Why is the fear of failure so powerful?
You’ve heard the question a million times — “What would you do if you weren’t afraid to fail?”
But asking that question isn’t useful because you are afraid to fail.
Speaking in hypotheticals doesn’t work as well as giving you strategies to deal with reality.
And the reality for most people is that fear of failure stands in the way of everything they really want, so how do you overcome it?
The Secret to Overcoming Your Fear of Failure
Once I learned what I’m about to tell you, everything started to click for me.
You ready for the secret? Here it comes.
You don’t overcome your fear of failure.
I mean, why would you? Failure doesn’t feel good. That’s why I never understood the idea of “fail fast” or people doing challenges where they purposefully put themselves in a position to fail. The failure porn needs to stop.
The secret to overcoming your fear of failure is accepting that it’s never going to go away and to also avoid failure in the first place. You’re trying to succeed.
If you’re trying to succeed, it would make sense to focus on success. So that’s what I do. I create plans to succeed, knowing full well that I might fail, but I don’t try to wish away my fear of failure, nor do I dive in head first trying to fail.
So what does this process look like in practice?
What Failure Isn’t
I’ve written multiple pieces about having the mindset of someone conducting an experiment.
Here’s an excerpt from my post on how to stop thinking and start doing:
With an experimental mindset, I don’t take success or failure as a definition of who I am but rather feedback as to what I should do next.
You go through the process of personal development by doing it on a trial basis. This way, you can’t fail. You may have hiccups or decide to go a different route, but it’s actually rare to experience true failure. And most people don’t understand what failure really is.
Writing a few blog posts and getting no traffic isn’t a failure. Going to the gym a handful of times and quitting isn’t a failure. Putting up a website and unsuccessfully trying to sell a product for a few weeks isn’t a failure. Giving up after attempting something for a short period of time isn’t a failure. That’s just you being lazy.
You fail when you give a maximum effort over a long period of time and still come up short. That’s what you’re really afraid of and that’s why you don’t try hard. Quitting early doesn’t feel good, but it feels a hell of a lot better than doing everything ‘right’ and still failing. Make no mistake about it. This can happen.
For every person who shares their tips for success, there are people who used the same steps and failed.
So far, I haven’t given you much to quell your fears. You might even be more afraid by now. Why am I doing this?
Because I’ve decided to write the truth with zero sugar coating my words. You need to know how to properly navigate life, and a huge part of that is dealing with negative consequences, emotions, and scenarios.
You can’t avoid bumps and bruises. There is no path to the good life without facing failure. There is only one way I know of.
The Power of Fear
I vividly remember fumbling the words to my TEDx talk as I rehearsed it minutes before I was going to speak in front of 1,000 people. I also remember how great it felt to walk off the stage after giving the talk with no mistakes. I faced my fear.
I remember publishing both of my books, not knowing whether they’d sell, and feeling bliss as I watched the sales come in. I also remember times when I’ve launched products that got no sales, wrote blog posts with no views, and made mistakes that made me feel terrible.
All of those moments tied together, though, make everything that’s happening now feel more rewarding. You think you don’t want to face fear, but you do. You think you want a painless life, but you don’t.
Just as joy needs sadness, light needs dark, and pleasure needs pain, you need fear. Without it, your victories would be hollow.
Imagine going through life with a genuine feeling that you’d never fail and everything would be laid out perfectly for you.
There are people like that, trust fund kids. Often, they kill the businesses they were gifted by their parents, blow their money, have no sense of purpose, and can even end up depressed and addicted.
Again, you should never aim to fail, but know that moments of failure provide the flavor of meaning that makes success feel good.
Fear is the price of admission. Instead of denying this, embrace it.
This all sounds good in theory, but the minute you hit a bump in the road you’re going to want to quit, so how do you push past your fear of failure to build a life and career you love?
No matter how many tips you read, they can’t replace that teeny tiny gap between thought and action. I can only provide suggestions to bring you closer to the bridge, but you have to cross it.
Let’s take a look at some of my favorite strategies, tips, and techniques.
Shrink This Down About 1,000 Sizes
No matter how humble and pious you think you are, you have a giant ego. Ego manifests itself in many forms.
It manifests in fear because to be afraid of failure means you place too much emphasis on your emotions. It manifests itself in martyrdom — the key word in the phrase “woe is me” is me.
