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.


Don’t believe everything you read

I will be very happy if we ever reach a time when people are no longer naïve enough to say: ‘It must be true, I read it in the newspaper’, but I am not holding my breath. While complete falsehoods and fabrications may well be the exception, opinions being expressed as facts is a very common phenomenon. And, of course, even when factual information is presented, how it is presented can be very significant. For example, consider the difference between: ‘The team achieved an impressive success rate of 82%, a slight improvement on last year’s major achievement of 81%’ with ‘The team failed in almost 1 in 5 cases for the second year running’. The facts are the same, but how they are delivered is very different, of course. Presenting information in a written form (especially to a mass audience) is not a politically neutral or value-free undertaking.

But it isn’t just newspapers that this applies to. The written word tends to have more power and influence than the spoken word in most situations. Putting something in writing can deliver the message more forcefully and therefore more effectively in the majority of situations. So, we have to be careful to make sure that we are not allowing the written word to influence us unduly.

For example, I have many years’ experience of teaching critical thinking skills to students and, in doing so, impressing upon them the importance of not taking texts at face value, of being prepared to look beneath the surface, to examine assumptions and so on. But what I have found in those situations is a significant proportion of students who struggle with this and, when asked why they are finding it so difficult, their responses have indicated that they did not feel confident enough to challenge the authority of the written word. Sadly, this opens the door to all sorts of abuses, as it means that anyone who has the wherewithal to get their views into print has a degree of power that needs to be scrutinised (in the sense that all use of power needs to be open to scrutiny in a democratic society), which escapes such scrutiny because of this tendency to assume that the written word is not to be questioned.

Writing something down does not make it ‘the truth’, but nor can we assume that it isn’t true either – these things need to be weighed up carefully, with neither undue reverence, nor undue cynicism. As in so many things, it is a matter of balance.

The advent of the internet has made this even more of a pressing issue, as far more people now have the opportunity to make what they write available to a wider audience (as is reflected in the problem of ‘trolling’ that has caused so much pain and distress for so many people). This means that we need to be especially sceptical about what we read online and especially careful in questioning its validity and verifying its source. It is all too easy for people to use the internet to put their views in writing in biased, distorted and potentially harmful ways – that is, to use the power of the written word in illegitimate ways. Communication is power in action, and so we need to make sure, as far as we can, that such power is used in legitimate ways.

This isn’t about being paranoid, it is about being sensible, using our intelligence to ensure that the power of the written word is not being allowed to create problems for us or for others.

Feel free to disagree

Conflict is a broad term. It can range from minor disagreements to out-and-out war, with various degrees of antagonism in between. Relatively minor conflicts can escalate to much more serious situations, and so it is understandable that people will so often be very wary of entering into even a minor conflict for fear of it developing into something of more major proportions.

However, this wariness comes at a price, as it means that we can become reluctant to air any disagreements. One unfortunate consequence of this is what is known as ‘groupthink’. This refers to a group of people who are involved in a process of decision making in which some members – sometimes the majority, even – disagree with the direction that one or more people are taking the group in. They foresee difficulties, even potentially catastrophic ones, but do not speak up for fear of ‘rocking the boat’ and of being seen as out of step with the group. A common consequence of this is that the decision made backfires and results in a poor outcome, and those people who had not spoken out wishing that they had. Those who are brave enough to admit that they were not happy with the group’s decision (but did not say so at the time) could well then find themselves being pilloried for keeping their concerns to themselves.

In a group context disagreement has a positive role to play (provided that it is done in a civilised way), in so far as it can highlight difficulties, provide opportunities for learning and, as in the case of groupthink already mentioned, avoid poor decision making. Having someone disagree with you can introduce new perspectives and insights and help you gain a fuller and more helpful picture of the situation.

But it isn’t just in a group context that disagreement can be positive. We are all different people, with our own unique perspective on life, and so it is inevitable that differences and disagreements will arise. Pretending these differences don’t exist is not a wise strategy, of course. It is much better to be aware of these differences and use them constructively – this is part of what is meant by ‘valuing diversity’, recognising that differences in perspective are potentially very useful as a source of learning, broadening our horizons and avoiding unfair discrimination.

