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I’m going to fail at this . . .  a feeling we all have from time to time.

| August 18, 2020

by Jim Bruce

I’m going to fail at this . . .  a feeling we all have from time to time.

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Jim Bruce, Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously served as Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA. Jim may be reached at [email protected].]
From time to time, we each encounter, or are assigned, a task where our first reaction is that we are very likely to have great difficulty, or possibly even fail, if we undertake the task. We all know, and have had, that reaction.
My first colossal failure, at least the first one I can recall, occurred in the early 1940s when I was in the first grade. We were living with my mother’s parents then in a small (perhaps 500 hundred people) East Texas town.  One evening students were the entertainment for a parent-teacher event. I, somehow, was designated to sing a solo. The only detail I remember is the very loud laughter that arose from the audience as I sang. My singing was not funny, it was simply horrible. After finishing, I must have exited from the stage very rapidly and very hurt, with that event seared into my memory.
I suspect that everyone has had a similar, devastating experience at some early point in their lives. And, likely we each carry parts of our experience(s) with us. For example, for me I rarely sing, even when there is congregational singing at the church I attend. And, I carefully prepare and mentally rehearse for almost everything, including projects I undertake, presentations I make, and sometimes conversations I need to have.
When we fail, we are embarrassed. It’s a blow to our self-esteem. Guy Winch1 writes: “Everyone hates to fail, but for some people failing represents such a significant psychological threat their motivation to avoid failure exceeds their motivation to succeed. This fear of failure causes them to unconsciously sabotage their chances of success … Failing can elicit feelings such as disappointment, anger, frustration, sadness, regret, and confusion that while unpleasant, are usually not sufficient to trigger full-blown fear of failure. Indeed, this term is somewhat of a misnomer because it is not failure per se that underlies the behavior of people who have it. Rather, a fear of failure is essentially a fear of shame. People who have a fear of failure are motivated to avoid failing not because they cannot manage the basic emotions of disappointment, anger, and frustration that accompany such experiences but because failing also makes them feel deep shame.”
Winch continues: “Shame is a psychologically toxic emotion because instead of feeling bad about our actions (guilt) or our efforts (regret), shame makes us feel bad [about] who we are. Shame gets to the core of our egos, our identities, our self-esteem, and our feelings of emotional well-being. The damning nature of shame makes it urgent for those who have a fear of failure to avoid the psychological threats associated with failing by finding unconscious ways to navigate the implications of a potential failure …”
Further, the “doist” ambition and balance blog reports that “Research has shown a connection between the fear of failure and procrastination. That means that the more anxiety we feel about failing to reach our goals, the less likely we are to take action toward achieving them.”2 That’s why it is so easy to “postpone” even the important tasks that are long on our To Do lists.
Elbert Hubbard, an American writer, said it this way: “There is no failure except in no longer trying.”3 So, when we see that apparently exciting, yet difficult, assignment coming our way, we likely have two sets of emotions.  One, elation, focused on can we actually succeed at doing it.  The other, dread and shame, focused on the possibility of not succeeding.
We know that the possibility of failure is real. We all have failed and felt shame at some point. I fail, you fail, and so have any number of very famous people who we label as significant examples of success. For example, on a list4 of people who failed early and often in their lives you will find:

  • Abraham Lincoln, at 23 lost his job and an election for the state legislature and six years later he lost an election to become Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives. Then in 1848, he failed in an attempt to become Commissioner of the General Land Office, and ten years after that he was defeated in an election to become a U.S. Senator. Then, after this long string of personal, business, and political failures, Lincoln was elected President in 1861.
  • J. K. Rowling, at age 17 had her application to Oxford rejected, leading her to go to the University of Exeter. After graduating, on a long train ride, the idea of a fully formed “young wizard” came to her mind, only needing the details to be fleshed out. However, life intervened. Her mother died, she taught English in Portugal, got married, had a daughter, separated, was divorced, saw herself as a major failure, was diagnosed with clinical depression, and was suicidal. Five years after the initial idea of a wizard came to her, she finally finished the manuscript for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone which 12 major publishers turned down.  The book was finally published in 1997, seven years after the first idea came to her mind. According to Forbes, by 2004 Rowling had become the first author to become a billionaire through book writing.
  • Soichiro Honda, born in 1906, left home when he was 15 without any formal education, and went to Tokyo to find work. He worked there for six years in an auto repair shop before returning home to open his own automotive shop. At age 31, he founded his own company to create piston rings for Toyota. His initial efforts failed to meet specifications. He continued with little cash and almost no chance of making a piston ring that met Toyota’s specifications. Yet he did succeed, only to have the factory manufacturing the product hit by a bomb during the early days of WWII. He rebuilt the factory only to have an earthquake destroy it. Yet, he refused to give up. In 1948, he established Honda Motor Co., Ltd. and oversaw its expansion from a wooden shack manufacturing bicycle motors to a multinational automobile and motorcycle manufacturer.
  • At 15 and a sophomore in high school, Michael Jordan, was passed up for the varsity basketball team, and assigned to the junior varsity. He was ready to give up. However, his mother convinced him to stay with the team. Every time he stopped training, he would picture the list of varsity players without his name. He allowed this failure to push him forward rather than defeat him. At age 21 he began to play for the Chicago Bulls where he won six championship titles and became one of the most impactful basketball players ever in the game.

From just these few examples, it is clear that early failures do not doom a person to a life of failure. Two other examples make this point even more striking: James Dyson made 5,236 failed prototypes over 15 years before he was successful at using cyclonic separation to create a vacuum cleaner that did not lose suction. And, Thomas Edison famously said “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”
So, what might you do when confronted with the fact that you might fail at an upcoming task or project? Here is a task list that I have found helpful for both the situation when I’m fairly confident that I will be successful and the situation where I have many concerns:

  1. While it seems obvious, do make sure that you understand the task, what the specific deliverables are, and the timeline is. If you are focused on the wrong task, deliverables, or timeline you are pretty much guaranteed to fail. A discussion with the task sponsor will often reveal issues that were not obvious or that you missed.
  2. Since failure is always a possibility, you might identify possible failures and their consequences, and how you might guard against, or work around, them.
  3. Develop a plan of attack. It doesn’t have to be a long, complicated document. However, even for simple tasks, having a list of steps you need to take can be very helpful in making sure you understand what the task is and in keeping you on track.
  4. List your concerns. What difficulties do you anticipate? How do you plan to address them? Who might be of help to you at this point? Etc.
  5. Do the work. When you encounter an obstacle in your path, don’t panic or give up. Find a way around it. Seek help from your colleagues and the task’s sponsor.
  6. Celebrate your success in completing the task. After you’ve patted yourself on the back, stop and ask yourself what you learned from the work and how you might incorporate those learnings into the way you approach work in the future.

Most likely, we all have some anxiety, and even a fear of failure, when we are approached with a new task or responsibility. Too often, fear or the shame of failing is the first emotion to appear. Your real assignment is to get beyond the fear and shame of failing and focus on the work. This simple six step process should help you do that. Do consider giving it a try at the first opportunity. I think you will find it helpful.
I trust that you will make your week a good one even with the on-going challenges of COVID-19.
.  .  .  .     jim


  1. Guy Winch, 10 Signs That You Might Have Fear of Failure, Psychology Today, June 2013.
  2. 3 Proven Strategies to Help You Overcome Fear of Failure, ambition & balance blog, doist, undated.
  3. Sebastian Kipman, 15 Highly Successful People Who Failed On Their Way to Success, LifeHack, undated.
  4. Robert Kanaat, 48 Famous Failures Who Will Inspire You to Achieve, WanderLust blog, undated.