Overcoming Your Fear of Failure

By: Jim Bruce
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[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.]
 
In our past, at one time or another, each of us have tried and failed at something, sometimes spectacularly. And, as a result we have some fear that should we try again, we will fail again.
 
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 turn away. Or, you might recall a time when you were laughed at or made to feel like a failure or were 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 could 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 many 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 working very 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, as he walked in the door and saw her: ”Emma’s walking!”
 
That morning, when Emma tried and failed, she kept trying.  (This spring, Emma will graduate from Emerson College in Boston.)
 
Noam Shpancer 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 that anxiety. The flip side 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 will cause the fear to subside.
 
So, in terms more familiar to us, if you repeat an activity, even if it makes you anxious at the beginning, it will over time become a habit.  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 not-so-fearful) tasks no matter what the task – mastering a new application package, taking on a new organizational role, moving from team lead to manager, designing a new system, developing a staff on-boarding process, presenting work to senior leadership, etc.:

 

1. Define the goal.  What is your goal? What would success look like? What do you need to be successful in delivering? In writing this out, you need to be sufficiently clear and detailed so that a colleague would know and understand what you are going to deliver.

2. Define failure.  Be clear about what would constitute failure and what you fear. Thinking about this provides further understanding of your commitment.

3. Make a plan that is sufficiently detailed that when you complete one step you know what the next one is.

4. 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. Practice.  In some instances, for example when your goal is to make a presentation, it will be important to practice. It’s been reported that the long-standing top fear in the United States is public speaking, even more so than the fear of death.  You may need to practice many times. It’s reported that Jill Boite-Taylor practiced her TED7talk more than 200 times. (And she must have got it right, as the talk has been viewed over 27 million times.)

6. 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. 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.

 

David Vialois, in his essay How to Conquering Fear, summarizes this process in three steps:

1. Define the fear. When your brain senses danger, it produces adrenaline in anticipation of a non-existent combatant. If you do not act to consume the adrenaline, you will continue to feel the fear.

2. Embrace the fear. Fear is normal. When you accept the fear, you can feel instantly better. Fear’s intensity will be reduced. You are not inferior. We all have fear and need to take steps to address the fear that we are currently facing.

3. Take one step forward. Activity overcomes worry. Be disciplined. Action provides a pathway for the adrenaline to dissipate and gives confidence to move forward. Taking even a small step towards your goal will begin to cause the adrenaline to begin to dissipate.

 

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 these approaches a try. I believe that you will find it helpful and you 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
 
[An earlier version of this essay was published as the Tuesday Reading on February 5, 2019.]

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