Unless you’re fortunate, the first time you try anything new, the chances of you failing are incredibly high. Yet, you would not believe the number of people I have spoken to or worked with who have given up on everything just because they are terrified it might not work out. Yes, for these people, the fear of failure takes over!
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Giving up because of a fear of failure is pretty much a form of self-sabotage. As is, believe it or not, fear of success, which is genuinely a real thing (trust me - a story for another day).
I was reading The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey yesterday, and I started thinking about my mum. I mentioned my mum’s crazy method’s in another recent post. But I think the great thing about my mum is that she allowed me to fail. Even maths! I come from a family of mathematicians: the fact that I suck at maths is crazy.
Maths aside, it was okay if I screwed up from time to time and, I believe, this indeed helped me build a mindset based on ‘this is terrifying, I may screw this up, but let’s give it a go anyway’.
Whatever success means to you, to get there you’ll need to grit your teeth, take some deep breaths, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway (incidentally the title of another excellent book that I highly recommend). Therefore, I wanted to share a few of my tips for dealing with the fear of failure. Notice that I did not use the word “overcome”!
Dealing with the fear of failure
Embrace the Fear:
Picture this: you’re sat on a pool deck, getting ready to jump in for a race, you’re wearing your country’s flag. There's a camera filming you for live TV; if you look up you’ll see 18,000 people looking down at you, aaaaand you’re shoulder feels like it’s going to fall off. How would you feel? Scared, right? In this type of situation the fear of failure can be overwhelming.
I have been in pretty much this exact situation twenty-six times in my life and have felt terrified every single time bar one. I felt like I needed to run away, far far away! So why didn’t I run?
In my mind, fear means you care. If what you’re aiming to do doesn’t scare you in the slightest, you need a new goal.
I went into one international race without a smidgen of fear running through my head or body. Two hours after this race, I decided to retire from a 13-year swimming career!
Fear of failure can stop you. Fear can make you give up on your dreams. But, if you use it correctly, it can show you the way.
Work out what you fear:
Take some deep breaths and ask yourself when your fear of failure developed. Do you really believe you cannot do it? Do you not trust yourself?
Are you basing your fear on the past (if so, number 8 will help you)? Are you worrying about what other people will say (ahem, number 9).
Do you not know enough? How can you fix this?
Thinking these things through will help.
Remind yourself of exactly what you’re doing it for:
The fear of failure tends to rear it’s head when you have a goal and/or something you want to achieve. If you have set/decided on this goal, it absolutely has to be important to you.
The more you focus on your goal, the easier it is to remember why you set it and why it is important to you.
The more you recognise the importance of your goal, the more likely it is that your fear will start to fade. After all, would you rather achieve something awesome, or be beaten by a feeling that only appears when you allow it too?
Use positive self-talk to ease the fear of failure:
Self-talk is that voice you hear inside your head: kind of like your very own live commentary. The trouble is that most of what we tell ourselves are negative and unhelpful. It is my opinion that it is our self-talk that creates and builds up our fears. Especially when it comes to the fear of failure.
If you can consciously change your self-talk to make it positive, you’ll probably find that life is easier to negotiate and you’ll “level-up” your confidence.
If you’re interested in finding out more about self-talk and how to talk to yourself in new ways, I highly recommend What to Say When You Talk to Your Self by Shad Helmsetter. This book will teach you about the wiring of the brain while giving you lots of methods and techniques to put what he says into practice. An oldie but a goodie.
Baby break it down (ala the Rolling Stones):
I’ve said this many times already in other posts, and I have no doubt I’ll talk about it again.
If you want to start a new business and you think of it as ONE thing, you will be terrified.
If you are aiming to write a 100,000-word novel and you think of the 100,000 words as one task, you’re gonna wanna run away!
Those two example tasks are kinda huge goals, and they are impossibly scary if you don’t break them down into smaller tasks. The smaller the tasks, the better. This way the target will feel much easier as you’re ticking off tasks constantly.
Picture a world where no one EVER failed:
I’m just going to let that sink in for a second.
In fact, I’m not even going to explain this one. Instead, allow me to list ten highly successful people who have failures to their names:
- J.K Rowling - Harry Potter
- Lisa Kudrow - Friends star
- Michael Phelps - 23 (I wish!) Olympic Golds
- Steven Spielberg - 27 award-winning movies
- Oprah Winfrey - Billionaire Talk Show Host
- Walt Disney - Yes, really. Disney!
- Stephen King - Scary novelist extraordinaire
- Sir James Dyson - Henry Hoover has nothing on this guy
- Bill Gates - The Windows Guy (I’m not a fan of Windows, but I can appreciate!)
- Thomas Edison - How many attempts does it take to invent the lightbulb? 1000!