It is important to realise that disagreement is not simply a matter of one person being wrong and another being right – both might be right in their own way, reflecting different aspects of the situation, or different perspectives on it. You don’t have to look far before you come across one or more examples of this. It is quite common for people to be arguing about something that they actually agree on in large part!

What is really important when it comes to disagreement is to do it in what I referred to earlier as a ‘civilised’ way. What I mean by this is an assertive approach – that is, one that does not involve trying to force the other person(s) to accept your point of view, nor allowing them to force their point of view on you. It is about being open minded and being prepared to consider other people’s views and perspectives – it is essential that we do not confuse disagreeing with fighting. Fights have winners and losers (or sometimes just losers on both sides), whereas disagreements can be positive and constructive, with everyone winning if they are handled tactfully and sensitively.

So, while disagreements can escalate into more serious conflicts, they can also be helpful and productive for all concerned. The key to it is about how we disagree – in a spirit of moving forward constructively or in a spirit of antagonism.


Reframing negatives as positives

Every cloud has a silver lining may well be a cliché, but that does not mean that the idea does not contain more than an element of truth. Of course, it would be an exaggeration to argue that every negative (cloud) has within it a positive (a silver lining) of some description, but it is certainly the case that negative events will often also bring some degree of positivity.

In a sense, this is a reflection of the complexity of life. There is a very common tendency to want to simplify things as much as possible, and that often leads to an oversimplification, a distortion of reality – a situation has to be either good or bad; it can’t be a mixture of both. Proverbs and slogans will often fall into this category. What we are dealing with, then, is the need to recognise that the complexity of life means that a high proportion of the situations we encounter will have both positive and negative elements – both light and shade. It can be helpful to be aware of this when engaged in situations seen predominantly as negative. If we are not careful, we can allow the negative impact of a situation to blind us to any positive elements.

Much of this has to do with perception. It is very easy to perceive a situation that has a strong negative element to it in purely negative terms and thereby lose sight of other aspects. We see what is in focus (the negatives) and disregard the blurry bits that are not in focus (the positives). This is understandable, as it reflects a defence mechanism – that is, our tendency to identify and focus on threats, aspects of a situation that pose a risk to us. That in itself, is a good thing, of course, but it needs to be balanced out by a more holistic view that sees the bigger picture, including the positives.

One important aspect of this is what is known as ‘reframing’. This can be a very useful tool. It involves redefining negative issues in positive terms – for example:

  • I am disappointed I didn’t get that job -> I am glad that the tension over that job application is over now.
  • Being ill recently has been a major inconvenience -> Being ill has made me realise that I need to take things easier and look after myself better.
  • I was really annoyed that Sam let me down -> It is good to know that, apart from Sam, I have so many people in my life that I can rely on for help when I need it.

One note of caution, if you are trying to help someone else to reframe (that is, it isn’t just about reframing your own experiences), you need to be very sensitive and tactful in how you put things across. For example, if someone is feeling sad, annoyed, disappointed or angry, saying something like: ‘Never mind, look on the bright side’ can go down very badly, as it can so easily come across as you not being sensitive to their feelings. Considerable caution is called for!

Reframing can be important for motivation. If we focus on the negatives of a situation and lose sight of the positive elements, then it is very easy for us to become demotivated and lose heart. Having a more balanced approach to such matters gives us a much firmer basis for feeling motivated and therefore for being in a stronger position to achieve whatever it is we are trying to do.

Reframing is not about denying or minimising problems and difficulties; it is about seeing them as part of a wider picture, and that gives us more hope and a more balanced understanding.


On the many occasions I have run managing conflict training courses I have emphasized the importance of listening. This is for two reasons. First, listening is a very good way of defusing conflict. Paying attention to what somebody’s concerns are can help to calm a situation down and avoid any unpleasantness. Second, not being listened to is what will often lead people into conflict situations in the first place. Consider consumer complaints, for example. People will often pay for a product or service, then find they are not happy with it and want the matter sorted, but they do not feel the need to make a complaint. But, when their efforts to get their problem with the product or service rectified fall on deaf ears, that is when the chances of a formal complaint being made go through the roof. So, conflict, sometimes nasty conflict, is the price we can pay for not listening, whereas listening and paying attention can help avoid or settle conflicts.

