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Does the Fear of Failure Hold You Back?

Aug 17, 2007
"Failure seldom stops you. What stops you is the fear of failure."--Jack Lemmon

Jack* was a financial analyst for a large company in Washington, DC. After a few years, the director of his department decided to leave so her position became open. Jack considered applying for the job, but his fear of failure in managing others overwhelmed him. Despite his reservations, he decided to apply and ended up getting the position. Less than a year later he was fired for his failure to manage effectively. He was out of work for three months, which coincided with the birth of his first son. At the end of those three months he got a new job working as a financial analyst for a company he likes much more and that is located only two miles from his home. In the end, Jack realized he was not cut out for management yet but he didn't regret trying it out. He believes being fired was a blessing in disguise because he was able to spend valuable time with his son and find a new job he enjoys.

A new manager in her early 30s was running a small group of client service representatives to service an institutional clientele at a financial services firm. One of her new employees had become very difficult-she was demanding, acting entitled, was trying to pick and choose her work, and was creating resentment among colleagues. This was the manager's first challenge in confronting employees whose behavior had become counterproductive. Knowing that she had to speak with the problem employee, but never having been in this type of situation before, she became riddled with insomnia and anxiety when thinking about dealing with it. For several weeks she rehearsed what she would say and worried about it before finally scheduling the meeting with the problematic employee. At the meeting the manager nervously sat down, and with her voice shaking, told the problem employee, "We need to talk about your attitude. Do you realize how spoiled you've been acting?" (While that wasn't the manager's choice of words in her rehearsals, it was the best she could muster at the time.) The employee looked at her puzzled and said that she didn't realize she had been acting that way. The manager was then able to calm down and explain the issues to her employee. Ultimately, the employee was more than willing to address her shortcomings and she became one of the "stars" in the office. Had the manager not confronted her, the employee would have likely wreaked more havoc, caused other valuable employees to quit, and would have eventually been fired.

Failure, and the risk of failure, can be devastating to some people while others are able to take their failures in stride, learn from them, and move on. What differentiates those who avoid failure at all costs from those who accept it as a normal part of living?

Fear, as they say on TV, is the "factor." Fear of failing is the primary reason why some of us have trouble making decisions, taking risks, and investing our physical and emotional energy into anything beyond the status quo. It doesn't help that our fears often contribute to our failures.

It's amazing what our minds can do. We can create terror for ourselves with our imagination. While sometimes what we imagine does come true, many times it doesn't. Often, the reasons that we avoid risking failure are not completely based on reality. They are based on irrational fears such as fear of harm (e.g. getting fired or losing the company), fear of being seen as incompetent, and sometimes even fear of success and the perceived expectations it brings.

After all, no one likes to be "wrong" and failure is often synonymous in the business world with being wrong or "bad." Failing to some means being weak. Success, on the other hand, means being "right" and "good" and therefore strong. We're taught to buy into it from an early age. As kids we all heard at one time or another, "Losers never win!"

As a result, some view failure as validation that they really are foolish, incapable, a fraud-you fill in the blank. The person is the failure. However, that belief is a myth. Failure is a situation, not a person. It is something that happens, not who one is. The same can be said of success.

So then, what does it mean to fail? Failure can be defined as an unsuccessful attempt at doing something. However, while the attempt may have been unsuccessful, at least there was an attempt. True failure is the refusal to attempt at all, when we allow fear and regret to have mastery over our dreams. Ultimately, failure happens when we quit on ourselves.

The good news is that it is possible to overcome your fears about failure. In order to make it happen, you must develop a few key qualities:

1)Acceptance: I've come to see failure and my fear of it as a kind of "white noise" that resides in the background of my life. If I choose to turn it up, it will be all I hear. If on the other hand I accept it, I will barely notice it. Acceptance takes the power out of fear and redirects it toward possibility. Dr. Joyce Brothers suggests that we "Accept that all of us can be hurt, that all of us can-and surely will at times-fail. I think we should follow a simple rule: if we can take the worst, take the risk."

2)Perspective: When we experience failure, or the fear of failure, it's important to look at the big picture and realize that most of our failures are just small blips on the radar screen. Usually we have self-image concerns, but truthfully our failures are forgotten quickly. Even the biggest securities scandals barely catch our attention for more than one news cycle. On the other hand, the way you handle your failure, good or bad, may serve as an example to someone else. In the end, life is not only what happens to us, but what we do with what happens to us.

3)Humor: For so many issues in life humor saves us from ourselves. One of the greatest things parents can teach their kids is to not take themselves too seriously. Humor cushions our failures and weakens our fears. Most importantly, it helps us to forgive ourselves and others for being human and failing, sometimes miserably. Author Catherine Aird has noted, "If you can't be a good example, then you'll just have to be a horrible warning."

Working to outgrow the fear of failure is not easy. Fear is familiar and comfortable and it can pull us back down from time to time. But each time we resist that fear by doing something new we become stronger and it becomes easier to risk the next time.

Eventually, outgrowing your fear puts you on the path to innovation and to realizing the success you have dreamed about. In the words of President John F. Kennedy: "Those who dare to fail miserably can achieve greatly."

*Name has been changed.
About the Author
Sue Peschin, MHS is an executive coach and the owner of Discover Inspiration, a consulting firm that helps business professionals to improve their performance and realize their goals. Please visit Sue's website at http://discoverinspiration.xbuild.com/.
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