EP Presents: Fear of Failure
By Atul Pant, founder of London-based charitable
organisation Timeless Lifeskills.
Thrilled about starting your own business venture or pining for the next job promotion, all of a sudden it occurs to you, “What if I don’t succeed?” Then thoughts of all the ridicule you will face, the rejection you might suffer, the burden of shame that you will have to bear come flooding in. You are in the vice grip of fear of failure.
Look back and you will find that of the ten times you were gripped by the fear of failure, probably all ten times all the bad things you imagined would happen when you failed, did not really happen, even if you did fail all ten times. And, chances are you probably only failed once or twice, then just felt disappointed and frustrated, and managed to bounce back. Life spirit is usually pretty resilient!
Fear of failure is mostly your imagination running wild. This has to do with the negativity bias we humans have because of evolutionary reasons. When we were hunter-gatherers a rustle in the bushes could mean a lurking predator or a delicious prey. For reasons of sheer survival it was better to assume it was a predator. Now, even though our survival is not at stake in most life situations we face, we still have this bias to assume that the worst will happen.
‘Name them to tame them’ is the advice given by psychologists when they talk with young children about negative emotions. This is good advice even for us adults. When in the grip of fear of failure, your first step could be to look deeply within and figure out what is triggering this fear: Is it fear of future shame, ridicule or rejection? Is it a fear of an uncertain future? Is it a fear of capability (you think are not capable of executing the new venture, or doing the new job)? Is it a fear of risking time, money and energy – i.e. your venture will fail and your peers will then be way ahead of you? If you can diagnose the root cause of your fear (name it) you can take action to mitigate it (tame it). You could also talk openly about your fears to a trusted other, this also helps.
In his book The Fifth Discipline, author Peter Senge explains that whenever you set a stretch goal you usually have pangs of anxiety. You should self-interrogate and check if the cause of this anxiety is a ‘creative tension’ that always accompanies a stretch goal, or is it that little negative voice inside your head that is telling you ‘you are powerless, incapable, or unworthy of the goal you are setting for yourself’. This negative voice is called a ‘structural conflict’. Creative tension is good because a little anxiety keeps your attention focused and spurs action, while structural conflict is something you need to deal with.
Distinguish between failure and fear of failure. While sometimes failure can destroy your self-belief, most of the times failure builds resilience, gives you inner strength and you do bounce back. It is the fear of failure that you need to watch out for because that can lead to procrastination, or worse, total risk avoidance, which implies that you are self-sabotaging your chances of pursuing larger dreams and goals.
Youngsters often say ‘YOLO’ – ‘You Only Live Once’ and then use this cry to do drugs, go binge drinking, or indulge in some other hyper-risky behaviour. Well, they have got it half-right. It has taken nature 13.8 billion years to create us humans – conscious, sentient beings. We are yet to find even microbial life elsewhere in the Universe. You do live only once (unless you believe in reincarnation) and what a miracle of evolution your life is. So in the 100 odd years of this wonderful life that you have, you must strive to grow to your full potential. No point giving in to imagined fears that most likely will never come true.
Set audacious goals, that go much beyond your self-interest and are for the larger good, and simply play the game of life, full on.