How to Overcome the Fear of Failure
What’s the worst thing that can happen?
Fear doesn’t discriminate.
Regardless if you made it to the top, you just joined a successful team or are considering launching your new venture — everyone is afraid of failing.
Fear is hardwired into us. It won’t go away — it’s a needed defense mechanism for survival. However, you can learn to distinguish real from imagined attacks.
Fear of failure is the anxiety you experience when you imagine all the horrible things that could happen. You put your creative juices to work against you instead of on your behalf — by imagining infinite threats your mind gets you paralyzed.
When was the last time you failed?
When I ask this question on a workshop, most participants avoid answering. Recognizing failure is like having a rare disease. No one wants to be on the spot. Ironically, the fear of failure can cause more pain than failure itself.
Many people are so scared of failing that they get stuck. The fear of failure is the most significant obstacle that stands between you and your achievements.
Your success depends on your ability to conquer, not your fears, but your idea of failure.
Anxiety drives confusion. One question helps me regain clarity and overcome the fear of failing.
Dance with fear, not with anxiety
“It is foolish to fear what you cannot avoid.” — Publius Syrus
Fear is an emotional response to a threat in the present — for instance, if you are caught in a fire or being bullied by a colleague. It’s a natural response to an attack that can be either perceived or real.
Anxiety is emotional anticipation — it’s the thought of something going wrong in the future, not now. Health professionals use the term ‘anxiety’ to describe a persistent fear or a chronic sense of worry, the sources of which seem unclear.
We can see what we are afraid of; anxiety clouds our vision.
When all your negative fantasies are being projected in front of you, it’s hard to see things clearly. Either you tame your thoughts, or they will eat you alive, as I wrote here.
Anxiety will get you stuck; fear will keep you in motion.
As Seth Godin says: “Dance with fear. As you dance, you realize that fear is, in fact, a compass — it’s giving you a hint that you are onto something. Even though there is that possibility of failure, the fear-as-compass pushes you to persistently, consistently, and generously bring your creative work forward.”
If you want a different outcome, start by changing your mentality.
When your expectations are too high, your fears become bigger and bigger. Worrying about the future is pointless too — most things are out of your control. Focus on what you can manage, not on the infinite possibilities that might occur (or not).
What the worst thing that can happen?
We don’t fear to do stuff; we fear the outcome because we can’t control it. Failing makes us vulnerable — we feel exposed to other people’s judgment. However, that speculation prevents you from living life to its fullest.
I use a simple mantra to defuse the fear of failure.
What’s the worst thing that can happen?
That simple question has helped me deal with anxiety and uncertainty throughout my life. It allows me to recover clarity too, especially in the darkest hours.
Regardless if I was planning to move to a new country or thinking to start my own firm, this mantra allowed me to distinguish real from imaginary threats. And to focus on the now rather than getting stuck anticipating the future.
That’s the most powerful thing about asking yourself what’s the worst thing that can happen. Most of the times, you’ll realize that most scenarios are not as bad as you feel.
Every time I ask that question, it reminds me of similar situations I faced in the past. Though the challenges and what’s at stake are different, there’s always a common theme: I don’t know how things will turn until they happen.
So, what’s the point of worrying?
You are probably thinking this sound too simplistic. That’s okay. I will give you some practical steps to put this into practice in a second. However, before you write a simple method off, consider the following. Overcomplication drives worries and anxiety — we start overthinking potential outcomes and then get paralyzed.
Simplicity is the antidote to overcomplicating.
Bertrand Russell, in The Conquest of Happiness, recommends dealing with worry through the cultivation of right attitudes.
“A process can be adopted with regard to anxieties. When some misfortune threatens, consider seriously and deliberately what is the very worst that could possibly happen. Having looked at this possible misfortune in the face, give yourself sound reasons for thinking that after all, it would be no such very terrible disaster. Such reasons always exist, since at the worst nothing that happens to oneself has any cosmic importance.” — the British philosopher wrote.
We need to rewire our brain to avoid overthinking from making us more anxious. Realizing that the world doesn’t revolve around us, as Russel suggested, removes the need to be in control. It invites you to take a more relaxed approach to life.
Fear is just one of the many emotions you have. Use your other feelings to offset being taken hostage by what you are afraid of.
Five ways to overcome the fear of failure
“First ask yourself: What is the worst that can happen? Then prepare to accept it. Then proceed to improve on the worst.” — Dale Carnegie
1. Distinguish real versus imagined fears
Asking what’s the worst thing that can happen is not a magic cure. It’s a first step towards finding clarity. You need to stop worrying and focus on the root cause.
Write down all the potential scenarios. Avoid exaggerating — the goals is to focus on probable situations, not to test your creativity. Categorize the answers in real and imagined fears. Discard the latter. This exercise requires practice until you build confidence.
Master your fears, or you’ll become their servant.
Bertrand Russell said: “Worry is a form of fear, and all forms of fear produce fatigue. The proper course with every kind of fear is to think about it rationally and calmly, but with great concentration, until it has been completely familiar.”
2. Don’t idealize life
If we expect life to be perfect, we will always be afraid of leaving our cocoon.
A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology demonstrated that when we have a too optimistic vision of our future, we become less energized and accomplish less also. That’s because we are not prepared to face struggles.
Life is not perfect; it’s not bad either — happiness requires embracing balance.
The same research has shown that successful people visualize a positive outcome, but also acknowledge future obstacles — the real ones, not the imagined ones.
3. Experience is about learning, not just achieving
If it’s hard to define what success looks like, what’s the point of defining failure then? Life is not perfect — there’s no point in trying to anticipate the future correctly.
When you focus on the outcome — what you want to achieve — you get distracted from playing your best game.
Winning is an outcome, focus on playing at your best.
There’s no such a thing as a perfect decision. A right decision made at the wrong time won’t do you any good either. Minimize risk by making decisions in small doses now. You can always course correct.
4. Standing still is more dangerous
Fear is not the enemy; paralysis is. The world will continue its natural course even if you don’t do anything. That’s the most hazardous part of standing still — everyone around you will move on as you keep rehashing things over and over.
Fear is a signal for you to wake up. What is the universe trying to tell you?
The world keeps changing even if you stay put. Failing to adapt can be more dangerous than experimenting with something new.
5. Defeat is temporary
Nothing lasts forever. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said:“Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.”
Mistakes are learning opportunities. Life requires a trial and error approach. We don’t come to this world with instructions manuals; we create our own as we live.
You battle the fear of failure every day.
Anticipation is the need to have the answers before you know what the questions are. Don’t let anxiety get in your way. Babies learn to walk because they don’t know there’s a thing called failure — they follow their instinct to get back on their feet again and keep trying.
The best way to overcome fear is by not being conquered by it.
Fear is a signal that something might happen. There’s no need to overreact. The fear of failure drives anxiety and gets you stuck. Anxiety blinds us — you anticipate something that might never happen instead of acting.
Fear is not the enemy; paralysis is.
What’s the worst thing that can happen?
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