You can mitigate your fear of failure by lowering your ego. You can lower your ego by taking yourself less seriously. You’re just a collection of atoms existing on a rock in the middle of a giant universe. Relax.
You’re afraid of the opinions of people who are just as preoccupied with themselves as you are. Relax.
People have been to the gulag, died of plagues, experienced Jim Crow, and got drafted into wars, you’re just trying to become a writer or start a little e-commerce business. Calm down.
I tell myself phrases like this all the time when I get wound up about success or failure. I tell myself to relax, that no one is attentively watching the movie of my life, that the things I do are important to me but are ultimately unimportant in the grand scheme of it all.
The Secret to Doing Great Work
Has anyone ever told you that you don’t have to feel good about yourself to do great work? I’ve written popular blog posts while afraid, energy-depleted, and in a funk. I just…start writing.
Maybe you’re trying to get your business in gear and you need to send some cold emails. You don’t have to be in an amazing mood to understand how to write a compelling message. You can convey enthusiasm in a written message even if you don’t actually feel that way.
You can have a fear of failure and still act. My coach taught me this (yes, I have one!) I realized that I didn’t have to have positive thoughts to create positive actions. The process is actually the reverse. As I start to do, I feel better.
I’m working on my third book. I think it will succeed, but of course, I’m still afraid it will fail. I’m going to finish the book regardless of those feelings. And yes, I’ve built up a ton of confidence after writing for five years, so I have a strong inclination that it is going to do well, but the voice of the resistance never disappears.
A big part of the ethos of “turning pro” — becoming a professional who masters their work — is doing the work regardless of how you feel and how well you think your work will pay off. You just fucking do it.
You don’t want the pollyana answer. You’re tired of that. “Believe and achieve!” Barf. No, try “just fucking doing it,” on for size and you’ll realize how well it works.
Price it in and Pay the Price
I use negative visualization quite a bit.
The process involves thinking about the worst possible outcome and deciding whether or not you’ll be okay with it. For example, I’m going to spend thousands of dollars creating a book. The downside is known.
At worst, I’ll be out that few thousand bucks, but no more, because I can’t sell negative books. On top of that, I know selling zero copies is highly unlikely.
How would I feel emotionally if the book failed? I’d be really depleted, heartbroken, feeling like quitting, wondering what the point of writing is. Those feelings are bad, but are they dealbreakers? No. I won’t suffer physical harm, nor will this failure have consequences so perilous I can’t bounce back from them. I will be butt-hurt about it. That’s all.
I’m going to put this in bold letters so it sinks in.
99 percent of the time, the number one downside to forging a new path for your life is…feeling a little butt-hurt.
For lack of better words, stop being a wimp.
I’m sorry if this vernacular doesn’t fit the new aged trend of telling everyone how special of a snowflake they are, how they should practice self-care even if they’re lazy, and how self-help and success are false idols.
Nah, all of those statements are poor replacements for stop being a powerful human being who squanders their power over something as trivial as emotions.
The process is two-fold:
- Price it in — Know the downsides up front and account for them immediately
- Pay the price — After understanding what the process entails, make a conscious decision to pay the price and follow through
The only time you should say “no” to something is if the potential consequences are worse than hurt feelings, e.g., refinancing your home to fund a business. Those decisions shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Fortunately, in a digital world, most new paths, businesses, careers, etc, can be tested for a very low cost and barrier to entry.
Enough with the excuses, stand up straight with your shoulders back and face the world.
This is Your Life
As someone who gives a lot of advice, I always discount that advice by saying this…
It’s your life.
Whether you listen to me or not is on you. Whether you find this information helpful or not is on you. How your life turns out is on you.
Let’s look at that last sentence. Even if your world spins out of control, it’s on you to right the course for the simple fact that no one else is willing to do it for you.
You can blame the world, shout at the sky, continue to live in a way that doesn’t serve you. But it’s all on you because your life is… your life.
As much as you spend time in your head making yourself the center of the universe, it just seems to make sense that you would at least try to serve yourself. Don’t let your preoccupation with yourself go to waste.
Realize the dealing with your fear of failure is the best thing that you can do for yourself.
What will happen next? Will you click away from this post and continue to do nothing?
Or will you start that draft, send that message, create that plan, do something, anything, to move closer in the direction of both fear and the life you were meant to live.
It’s up to you. I suggest you go. Now.