Out of a fear of the unknown,
we prefer suffering that is familiar.
Thich Nhat Hanh
We like the fears we know and have grown accustomed to. New fears are scary. Future fears will bring new mysterious suffering. Safety and comfort dictate that doing less, little or nothing eliminate fear.
When I talk to undergrads who are graduating, career changers, or people at the cusp of a new chapter in their lives including retirement, they naturally describe what they fear— “fear of failure” has become a common theme. Not just the fear of not doing it correctly, of screwing up. But the deeper fear of loss—plans that just don’t work out but set them back in time and effort. I always hear the powerful reverse engines of resistance revving up. Fear of failure starts to construct the hypothetical house of regret with procrastination. Much of fear comes from the anticipation of regret. Look, no one likes failure, a failing grade, failed experiment, certainly a failed marriage or a failed business. We all want to be smart and avoid the embarrassment of mistakes. But herein lies the main issue. The role of other people’s opinions. Splitting the atoms of what you want and what looks good will blow up in your face.
Everyone wants a guarantee, money-back, easy returns with free shipping. To avoid the consequences of a mistake. The endless what-if scenarios. Some engage in a near Monte Carlo analysis to evaluate every scenario to determine the highest probability path to success based on historical data. Aaaaah historical data! But you have evolved and the current version of YOU has never existed. We realize all the variables are dependent on factors and dependent on other variables that no one can predict. Fear of failure is really a disguise for procrastination.
We all have the imposter syndrome costume in our closets. Our lack of real confidence in ourselves. We never seem like we’ve been enough. We haven’t really done enough. We faked it till we made it. And now we’re being discovered. Fear of failure fills the void.
Most of us are grateful for the privilege we have. The sacrifices that have been made for us to be here. We must appreciate all that. So, privilege and gratitude require us to be grateful for everything that got us here. The successes and the failures.
Our ancestors enabled us to have better failures.
We are all the product of tremendous failures. Many mistakes. Failures that were endured. Sacrifices made. All of which created new opportunities. What we learned from each mistake we made, how we got better, we don’t appreciate the byproducts. We learn what we want and don’t want. New collisions, consequences, chances. Failure also breeds deep human relationships, and connections. We bond with survivors or commiserate with people with common experiences. We find out who our friends are. We encounter new advisors. We get mentored if we’re open minded. We connect with new people because the path to find the next thing requires us to talk to people we know and don’t know.
Fuel of Fear of Failure
Overcoming fear of failure is a necessary partner to our success in becoming who we are and to strive to be the best. There are no creatives, warriors, entrepreneurs, surgeons, community activists, leaders of any ilk who do not tap into the energy and power that fear of failure provides. Fear of failure is the fuel of iterative success. To prototype, hypothesize, model, test an idea, a career path, a talent…to version the model through a flurry of failures. But embracing the fear of failure is also an energy keeping us focused. Failure is inconceivable. Because success matters that much. The prospect of failure, of letting down others, including yourself, pushes and pulls us into new levels of engagement, new frontiers of expression, and new dimensions of purpose.
We must fail faster! Fail forward!
But to whine about fear of failure, before you try, is a waste of everyone’s time.
Fear of failure keeps our lived and unlived lives separated. The unlived dreams that secretly arise in your thoughts and keep calling for your attention. You dismiss these sirens of self at your peril. Safety, comfort, and the status quo can always override these thoughts. But that never satisfies the dreamer and the seeker. The nodules of malignant regret tumors start to form as you ignore, neglect and abandon your inner impulses for expressing your uniqueness.
The Romans believed what most of us believe today– that every person has a “guiding spirit” a unique personality and set of capabilities. Each person is born with this spirit was born with the person that they called ‘genius’ —from the Latin verb gignere meaning ‘to give birth or bring forth’. Later we used genius to describe the Einsteins. But everyone has a guiding spirit, a true self trying to be born. Not potential but your innate, God-given possibilities.
We return to the sources of truth—the sources of your guiding spirit–your heart, your gut (they are the sameYou want a couple of failures to fear, to truly scare you?
What if you failed to live a life without being true to yourself? Not what others expected.
What if you failed to experience true love, to love others and be loved?
Isn’t there an easier way, a simpler way? A shortcut? Nope.
When’s the last time you went all in? We need to make a commitment to the fibers of your being to the voices of your guiding spirit. It is in that arena, that we start to understand the capacity of our courage not just to go through the motions to be the next VP of a department you don’t care about, in a company that never loved you, in an industry that is not aligned with your soul.
Say what you mean and mean what you say. Then do what you say.
Yet we all say how essential learning and growing is to our jobs, our careers and to our lives. But without failure. Without making meaningful mistakes we don’t learn anything, we don’t advance, we don’t grow! I meet so many people who say they are entrepreneurs or are entrepreneurial. Or say they want to work in a startup or have their own business or be the top executive. And yet can’t model the behavior they want to lead.
New failures, future failures, the failures of the unknown bring so much uncertainty. Moving into a different industry, getting a new boss, learning new systems eject us out of our comfort zone. Our massive resistance can make our current inadequate, sometimes even the toxic world we know look acceptable. The Stockholm Syndrome of Career and Life decisions.
When do we call BS on ourselves?
Have you ever written your failure biography or your failure resume? Detailing the biggest mistakes you made. Not just to understand the “lessons” but to calibrate our capacity to take risks. Mine makes me cringe, but it also makes me laugh! One of my most instructive and memorable interview questions came from a well-known Silicon investor. “Detail chronologically the largest mistake you made in each of your former positions.”
The first step to overcoming the fear and especially the fear of failure is to declare. To say it out loud, to disclose your fears and intentions to others. It is liberating! We have to write, we have to talk and discuss—because the art of disclosing what you really want, musters your courage and engages others in your journey.
Otherwise, we can find ourselves alone on an endless flight carrying the empty baggage of someone else’s dream on an itinerary that was never our own.
When and how will you fail up to show the next generation what real genius looks like?
Thanks for reading. John