Overcoming The Fear Of Failure

Vice President at CBRE | Founder of Marketing Real Estate.

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“Failure” is one of the most dreaded descriptions in the English language. Our society is about winning, being successful despite obstacles or inexperience. Success and failure are binary. People are judged to be one or the other just as a light bulb is either on or off. Seemingly, there is no middle ground.

Is Fear Of Failure A Motivator?ome psychologists suggest the fear of failure is a good motivator. According to them, the fear of failure and accompanying shame drives super-achievement. While fear of failure can promote persistence and effort, it also ratchets up stress and anxiety, often to an individual’s breaking point.

Children learn that bringing home a report card with an “Unsatisfactory” or “F” means parental disappointment and discipline. Psychological studies of young athletes have found that “fear of failure emerges in childhood and increases with age.” Because society idolizes winners, being considered a “failure” is devastating, triggering feelings of embarrassment, shame and anger. Childhood sports are no longer recreation but tests of ability and will. Many athletic coaches say, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

In 2021, sports fans were shocked when Olympics gymnastics star Simone Biles pulled out of the team competition due to the emotional toll of constant winning. The same year, four-time Grand Slam tennis champion Naomi Osaka withdrew from the prestigious French Open, citing mental health issues.

But athletes and celebrities are not the only people who suffer from excessive fear of failure.

The 2015 Global Entrepreneurial Monitor report finds that it is “a strong inhibitor for seizing opportunities and transforming entrepreneurial intentions into entrepreneurial activity.”

Failure Is Part Of LearningBabies do not emerge from the womb walking. It is a learned skill that includes thousands of steps and dozens of falls in the process. Babies encounter obstacle after obstacle—different surfaces, changing elevations, multiple body positions—that end in failures to stay upright. Parents revel in their children’s attempts to master walking, picking them up time and again, proudly sharing home movies of their efforts; few people judge a child as they learn to perform everyday activities.

Failure is a natural occurrence of human existence. It is a stage, not a judgment. Getting rid of the emotional baggage attached to the term is your first step in the journey to real success. When we see a great athlete performing at their peak, listen to a Yo-Yo Ma performance or experience the marvels of modern medicine, we often fail to consider the hours of overcoming mistakes, wrong decisions, frustrations and disappointments that precede great accomplishment.

Failure Depends On Circumstance And LuckBaseball hitters are considered great if they get a hit four times out of 10, i.e., if they “fail” the other six times. Edison is regarded as a genius for inventing the electric light bulb, even though he first failed 10,000 times—or, as he is often quoted as saying, he found 10,000 ways that did not work. The mega-bestseller Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected by twelve different publishers before being accepted.

Businesses sometimes fail because their products or services are too revolutionary, too advanced for the existing market to support. In the mid-1970s, Tocom Inc. invented, patented and demonstrated an interactive cable television system for Irving, Texas, with the capability to provide fire and burglar alarms, various water, gas and electric meter reading mechanisms, multiple programming options including movies with rating and viewer response mechanisms, and much more. The company went out of business due to the lack of ancillary services provided by third parties. Technologically, the company was a great success, though its shareholders probably considered it a failure.

Samuel Goldwyn, one of the founders of the MGM movie franchise, is often quoted as saying, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” His comment reflects the common opinion that luck—randomness—has little effect on one’s success. While taking credit (or blame) might appeal to the ego, researchers have found that luck plays a significant role in success or failure. In fact, a 2018 scholarly article went so far as to say, “It is true that some degree of talent is necessary to be successful in life, [but] almost never the most talented people reach the highest peaks of success, being overtaken by mediocre but sensibly luckier individuals.”

Good Failure: A Key ConceptWhile the concept that failure is good might be controversial, it reflects the philosophy of an agile mind and organization coping with constant change. Failing to react quickly in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment is more dangerous than making a mistake, as long as you learn from the experience. Success comes from iteration, repeated cycles of innovation, testing and improvement. The components of a good failure are:

• Fail fast. Since we learn from failure, the faster the failure occurs, the quicker we learn and can develop a new solution.

• Fail often. Each failure produces new knowledge, opening doors to new solutions. The more we fail, the more we learn, i.e., the Edison quote above.

• Fail better. Each failure should be thoroughly analyzed to understand its cause. With that knowledge, each iteration is closer to the best decision.

Final ThoughtsDon’t let fear of failure hold you back. In most cases, the consequences of a poor result are much less harmful than they appear in your mind. Those who would attempt to shame or embarrass you about failure often have less experience, knowledge or opportunity; they are no more consequential than a stranger on the street.

When you feel overwhelmed, use your logic to get a new perspective. No one is perfect and nothing is forever. Celebrate your failures, learn from them and move on to the next challenge.

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