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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

36 Comments

  • Beautifully written piece and I hope it proves an inspiration to all who take the time to read it.

    I know many people who try very hard to “stage manage” their lives by using social media. All are destined to fail because they have yet to publicly admit to being human – “Dear World I once SERIOUSLY crashed and burned. Let me tell you about it!”

    • Thanks, Philip! I’m actually quite a fan of heroic failures. They so often prove to be a catalyst for heroic successes. It’s the “heroic” bit I like best though. Live large!

  • What a lovely piece, and couldn’t agree more. Failure strips us of everything we hide behind, and once you’ve hit the bottom, the only place to go is up the ladder, so there is nothing to lose.

  • Dear Roz,
    I think you are entirely correct – but, and of course there’s a but – it depends ……. on a number of criticalities in your life such as a need for an income to live for in case you have dependants (partner, kids, family members at large), alternatives, interests, capabilities for those are less fortunate having a broad and good education to fall back on – you name them. Barring this, I believe most of us would take the chance and try out something else, possibly fail, learn something else and more about yourself. It’s also about finding the right time in your life, without it becoming a liberization exercise

    • Of course I recognise that, Lars, and thanks for pointing that out. It’s always responsible to look at the risks and rewards. Human psychology being what it is, we hate to lose something twice as much as we enjoy gaining it, and I think we need to factor that into our calculations.

  • While reading your newsletter I begin to wonder if the world has 7 billion people and 99.99999% couldn’t care less, that leaves .01% which is fair number of people by my calculations.

    I know this is an absolute, but it might be fair to say that 100% of the world’s population couldn’t care less about most of our daily failures and only a tiny circle of friends spend any time at all thinking about our larger failures.

    • So true!

      Arguably, our failures even cheer other people up because they’re glad it wasn’t them! 🙂 And/or our courageous attempts inspire others to step up and be braver too.

  • Well…having worked for a large financial institution a decade or more ago I fully understand the fear of failure. Targets galore…Ok if you could get near them (until the next one). Constant appraisal…both formal and by judgemental innuendo. Shareholder value at all cost…be it moral/ immoral or not. Fear of letting your family down if you don’t hang on to what you have. Fear of letting yourself down…very prominent. “What will people think ” if I fail?…all VERY real. Both the corporate system pressure and the self inflicted wounds are real and very destructive. I got off the worry tornado. ( I wont bore you with how )

    • Hi David – actually, I’d like to know how you got off the worry tornado. Please share!

      And yes, I agree that our present obsession with constant appraisal is incredibly stressful, and I’m very doubtful that it produces the desired results. Seems to me that an atmosphere of trust, empowerment and creative freedom would be more productive, more healthy, and certainly more fun!

      • Actually…my body threw me off the worry tornado!. It temporarily gave up! As a result of that I left the epicentre of my personal earthquake (a financial institution…surprised?). Now my challenges, appraisals targets etc are those largely set by myself and my family. A period of CBT and mindfulness taught me to , mainly, deal with life in a much more simple and step by step way. Mantras such as “what is the worst that can happen?” or “how many times have you worried about “X” and how often has the worry turned out to be true?” (very, very, rarely is the answer) come in handy. I am blessed as I now can manage my own time ..which is the single most positive that has resulted.
        To answer your question….the tornado has gone…but inevitably some serious squalls pop up from time to time! Could I ever avoid worrying totally…no. Will it wreck my life now…no.

  • Rozzie, I’ve picked up your trail of inspiration again.

    just wanted to say hello. onward….

    Tracy Krueger
    Savage, MN USA

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  • Roz. Thanks for bringing this up to your readers. It’s a powerful point and you bring it home well. Spectacularly well as you might say.

    One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever had about starting new ventures or working within current ones is to “fail faster”. If it happens, learn from it, plan a bit better, then get the hell on with it.

  • Roz, This post highlights why you’ve become a mantra for me:

    “If Roz can row the oceans, then I can do X, no matter what objections I can come up with.”

    I’ve got about 10 urgent items on my to-do list and I am now eager to go fail at as many as I can!

    • Happy to hear it, Deb! My mother has been a great role model for me – she’s really good at rolling up her sleeves and getting stuck in, even when she doesn’t feel like it.

  • Thank you so much for your encouraging words. I laugh at the photo of the woman walking the tightrope in highheels! I think we ALL think that this is how difficult our task is AND we think that the failure of such will bring a terrible end, just like a failure of this thightrope walker!! Most of what we do is a triviality!!

  • Thank you Roz for your thoughts. One could contrast the UK (where many years ago failure as a company director meant you couldn’t direct a company for a while) and Silicon Valley (where recovering from a business failure is a badge of honor). Fear of failure motivated me through school and college. Fear may energize or paralyze. What we never learned in school was how to recover from failure. Something I have found very difficult. There is little training in how to recover from failure. For example, if you are in the bottom 1/3rd of your class, how do you get from being seen as less than brilliant. Maybe the answer is not to rank people. However, it is unrealistic in a prize economy (think XPrize, Oscars, Webby Awards and more) to not rank people. One way is to focus on the positive and one’s achievements, but I don’t think you can get to excellence without identifying one’s weaknesses (or failures). Then you have three options – (a) ignore the failure – pretend it’s not there (b) fix the failure – so if you’re not good at Latin verbs make an effort to learn them (c) sidestep the failure – recognize it, but move on past it and do something else – can’t do Latin – so better study Physics. I think all 3 have their place (a) in particular for failures over which one has no control. I would like to see better management and school training for how to bounce back from failure.

