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Fearing Failure

| February 5, 2019

by Jim Bruce

At one time or another, we have each tried and failed at something, sometimes miserably. And, as a result we all have some fear that if we try to do the same thing, or something similar, again, we will again fail.
Not always. But, sometimes. It might be that when you have a new opportunity or are beginning a new task, you remember when you tried something similar, and it didn’t go well. So, you hesitate. Or, you might recall a time when you were laughed at or made to feel like a failure or ignored when you made a proposal or presented an idea. 
It might be that when you didn’t meet expectations, all the feedback you received was about what you did wrong, with nothing said about what you did right or about other approaches you might have taken. And, it might be that nothing was said at all, leaving you, after working hard, putting lots of time and effort into the activity, with a sense of having tried hard, given of yourself, all to no avail.
I don’t have to try all that hard to remember a number of such events in my life. Memories of times I’ve tried and not done as well as I wanted to do flood back whenever a similar new opportunity appears. I’m sure that you have had these same experiences.
As I write this Tuesday Reading, I think of one of my granddaughters. She was very working hard at transitioning from crawling to walking. She’d sit up, manage to stand, and then try to take a step, and fall. She kept persistently trying.  And, having watched this for some time that morning, I was not paying complete attention and missed the magic moment when she didn’t fall and simply walked off. When her father returned from doing some errands, I heard him exclaim, Emma’s walking! 
That morning, when Emma tried and failed, she kept trying. 
Many times, when we try something new, for example, speaking to a group, and don’t do well, we avoid similar opportunities in the future. Noam Shpancer,1 in his essay Overcoming Fear: The Only Way Out is Through, puts it this way: “… when you avoid something that scares you, you tend to experience a sense of failure. Every time you avoid a feared object or situation, your anxiety gains strength while you lose some. Every time you avoid the feared object or situation, you accumulate another experience of failure and another piece of evidence attesting to your weakness. Finally, avoidance eliminates practice. Without practice it is difficult to gain mastery. Without mastery, confidence is less likely to arise.”
The observation here is that avoiding your anxiety maintains and amplifies it. The flip side of this “coin” is what psychologists call “habitation.” So, in psychological terms, you “expose” yourself to something you’ve come to fear in order to “habituate” yourself to that anxiety. Rather than intensifying the fear, habituating yourself to the fear will cause the fear to subside.
So, in terms more familiar to us, if you repeat an activity, or an action, even if it makes you anxious at the beginning, it will, over time, become a habit that you can readily deploy.
Shpancer says that confronting your fear rather than avoiding it, will result in a sense of accomplishment and empowerment.
So, how do you begin? My experience is that having a repeatable process to guide you through a fearful situation can be helpful. Here is such a process that I have found to be a good foundation for addressing fearful (and those not so fearful, as well) tasks no matter whether it’s a new task – mastering a new application package, taking on a new organizational role – moving from team lead to manager, designing a new system – developing a process for on-boarding staff, presenting your team’s work to senior leadership, or presenting your work, etc.: 

  1. Specifically, what is your goal? What would success look like? What is it you need to do to be successful in delivering on this assignment? In writing this out, you need to be sufficiently clear and detailed that you could give your task description to a colleague and she or he would know and understand what you are going to deliver. 
  2. You need to be just as clear about what you fear and what would constitute failure. By thinking about this beforehand, you will gain further insight into and understanding of your commitment.
  3. Now, after you understand what your deliverable is, you need a plan that is sufficiently detailed that when you complete one of the plan’s tasks you know what the next one is.
  4. Once you have a clear goal, understand what would constitute failure, and have a plan, it’s time to begin to act according to the plan. As you begin to act your anxiety and stress should subside and you should begin to feel a sense of accomplishment. 
  5. In some instances, for example, when your goal is to present a report or to make a presentation, after you’ve done the work to develop your material and any visuals you plan to use, it will be important to practice. It’s been reported that the long-standing top fear in the United States is public speaking.  (In many surveys, death is second to standing in front of a group and opening your mouth.) Depending upon who your audience is and the importance of the topic, you will need to practice many times. It’s reported that Jill Bolte Taylor practiced her TED talk2more than 200 times in order to get it just right. (And, she must have, as the talk has been viewed over 23 million times.)
  6. As you work towards your goal, visualize the path you are on. This mental mapping will help you, as you move forward, to follow your plan and reach your goal.
  7. And, don’t forget, it is more than OK to seek help. No one of us has all the answers all the time. Admitting you don’t know and asking for help is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of maturity.  

Most likely at some point in the near future, if you are truly honest with yourself, you will find before you a task that you fear. When you do, give the seven-step process I’ve outlined here a trial run. I believe that you will find it helpful and may want to make it a part of how you approach new tasks in the future.
Make it a great week for you and your team. .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Noam Shpancer, Overcoming Fear: The Only Way Out is Through, Psychology Today, September 2010.
  2. Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight, TED talk, February 2008.

Other Reading:

  1. James Clear, 5 Thoughts on Overcoming Fear and Self-Doubt, (undated).
  2. Ted Ferriss, Why You Should Define Your Fears Instead of Your Goals, TEDTalk, April 2017.
  3. Matt Mayberry, 3 Ways to Overcome Fear, August 2014.
  4. Susan Peppercorn, How to Overcome Your Fear of Failure, Harvard Business Review, December 2018.
  5. Josh Steimle, 14 Ways to Conquer, January 2016.