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Fear of Failure

(What holds us back - pt 1)

Throughout May, the blog is going to focus on what gets in the way of our goals. Each week, I'm going to take some examples that you shared with me to discuss how you can overcome these obstacles.

Fear of failure

Fear of failure is probably the most well-known obstacle to success. Fear of failure can be so great that it stops us even starting. If we don't try, we don't succeed, but we also don't fail.

This can be particularly prevalent if you are someone for whom success is highly associated with aspects of identity. If you're a strong or over achiever, your fear of failure is likely to be high because it is not something you have had great experience with. You may never have learnt to fail.

I was a high achiever academically and never really experienced failure until I didn't pass my driving test just before my 21st birthday. I had no idea how to react to that because I had no experience in overcoming failure. I was very emotional about it and wanted to blame the examiner and everyone else on the road. It took a little while to see that I could blame other people all I wanted, but that wasn't going to get me a licence. When I was able to look at the areas I had failed in and work on those, I was able to move on. I took the test again and passed. But I'll never forget how huge it seemed to me to fail on that.

Failing at something is part of life and we need to know how to deal with it. If not failing is part of your self-identity, then when you do fail, it feels like it says something about you as a person, not just that you had a bad day, or you weren't prepared enough, or that your performance under pressure wasn't sufficient. It can feel like failure makes a lie about who you are because in your identity, you are someone who does not fail.

1. Work out what failure isn't.

What can you do about that then? Re-characterise 'fail'. What does that mean? In my first ever triathlon, I was the last to finish. But I didn't see that as a failure. I saw me completing it as a success. Not being top at something, not being the best, is good for you to see how you can grow and develop. But it is also good to realise that you don't have to be the best. You just have to be the best you can be, on any given day. I find sport helps me to see how that differs from day to day too. Some days, I can run and it is easy and I have new Personal Bests. Other days, I'm working harder and achieving less good times. Understanding and accepting that has helped me apply that in a professional sense. Some days, I can give a presentation or host a workshop and I feel like I couldn't put a foot wrong. Everything works, I have great rapport with the attendees, I have a great answer or story for every question or point and I know each and every single person has got a huge amount of value from what I've given. Other days, I send emails with the wrong attachments, forget a door code or lose track of my sentence mid-way through. You could view those days as failures, but they're not. They're just days that don't go as well, but they come and go, just as the fantastic days do.

2. Try to fail.

If failure really hurts you, pick something you are not overly invested in and fail in it. Go run a park run and try to beat everyone. Sing at a karaoke bar and try to be the best. Have a timed competition to see who can do the crossword first.

How does it feel to fail? I bet it feels ok. Because you're not invested in the outcome. Does 'failing' at this change anything about you? No, right? So if you failed at something you were invested in, does that change anything about you? It feels different, you might want to say yes. But does it really? If you stepped outside of yourself, does it really change who you are? The only change it really makes is inside yourself, in thinking about who you are. And that is a choice. Choose well.

3. Fail up.

Think about you could learn from your performance in the last step if you did want to be the best in that area. What could you do to improve? What resources would you need to be better? Once you've given that some thought, do you think you could be better a second time round? Maybe you'll still 'fail', but will it be a better 'fail'? How many iterations would you have to do before it wasn't a 'fail'?

4. Is it you or them?

Some people's fear of failure stops them sharing their goals with other people, and then view that lack of accountability as another reason to not take steps. Perhaps it helps though to learn that sharing your goals with people can actually prevent us taking action. Just telling people what we are going to do is sometimes enough to feel better about ourselves and our identity so then we don't do anything further. (Read more So don't use not wanting to tell people as an excuse for not taking action!

5. Try a very small, secret step.

Although I'll cover this in more detail later in the blog series, start with a very small, secret step towards your goal. Jen* has a fear of failure about a goal she has had since she was young. She wants to write be a published author. She's never told anybody and despite having written 2 drafts of a book, hasn't finalised a synopsis to send to prospective agents. My advice to Jen was to spend 20 minutes looking up agents contact details. That was it. Not finish the synopsis, not contact anyone, but just look up some agents. 'I didn't think it would make a difference, but actually it has inspired me to write my covering letter. I do still need to do the synopsis, but I also spent some time looking up advice on how to do that. Just taking some action moved me from a stuck point and that's been really valuable'. And that's the reason very small steps work. Because they are so small you can't fail at them and they motivate you to do more.

Next week's blog will deal with the fear of success, which may be lesser known but is also responsible for holding people back from their goals.

*not her real name

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