    • Hi Angela – great to hear from you. I completely agree – I would love to see a whole load of life skills, including handling failure and setbacks, included in school curricula. It seems our school systems are lagging a long way behind the times, and a whole new raft of subjects will be much more useful to the pupils of the future.

  • Hi Roz,
    it so true, I feel identified with your story. I need to make the jump and take the risk to do the things I love and fail (get out of the comfort zone).
    have started taking first steps towards it and your post is encouraging.
    thanks,
    Tania

  • Hi Roz Good to see you are moving on in a new direction and expanding your horizons – which are far beyond most other peoples horizons.
    So, what is this fear ! failure – on the surface that is what concearns most people, but for some, it is a life saver, puts us on alert so that the fight or flight hormones kick in so we can react in the right way to get us out of a jam or a difficult situation – you will know all about that one eh! But for most, who couldnt jump over a 3 foot wall, find that when a dog bears it’s teeth in front of them – make a leap over a 10 foot wall in order to escape, gives a person strength, sharpens the senses, quickens reactions and makes the body do things one didnt know it was capable of.
    So the adrenal glands release the adrenalin, stimulates the nervous system, speeds up the heart, makes one perspire etc then you are over that 10 foot wall – hey. But if the dog turns out to be only a kitten then realy the fear factor is but a possibility cunjoured up in the mind – politiciens use fear to get us to vote a certain way yeh. One could say normal fear comes when threatened, abnormal fear when things are out of porportion to the actual event, Pathological fear though might be a permenant state of mind even when the event has passed or not even happened.
    So – exagereated or cronic fear is no use whatsoever, but a incapacitating or limiting feeling that needs to be dealt with, it stops us moving forward, not getting the job, having an an unsuccessful relationship etc. So you moved from a less than rewarding job etc, to rowing the oceans – what drove you to that pathway and to realize your potential – did you know what your potential was (think back to that chart) !
    What can we do about it, we all get stuck at some time in our lives?
    An Aromatherapist might say – fear of failure, a course of masssage treatments using Fennel, Coriander, Basil, Ylang Ylang and Frankincense.
    Then there is change, Feelings, madness, gossip, sexuality, love, unloved, loving, letting go.
    Different professions may have differant answers – but usually the answer is within, or at least that is where it starts from!!
    Best wishes
    Adrian Chalet
    Scotland

    • Hi Adrian. A course of massage treatments ALWAYS sounds like a good idea!

      So true – the cortisol that results from chronic stress is really bad for us, so we need to find ways to engage with and exorcise our stress and fear. Meditation and exercise (I particularly like walking) are also good.

      Wishing you a happy and stress-free day!

  • Roz, I agree. What we call “failure” is often proof that we’ve taken action to do something that matters. Real failure happens when we’re too afraid to take risks and let the days go by without pursuing our passion. Thank you!

  • Instead of using the word failure I have been using the word mis take.
    Noone fails. They just mis take. So the world is full of mistakes. It is your ability to firstly acknowledge the mistake and then to go about dealing with it.
    e.g., I joked with my sister in law. How come your daughters got this degree and that degree. You haven’t got a degree. What happened ?
    She took this personally, and the relationship has never been the same since. What a mis take. I love her and I think she is amazing. I apologized and have since gone out of my way to be generous. A little window of light when they left to go to China for a year and I had a drink with them at the airport! It may take years fir her to come back. My job is just to love her anyway and be generous generous.
    I am in an inquiry How do I get to know I have true balance in my life with friends, family, work and exercising etc and Do I really have what it takes for my business to soar?
    I guess I am in the first step. Acknowledging it is not where I would like it to be and same with balance.
    Now there is whats next ??? I have registered for a 9 month Wisdom course – All about play..
    Wisdom Unlimited is designed for those interested in growth and development as an ongoing part of their lives. It is for those who want their lives to be as great as they can be, to live as productive members of a community, to grow in wisdom, to develop themselves in ways that open up new avenues of exploration in living full, contributing, and happy lives.
    In this program, you will:
    Ø
    Ø Explore what it is to be happy.
    Ø Create a future of unlimited growth and development.
    Ø Gain access to making things happen now.
    Ø Bring new levels of leadership and responsibility to relationships and social endeavours. Ø
    A cornerstone of the Wisdom Unlimited Course is play. The freedom and spontaneity that occurs with play allows the participants to bring fresh new approaches to issues in their daily life. Through hands-on exploration, participants are empowered to bring a vital new adult perspective to their communities, in which they live, work, and play.
    Each weekend we explore a different aspect of how we relate to our own growth and development, and what we can create for ourselves. Between the five weekends, participants gather in small groups to work on assigned coursework. On Sunday of each weekend, Wisdom Course participants along with their family, friends, and Wisdom Course graduates experience what it means to be part of a community.

  • Roz,

    Thanks for these words. Ironically, I have had that same dream, pretty regularly. That I am going into class and I am completely unprepared for an exam. And I wake thinking, was that how I went through school?

  • Thank you Roz, for your wise words on failure and the fear of it. I had the opposite experience to you, nobody rated me at school and I look back and feel lucky to have been allowed to develop out of anyone’s spotlight. Later, with passion, lots of hard work and someone who believed in me I went on to get a great education, do work that I strongly believe in (I work with smallholder farmers in Africa helping them to grow crops without the use of chemical pesticides) and have 3 great sons. I see your experience though reflected in one of my sons, who like you did, has flown through school and experienced little failure and is very afraid of it, though he’s learning now to live by his own and not others’ expectations and I think he’s going to be fine. Thanks again for sharing your life’s lessons.

    • You’re so welcome, Julie! Your work sounds amazing and world-changing – thanks for stepping up and making the world a better place!

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