Fear of failure comes in many forms. For me, it’s largely an extension of my social anxiety.
Each failure feels like it will be the only thing that anyone remembers of me. I find myself constantly thinking through things I have said or done wrong in the past — a struggle that I know I share with many of you.
Fear of failure leads us not to try. The more we don’t try, the more we see ourselves as failures. The worse our self-image becomes, the less likely we are to try. It’s a shame spiral that can cripple even the best of us.
Why Do We Fear Failure?
Fear of failure can have many causes.
For some, it’s caused by perfectionism — which is doubly crippling because it not only makes failure feel worse but also broadens the definition of what counts as a failure.
I don’t want to sound too much like a psychology trope, but parenting can certainly be a factor. Hyper-critical parents can cause children to internalize their failures, leading to a life-long need for validation and reassurance.
As long as I’m talking psychology, why not talk about identity and ego. Many of us over-identify with our mistakes. This increases the pain of failure relative to success, making it hard to feel that anything is worth trying.
Lastly — though this is not an exhaustive list — there’s false self-confidence. This is the self-confidence that is built entirely from a lack of failures. It’s the self-confidence that lets us shout at the referee in a football game because we know that we could have made the calls better ourselves, yet doesn’t drive us to become referees ourselves.
Any of those reasons might drive us to fear failure, but our fear is made even worse by the very framework of the society around us — a society that doesn’t give people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to failure.
Human beings are terrible at supporting an individual’s right to fail.
All too often, our society either implicitly or explicitly states that failure implies fault. We don’t want to believe that random or even institutional factors can be the cause of failure, so we blame the individual. After all, if we don’t solely blame them for their failures, how can we take sole credit for our own successes?
With all that in mind, what can we do about our fear of failure? Are we just stuck with it? Luckily, the answer is no. Here are a few steps that can help.
Step 1: Redefine Failure Itself
Failure can happen in one of three ways.
- Failure to meet a set goal (explicit or otherwise)
- Failure to do better than others.
- Failure to do better than our previous selves.
Often, our perception that we have failed stems from setting unreasonable goals. A book that doesn’t become a best seller is a failure. A blog post that isn’t our most-read post is a failure. A job interview that doesn’t result in a job is a failure.
I’ll talk more about the goals themselves in the next step. First, let’s tackle the idea of what should actually count as a failure.
We tend to turn “I didn’t fully succeed” into “I failed” and then into “I am a failure”.
Stop doing that!
We need to recognize a few key points.
- Achieving 90% of a goal isn’t a complete failure. In fact, it’s closer to complete success than complete failure.
- Achieving 0% of a goal isn’t a failure if we learn something from the process (more on that in step 3).
- There is a difference between having failed and being a failure.
I suggest you try using these new definitions.
- Partial success — Anything that moves you toward your goal but doesn’t fully accomplish the goal.
- Setback — Anything that moves you further from your goal.
- Failure — A setback that doesn’t improve your understanding of how to achieve your goal.
Even within this rephrasing, you will still have failures, and that’s okay.
Step 2: Set SMART Goals With Accountability
It’s easy to hide behind unattainable or intentionally long-term goals.
I want to be a best-selling author. Sure, it’s a goal, but it’s certainly not one that I will be accomplishing in the next year or likely in the next 5 years. We can hide behind the safety of such goals because there’s no feeling of accountability for such an outlandish task.
Keep your dreams, but you need more focused and realistic goals to go along with them.
Here’s what you can do. First, make sure your goals are SMART.
- Specific — You or someone else should be able to look at the goal and understand exactly what it means and what would qualify as completing it.
- Measurable — You need to be able to tell if the goal is complete or not. This can’t be ambiguous.
- Achievable — Don’t set unattainable goals. If you can’t possibly complete the goal in the time allotted, it will leave you unmotivated and result in nothing getting done.
- Relevant — Does this goal even matter? If this isn’t driving you in the direction you want to be headed, then why is it even on the list?
- Time-bound — When does this need to be completed? Is that realistic without being too easy?
Everyone will tell you to make goals, but the next step is equally important: let other people know. You can use 1 other person or 1 billion people, but you can’t keep the goal to yourself
Writing down your goals helps to make them real, but telling someone else what they are is much more effective. Bringing in an accountability buddy serves two purposes.
- Ensures that you don’t adjust or try to squirm out of a goal.
- Makes you really think about the goals before you send them out.
As examples, here are some of my current goals. You are all now my accountability buddies.
- Finish reading Learning How to Learn by Sunday.
- Get a guest post approved for a (non-Medium) publication by the end of October. Start with Inc but try for any of my top 5.
- Release my ebook, The Polymath Playbook, by the end of December.
Step 3: Make Your Fears Explicit
Our focus on downside risks can be turned into a positive without too much effort.
We tend to think most about failure and plan most for success. We avoid planning for the failure because we either don’t want to waste time on it or don’t want to make it more real.
Ironically, that actually causes us to waste more time on failure and be more terrified of it.
We fear the unknown far more than the known. The more real we make failure, the less power it has over us.
Taking time to plan for setbacks allows us to spend less time worrying about the unknown failure — leaving us more time to plan for success.
Here’s how you can do it. Take a task that you are trying to accomplish and write down each of these lists.
- The worst things that could happen if you fail at the task
- Everything you could do to prevent those worst-case scenarios
- What you would do to cope with or recover from those worst-case scenarios
If you still find the fear of failure is weighing you down, try to focus more deeply on those thoughts. Is there something in particular that you are worried about that didn’t make the above lists? This process can often be iterative, with new fears surfacing as old ones are quelled.
Step 4: Rewrite Failures as Setbacks With Learnings
In the end, failures happen. You won’t have planned for all of them either. And that’s okay. As we talked about in step 1, the only true failures are the setbacks from which we don’t learn.
We spend plenty of time thinking about previous setbacks, but little of that time is spent productively. We punish ourselves instead of learning lessons.
Take the mistakes you made and make them explicit by writing them down. Now write down action items to help you avoid those mistakes in the future. Those action items might be something you can already change or something you need to learn in order to change.
As an example, I once absolutely bombed a very basic statistics question in an interview. It was beyond embarrassing for someone with a Ph.D. in my field. I took two lessons from that.
- I needed to brush up on that particular area of statistics.
- I needed to look for similar gaps by finding or compiling a list of statistics topics that show up in interviews.
And that’s exactly what I did… eventually.
First, I spent a lot of time beating myself up over it. Then I spent some time depressed, thinking that there was no way that I could get a job if I had such obvious gaps in my knowledge.
But once I got to those action items, I managed to plug a couple of other gaps in my statistics knowledge, and I eventually got a job as a data scientist. I still got other questions wrong on other interviews, but they never rattled me quite as much as that first one did. I had faced my setback and learned from it.
This process is not a miracle cure. You will still experience setbacks and even some failures. You will feel bad about it. The truth is, that never goes away.
But if you take the time to rethink failure, set SMART goals with accountability, make your fears explicit, and rewrite failures into setbacks with learnings, you’ll feel safer when you do fail and eventually start failing less often.
Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, Isaac Newton, and literally every other person your think of as a success has experienced failure.
Even the people that never try anything new still fail, but they sadly never experience the feeling of real success.
The feeling of succeeding at something new — of succeeding where most would not have dared to try — is worth more than a thousand failures. I should know because I’ve failed well over a thousand times.
Failing doesn’t make you a failure. But succumbing to the fear of failure just might.