I was cursed by a good education. I was so used to succeeding at school, always getting good grades and favourable school reports, that I became terrified of failure. Even now I still occasionally have an anxiety dream that has recurred through the years. In the dream, I am about to take my finals at university and I am completely unprepared. I know that, barring a miracle, I am going to fail. I am in a complete panic, desperate at the prospect of my impending humiliation.
Fear of failure was also the root of the growing stress in my job as a management consultant, which I did for 11 years. I wasn’t exactly failing in my career, but I wasn’t particularly succeeding either. My progress up the promotion ladder was slow and painful. Now I can see that my under-performance was due to my profound lack of interest in my work – nothing in it gave me emotional or intellectual satisfaction – but at the time I was beset by feelings of failure and plummeting self-esteem.
I didn’t even care about the stupid job, but I still desperately didn’t want to fail at it. Where is the sense in that? If you’re going to care about failing at something, at least make sure it’s something that actually matters to you.
What allowed me to (mostly) kick my fear of failure?
Failing. Repeatedly. Spectacularly. Publicly. My career, my marriage, my first attempt to row the Pacific…. All “failures”, according to conventional wisdom. All opportunities for incredible personal growth, according to a wiser wisdom.
To fail and to find that the sun still rises, the Earth still turns, and 99.99999% of the world’s population couldn’t care less, is incredibly liberating. I’m not going to go so far as to suggest that you deliberately set out to fail, just to test this theory. I’m just aiming to convince you that nobody (as far as I know) ever died of embarrassment. Not even me, and I do embarrassment really well.
So don’t let fear of failure hold you back.
“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: fear of failure.” — Paulo Coelho