But it isn’t just in relation to conflict situations that listening is an important matter. People tend to think of communication mainly as conveying information to one or more people, but that can mean that we forget that listening is also part of communication – if you are not listening, then communication is not being effective. In my Effective Communication book, I make the point that we cannot not communicate – that is, we are always giving off signals, whether we intend to or not. But, what we have to recognize is that listening (receiving information) also involves conveying information. For example, if it is clear that you are not listening, then you will be conveying to the person(s) concerned that you have no interest in what they have to say, that it is not important enough for you to pay attention. You may also be conveying disrespect or even contempt in doing so.

This is partly why active listening is so important. This involves not only listening, but actually showing you are listening – nodding, making eye contact and so on. For example, if you are actively listening, you are conveying interest, you are communicating that you want to hear what they have to say. So, in this case, you are expressing respect and are therefore more likely to receive a positive response from that person.

One problem when it comes to listening is that people will often listen to respond, rather than listen to understand – that is, while someone is speaking to them, they are concentrating on what they want to say next (their response), rather than trying to understand where the other person is coming from. This then leads to a very superficial form of listening that can cause a lot of ill feeling.

And the importance of ‘listening’ can also apply to electronic communication. Have you ever emailed somebody and asked them two questions, but their reply answers only first question and ignores the second? This is a very common occurrence and one that wastes a lot of time for both parties when you then have to follow up with a second email to get an answer to the second question.

Being a good listener can pay great dividends, making you much more likable and earning you respect, whereas not listening can create a lot of problems, alienate people, make you come across as unlikable and not worthy of respect. Listening is therefore a double whammy, in the sense that it brings a lot of positives, while its absence creates a lot of negatives.

Listening is not just an activity; it is an attitude of mind – it a way of approaching interactions with other people with respect, concern and interest.


Find your best way of learning

As human beings we have so much in common, but we should not let that distract us from the fact that we are also very different from one another in various ways. One of those ways in which people differ is in terms of how best we learn. What works well for you may not work for me, while what works for me may likewise not work for you.

This is partly because there are different types of intelligence – practical intelligence, mathematical intelligence, artistic intelligence and so on. Someone who is very capable in one type of activity may struggle in another type of activity because of the different types of intelligence involved.

But, there are other factors involved too, not least our experiences of education and learning to date. These can be positive or negative or, indeed, a mixture of the two. For example, the way I was taught physics at school put me off the subject in a major way, and it is only in later life (via developing an interest in astronomy) that I have come to enjoy physics and to find it fascinating. In addition, as an educator I have come across countless people who struggled at school, but who have really taken to adult learning because of the different teaching styles and expectations involved.

There are also different modes of learning to take into consideration. For example, many people – myself included – learn best from reading, while others may get relatively little out of reading. They may get more out of watching a video or webinar, for example. Others may find it most helpful to be engaged in discussion so that they can weigh up their view against other people’s. For yet others, trial and error may be the richest seam of learning for them to mine. Of course, much will depend on the context and subject matter – trial and error learning is probably not the wisest approach to becoming a bomb disposal expert.

What is particularly important about the idea of different modes of learning is that many people can lose confidence by trying a mode that does not suit them. For example, I have come across a great number of people who have struggled to understand a written text (and have therefore falsely concluded that they are not very bright), but who have shown some really intelligent insights when discussing the issues covered in that text – the discussion helped them identify and develop the key points in ways that had not worked for them simply by reading the text. Similarly, I have had numerous examples of feedback about my own writings where people have told me that my use of examples had brought the issues to life for them and to really understand what was involved. So, it is very important that we do not assume (or allow others to assume) that struggling with one aspect of learning is a sign of a lack of intelligence or capability. That is a very unfair and disempowering assumption to make.

