or “I might die!” Well, did any imaginary obstacles in this particular example kill you? I mean, literally, murder you dead?
And finally, looking back now, what is a lesson you can learn from that particular situation? What is the takeaway here? What did this thing teach you, about failure or about yourself?
Stop taking failure personally
While nobody really likes to fail, perfectionists take fear of failure to a different level. A perfectionist sees failure as a statement of his or her worth or ability. We get hung up on what failure means about who we are AKA not perfect. And we take failure personally.
It’s too easy, when something goes wrong or doesn’t work out the way we envisioned it, to feel like we’re a failure. But that’s not true.
There are many, many, many things in this lifetime that will not work out as planned, but none of those will mean that you’re the failure. You, as a person, are simply just going through life, not failing. Just the fact that you’re willing to try makes you a greater success than those people who are unwilling to venture outside of their comfort zone.
More tips for busting through the fear of failure
Okay, here are some more coping methods to not let those feelings of failure take over.
Let it go
So, it didn’t work. Your painting turned out rubbish, you missed taking an important photo, all of your ideas weren’t hugely successful. Stop berating yourself over and over in your head. Like we talked about in the previous lesson, worrying and obsessing over what went wrong will not benefit you in any way, it will just stop you from moving forward.
Change your perspective
We touched on this point earlier in this lesson, but failure is a lesson and a stepping stone to a successful life.
You don’t have to dig deep to start finding stories about how ‘failures’ have shaped the world around us. Every invention from penicillin to microwaves, post-it notes to light bulbs, has been a result of countless failures.
Anything new and exciting needs to be born out of someone somewhere getting it wrong. Because always getting it right will always produce the same outcome.
The most famous quote that gives insight into how failure is really just a construct of the mind, is by Thomas Edison:
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
In hindsight, aren’t we all pretty happy he carried on trying, despite having lived through thousands of ‘failures’? Each and every one of those was a step towards success.
So, when you come across periods of times or events that don’t go as planned, stop yourself from thinking ‘I am stupid or weak or not cut out for this’. Instead, think of how much more knowledge you now possess, how you are one step closer to a success, how you are in fact ahead of the game because you choose to go through failures.
All the cool kids have failed, too
This one might be of comfort to you: all the cool kids have failed, too. Every successful comedian has bombed on stage multiple times.
If you haven’t failed at something, then you’re honestly not taking enough chances. If you want to do something, create something, instigate major change, understand there’s going to be failure. The difference between the people who go on to become the success stories and the ones who don’t is their willingness to look at their failure, figure out why they failed, get up and get back out there.
So much more is up to chance than you think
Have you ever heard that saying “You create your own outcomes”? Well, that’s true, but only in some situations.
To think that we are in control all the time is an illusion. Chance plays a BIG part in our lives too.
Chance is when other people decide who wins, who gets a raise, or who gets a book published. Basically, every time you ask anyone for anything or you’re dependant on anyone to do anything, it’s up to chance.
There’s a difference between chance and failure. Chance outcomes cannot be considered failures, because they’re not up to us. I mean, results can be affected by what we do, but they’re still outside of our control.
But that doesn’t mean you should give up. Persistence is the key here. If you continue to try a chance-based venture, you will succeed in time.
Don’t judge others for their failures
Develop a mindset of acceptance for other people. A mindset that allows them their failures, without judgment. Try not to be cynical about their crazy-sounding ventures or gloat when things don’t work out for them.
When you accept others taking bold steps while risking the possibility of them not working out, you’ll condition yourself to view failures as necessary road signs for your life as well.
Fear of failure is such a common struggle for all of us. But hopefully this lesson has changed you look at and deal with failure, because failure can be a force for change and growth if you let it.
There’s one more lesson coming up in this module and it’s about another common fear: the fear of success. I’ll see you over in the next video.