Don’t let fear of failure hold you back

Fear of failure is a very powerful emotion that can do a lot of harm. It can prevent people from trying new things and therefore lead to them missing out on some potentially enriching and empowering experiences. In the same way that you can’t win a raffle if you don’t buy a ticket, you can’t benefit from an experience if you deny yourself the opportunity to have it.

As is often the case in life, a vicious circle can easily arise:

  • I am not confident enough to get involved in a particular activity because I am afraid that I will fail.
  • I limit my opportunities for learning and development.
  • I may feel I am letting myself down for not getting involved, and feel bad about this.
  • This can reduce my self-esteem and keep my confidence level low.
  • I may let people down by restricting myself in this way (especially if I am a parent or have people relying on me).
  • I can feel bad about this and may even feel annoyed with myself.
  • This can reduce my self-esteem and confidence further.
  • This can then lead me to restrict even further the activities I feel safe enough to participate in.
  • If people become aware of this they are likely to have less respect for me and will trust me less.
  • If I become aware of this, I can have even less confidence in myself.

… and so it goes on.

Fear of failure is understandable and can even be useful. If we had no fear of failure whatsoever, we could easily find ourselves in situations where we are seriously out of our depth. The trouble comes when we make an unrealistic appraisal of the level of risk involved in a particular situation (we are ‘risk averse’, to use the technical term).

What we need to be able to do, then, is look at the specific risks involved in a situation carefully without under- or overestimating them. One helpful way of doing this is to consider two questions:

  1. How likely am I to fail? In other words, realistically, what are the chances of you failing in whatever it is you are considering? It can be helpful to be as clear as possible about what exactly is it you are afraid of – that is, to have a clear and explicit picture of precisely what could happen that you dread so much. Are you really likely to fail or is it just your confidence letting you down?
  2. How serious would it be if I did fail? Would it be such a big deal if you did fail? What would the actual consequences be and what difference would they make to me? Is it purely the embarrassment of failure? The clearer you can be about these issues, the better.

 Being clear about your fears can help you manage them.

What can also be important to bear in mind is that failure is not necessarily a bad thing. Important successes in life will generally follow on form failure – that is, failure is part of the route to success, partly because of the learning to be gained from failure and partly because of the motivation and determination to succeed that failure will so often spur.

Sadly, many people don’t seem to realise that failure is an everyday occurrence – just keep your eyes open and it won’t be long before you see some sort of failure happening, even if it is just something minor. Failing is part of life, it is part of success.

Don’t underestimate yourself

Some people regularly stray into arrogance territory, by which I mean that they overestimate their own importance and their own capabilities. Indeed, this is a common theme in movies and dramas: the person who annoys others with their inflated self-belief and then eventually gets their comeuppance. It makes for satisfying viewing.

However, what I think is far more common is for people to go to the other extreme, to underestimate their importance, their capabilities and the difference they can make. This is often a matter of a lack of confidence (possibly linked to self-esteem issues), but that isn’t always the case. In a significant number of cases it is simply that we have genuinely underestimated what we can do. We haven’t tried, so we don’t know what our capabilities actually are. It is one of those cases where fear of failure will actually bring about failure.

So, the point I want to emphasise is this: Don’t believe you are too insignificant to make a difference. There are plenty of cases on record of individuals making a big difference, and I am not talking about special cases here or award-winning heroes. I am talking about ordinary people who wanted to make a difference, gave it a try and found that they were more influential than they had realised. Of course, it won’t happen every time, but it won’t happen ever if you don’t try. And where it doesn’t work out, you can learn from the experience.

For example, I have often worked with new groups of staff (newly qualified workers, for instance) who have told me that, as newcomers, no one will take any notice of them, so there is no point raising any issues, as no one will listen. On every occasion this has happened, I have made the same comment in response, namely that it will often be the opposite – that is, new people coming in who are not yet ‘embedded’ in the workplace culture will generally bring a fresh perspective and notice things that people who have worked there a while have lost sight of. The contribution of newcomers can therefore be invaluable.

Of course, much will depend on how you put your ideas across. If it seems to your colleagues that you are sweeping in and criticising before you have even got to settle in, then you will create a lot of ill feeling and make yourself unpopular (and thereby make it less likely that you can make a difference). So, tact and sensitivity are the order of the day.

What it boils down to is getting the balance right. On the one hand, you don’t want to overplay your hand and come across as an arrogant know it all, but nor do you want to write yourself off by assuming you don’t have a part to play.

And, of course, if you really do want to make a difference, then it is best to be part of a group with common aims, rather than just a lone ranger. So, who are the people who are like minded? Who are the people you could team up with to make whatever positive difference is needed?

 There is no magic formula; much of it is about trial and error and then learning from your experience. But, you don’t have to make all the mistakes yourself. You can learn from watching what others do, seeing what works for them and what doesn’t. But, just assuming that you can’t make a difference is likely to hold you back and it is not just you who loses out – think of all those people who also lose out from not hearing your ideas.