How to Overcome the Fear of Failure

A couple days ago I had someone ask me: How can I overcome the fear of failure?

I’d like to share my answer here.

(Short answer)

Embrace failure, because it’s one of our greatest teachers. Failure is only feedback, and it teaches us where our skills are, where they need to be, and what areas we should work on.

 

(Long answer)

For many people, failure is their biggest fear. This is problematic, because eventually, one way or another, they will fall short, miss the mark, or make a mistake. It’s something that happens to all of us. For those who fear failure, this moment means coming face to face with something legitimately terrifying. And then they do what most of us do when encountering something we fear: resist. In resisting, they cannot accept that someone of their stature is capable of failure. In their efforts to cover up their mistake, lack of knowledge, or poor judgement, they will blame others for their own shortcomings. Instead of learning and growing from their mistake, they will criticize others for making them look foolish.

Before I get into my explanation, I want to tell you something that might be shocking.

You will fail.

Sometime today, tomorrow, or maybe if you’re cautious, next week, you will make a mistake. It might be big or small, but it will be unsettling.

Rejection. Failure. Sadness. Despair. Apathy. These are probably the most uncomfortable feelings anyone can have, and yet, they frequently appear in our lives. Almost daily, I open my email and find a message in my inbox that prompts those feelings.

“At the present time, there are other candidates whose qualifications more closely match the requirements for this position and we will be moving forward with them in the recruiting process.”

Or this:

“Although we will not be publishing [name of the piece I submitted] at this time and are sorry to disappoint you, please be assured that your manuscript was read carefully by editors and trained screeners.”

It might be applying for a job, a school, an internship, submitting your writing or research to a journal, or asking someone out on a date—wherever you fell short this week, know that you are not alone. And if you’re like me, your failure rate will always be higher than your acceptance rate.

Failure teaches us where our skills are, where they need to be, and what areas we need to work on. With a growth mindset, mistakes and failure are nothing to get down about, they are lessons that teach us how to become better. Without failure, we wouldn’t grow, and that’s why failure is necessary for success.

This is important so I am going to repeat it—failure is not defeat. Failure is a teacher and necessary for success.

One more time—failure is not defeat. Failure is a teacher and necessary for success.

Here’s the secret no one tells you: The act of failing isn’t important. It is how you respond to failure that makes all the difference. If you view each experience as feedback to grow your skills, you will never truly fail. Whatever was lost in the process of making a mistake is merely the cost of learning a valuable lesson.

Failing early and often is part of every success story. If you have any fear of failure, now is the time to confront it. Now is the time to get comfortable with the uncomfortable feelings of rejection and embarrassment. The best way to do this is to practice. That’s right. Practice failing. Here’s the logic: you might get more bruises falling off 10 five-foot ladders, but a few bruises sure beats falling off one 50-foot rooftop. The longer you wait to fail, the more it’s going to hurt and the longer it will take to recover.

An easy way to practice failing is by taking the Noah Kagan Coffee Challenge. All you do is ask for 10% off your beverage at your local coffee shop. Weird? Yes, and it will catch the cashier off-guard. They will tell you to repeat yourself, because who in their right mind would be asking for 10% off? More than likely they will eventually tell you no (they may have to ask a manager). And that’s the point! You just faced fear in the face and got rejected! You got outside of your comfort zone and grew your confidence. Want to take it to the next level? Kagan suggests sitting in the wrong seat the next time you board an airplane.

Training for failure grows your confidence, so when you do make a mistake, you can bounce back quickly. Remember, there is no such thing as failure, only feedback. It’s what you do with that feedback that gives you wings or ties a lead ball around your ankle.

 

Have a question? Ask me here: andrewjwilt.com/contact

Andrew J. Wilt is the author of Age of Agility, a book that addresses the skill gap between school and work. He can be reached at Andrew.wilt@sustainableevolution.com and on Twitter @andrewjwilt
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