What also matters is who is in charge of the learning, who is in the driving seat. Most formal approaches to learning (school, college, university and so on) are based on the traditional model of decisions about what to learn and how to learn it being made by people other than the learner – by teachers, tutors, trainers and so on. What I have found from my extensive experience over more than thirty years of helping people learn is that self-directed learning is what works best – where you take charge of your own learning by deciding for yourself (with guidance and support from others as appropriate) for what you are going to learn and how you are going to learn it. In that way, you can work out what your best way of learning is and focus all your efforts there for best results.

Live to fight another day

‘Strategic capitulation’ is a term used in behaviour management programmes to refer to the technique of giving in to whatever is being demanded by someone who is being aggressive and potentially violent. It is intended as a last resort. The way it works is this: if you have someone (child or adult) who is behaving in a hostile, aggressive or threatening way, there are various methods that can be used to handle the situation (distraction, for example). But, if those techniques don’t work (no technique is guaranteed to work), then it can be safer and wiser to give in and give them what they want than to risk being assaulted.

Unless you work in a setting where aggression and violence are a feature of the work, you may never come across this type of situation. However, the notion of ‘strategic capitulation’ can be extended to apply to a much wider set of circumstances. It is a useful concept that can help us to realize that sometimes we just need to give up, to accept that we are not going to be able to win the day.

This is captured by the saying of ‘live to fight another day’, although it does not necessarily have to be a fight, literally or metaphorically that we are talking about. Persistence is generally a good thing. There are many positives in life that people would not be able to achieve if they gave up too easily. Sticking it out is generally a good strategy. However, there will be times when it makes more sense to opt for strategic capitulation.

The key work here, though, is ‘strategic’. It is not about capitulating just because you are tired or there is some other reason why you don’t want to be persistent. It is about making a well-informed strategic decision that the wisest option is to give up on your efforts – which is exactly how the technique is intended to be used in a behaviour management context. So, we have to have our wits about us, rather than just choose this option without thinking it through carefully.

This idea is likely to be of most use to people who are very determined and may even take a pride in being so. This is because, at times, the desire to be successful in whatever you are trying to do can mean determination crosses the line and becomes doggedness and the signals that this situation is not going to work out are being missed. We have to know when to quit.

Basically it is a matter of balance. There are those people who are likely to have problems because they give up too easily, they are too easily discouraged or disheartened. At the other extreme, there are people who put their heart and soul into what they do – something that is very positive and helpful as a general rule – and can therefore run the risk that they don’t (or won’t) recognize when the time to let go has come. So, once again, what is needed is a healthy balance between the two potentially unhelpful extremes.

Of course, this may not always be an easy balance to achieve, but it will certainly be worth the effort, given that putting more and more effort into something that is simply not going to work out will involve a significant waste of time, effort and energy and, in some cases, money or other resources too. As with so many other things, the more often we are able to achieve that balance, the easier it becomes and the more benefit we can potentially gain from cultivating this approach.


Don’t be a fashion victim

When anyone mentions fashion, we tend to think of clothes, the latest designer trends and so on. Indeed, there is a huge, multi-million pound business based on fashion in clothing. But, fashion is not restricted to clothes or other relatively superficial matters. There are also fashions in thought and, because of that, fashions in behaviour. For example, think about how certain ideas have changed since your childhood. Changes in people’s thinking about same sex relationships is a clear instance of what I have in mind. With the changes in thinking have come changes in attitude, changes in behaviour and changes in how we relate to one another.

These changes were in large part due to years of campaigning and political pressure being brought to bear to tackle the injustice of certain people being discriminated against. There were therefore reasons for the changes. This is often how changes in our thinking come about. However, it is not the only way. Ideas also follow trends, just like clothes and popular music do.

This reflects a tendency to value the new, to see novelty as a good thing in its own right, while well-established ideas can be seen as dusty and old fashioned, to be abandoned on the scrapheap of history (even though they may be very valuable and useful ideas). The fact that an idea is perceived as new can make it appear exciting and give it extra appeal. Novelty brings a degree of glamour. It gives it some sort of extra standing, as if the very fact that something is new and different makes it valuable.

However, if you have been around long enough, you will be aware that ideas come around for a second or third time, generally with a different name, spin or gloss (but basically a well-established idea) and get a new lease of life until another ‘new’ idea comes along to take its place as the height of fashion. We often laugh about ‘that old chestnut’, when an old idea makes a reappearance in a new garb or in a slightly modified form, presented it as if it is an exciting new way of thinking.

This is not to say that we should disregard new ideas just because they are new (or appear to be) and value only ideas that are well established, as that would stifle innovation and limit our options for moving forward constructively. Valuing something just because it is ‘traditional’ can be just as misleading as valuing something just because it is new. Whether an idea is new or old is not (or should not be) the issue; what is important is how useful the idea is in helping us understand whatever it relates to and that it is a valid idea worthy of our attention.

So, the important message is this: don’t allow yourself to be seduced into thinking that an idea has value just because it is new. Many ideas that appear new are anything but, and even in those circumstances where an idea is genuinely new, it doesn’t mean that it is necessarily any better than the ideas that preceded it. We need to be able get past fashions in thinking and be prepared to weigh up ideas in their own right, evaluate their legitimacy and what use they are, regardless of whether they reflect the latest ‘in’ trend or ideas that have been around for centuries or even millennia.

Adopting ideas just because they are perceived as new and exciting can lead us astray, distort our perception and leave us in some difficulties in various ways. Uncritically following fashions in ideas is therefore not a wise move.


Find ‘flow’

Athletes will often talk about being ‘in the zone’, by which they mean achieving optimal performance, with body and mind operating to the full. That is when they get the best results. Similarly, psychologists have talked more broadly about finding ‘flow’, by which they mean getting to a state of mind where you are, to use the modern idiom, ‘cooking on gas’. It refers to feeling that things are ‘just right’ and you are achieving your best. This can apply to any aspect of life – not just athletics – where the conditions are right.

Flow happens when we are fully immersed in an activity, when we are free from distractions, interruptions or anything else that can stand in the way. When the state of ‘flow’ is reached, our concentration level is at its maximum, our creativity is enhanced and we produce our best work. Strange though it may sound, it is as if we have reached some sort of higher plane. By its very nature, it can only ever be a temporary state, but it is one that we can revisit whenever possible.

Have you ever been so fully engaged in an activity that everything else is blocked out? A situation where you feel things are going really well, you are making great progress and it all seems to be coming together. Time can pass very quickly and you are surprised at how long you have been engaged in that activity. That is ‘flow’. That is when you are in the zone – the zone of optimal creativity and effectiveness.

To achieve flow we need to be doing something we want to do and are committed to doing well. We need to give it our full attention and not be trying to do something else at the same time (like checking our email or phone texts!).

We also need to be free of distractions and interruptions. This can be very difficult in the modern ‘always on’ world. Open plan offices, hot desking and other features of contemporary working life can be major obstacles to achieving flow, so you may need to think carefully about how to create the right conditions that you will need. Just trying to achieve flow in the wrong place or the wrong circumstances is almost certainly doomed to failure. You will be wasting your time and may become cynical about ever achieving flow.

Of course, we cannot expect achieving flow to be an everyday occurrence, although creating the right circumstances to facilitate flow will help us to concentrate and achieve better results anyway. The closer we can get to flow conditions, the more productive we can be – and the more satisfaction we can gain from our activities.

You may find it helpful to think about what activities are most likely to achieve flow, what the things that really stimulate you are. If you match those activities with the right circumstances (no distractions, no interruptions and so on), then you are maximising the chances of achieving flow.

It can also help to think about the activities you are called upon to perform and consider what you could potentially do to make them more appealing and stimulating. There is no easy or simple formulas for this, but there is certainly much to be gained from giving these matters some careful thought.

There is also much to be gained from examining other people’s experiences of flow. What do other people do that enables them to achieve flow? Do they have any specific strategies, or does it just happen? Is there anything you can learn from what other people do that can increase your chances of getting ‘into the zone’ more often?