Visualise success to deal with a fear of failure:
Going back to sports for a minute: have you ever watched athletes or swimmers lining up for a race and noticed some of them seem to be staring at nothing? Have you also noticed that the same ones look up one last time before they are under starters orders (the guy with the guy)? Husain Bolt did this every single time he raced.
These athletes are not staring at nothing. They are looking at the finish line and visualising every aspect of they race they are about to run. They are envisioning themselves running their best possible race and succeeding.
I did this. I also did it in training. If I was having a really tough training session, I would visualise myself winning gold. Guess what? Training got easier! Boom!
I have two twitter accounts (well, four. But who’s counting?). Today I hit 8400 followers on one and 1000 followers on the other. To some, these numbers might be huge. To others, these numbers might be pathetic. It doesn’t matter to me what others think because to me these numbers are just right.
I have been working hard on building up my presence on Twitter. So, for me, hitting these milestones is excellent and worth doing a little jig about.
In fact, every day, I celebrate my achievements regarding what I’m working on, and I write them down. I don’t crack open the champagne. In terms of Twitter, for example, I’d need a ton more followers to justify the champagne. But the very act of saying to myself, “look what I did”, makes me feel great.
Not enough people celebrate the small stuff. By not doing so, they block the ability to recognise all the great things they’re doing, and it slips by unnoticed. As a result, it is so common for people to feel like they’re not accomplishing anything.
Small stuff turns into big stuff.
Think about what you’re learning:
The absolute best thing about failing or getting things wrong is the lessons you learn as it is happening. I class myself as a successful failure; I’m pretty sure anyone who has discovered the importance of failure would say the same. In fact, I wrote a post not long ago about my two most recent failures. At the time, I was utterly distraught. But when I took a step back, I recognised that I didn’t want what I had been going for anyway, and now I had time to focus on what I truly wanted. Successful failure!
Of course, I should note that it is up to you to decide what success and failure actually mean for you. Whatever they mean, when you feel like things are not going well, focus a bit of time on these questions:
1. What lessons can I take away from this situation?
2. If I tried again, what do I now know to do differently?
3. This hasn’t worked out quite the way I wanted, but three things I did well are...
Use the ultimate question: According to who?
This is a big one for me, so big that it’s a foundation for one of the books I’m trying to write.
Many people base their actions on what they believe other people think or would like, rather than what they want. The truth is, they might not even realise that this is how they are living. To many of us, it comes naturally to look around at what others are saying/doing before acting accordingly.
The problem? By living in this way, our goals are based on the expectations of others, and if things don’t go right we fear others will judge our failures! Of course, this leads to a vicious cycle. Goals based on others’ expectations - fear of judgement - increased fear of failure - give up - feel like we ought to do something.
A significant indication that this could be a trap you’ve fallen into is the use of the word “should”. How often are you saying you should do something?
- I really should take this course
- Wow, I should do XYZ
- I should try a new outfit
What’s wrong with should? Well, should tends to mean that the opinion doesn’t actually belong to you at all. Instead, you’ve taken ‘data’ from those around you and turned this into what this data suggests you ought to be doing. The shoulds you’re using don’t necessarily belong to you at all.
Next time you use the word “should” simply ask the question: according to who?
Is it according to you? Great, turn it into a must. If it’s not according to you, you need to work out if it is something you genuinely want to do. If it is, turn it into a must.
Use the second ultimate question: Compared to who?
This one takes us back to the self-talk issue. As I said, much of our self-talk is negative and, I think, if we could actually playback our self-talk we’d probably be quite shocked. I’ll keep this one short and simple.
Much of what we tell ourselves often revolves believing we’re not good enough, which adds a lot of fuel to the fear of failure. Now, it is essential to question these beliefs to get to the other side. So, next time you tell yourself you’re not good enough (or anything similar), simply ask:
Compared to who?
Two types of answer will probably come up. First, you might come up with a long list of people: are these people trying to do exactly what you are with precisely the same knowledge and experiences as you? No? You cannot compare yourself to them in that case.
The second possible answer is no-one, or your mind goes blank. Need I say more?
Comparing yourself to others is a pointless exercise that will only serve increase your fear of failure and stop you from achieving your goals.
Stay in the present:
I would guess that the most significant cause of a fear of failure is because we automatically compare current situations to past situations. This is not our fault, it is the way our brains are wired. Although it is possible to change the wiring of our brains: will someone remind me to do a blog series on this? Ta.
It’s a bit like learning from mistakes, which I talked about earlier. The past is gone, the only way past mistakes can serve you is to make you wiser. We are often smarter than we think we are, it is just about how we use this wisdom. Setting yourself goals is essential. Basing those goals in the present is even more critical.
One day, I want to retake my GCSE maths exams. When I decide to do this, it will be vital for me to not to compare the possible outcome with the outcome I had 15 years ago. I can use the lessons I learnt in the past, such as the need to actually revise. However, there would be no point me going ahead with it if all I thought was, “well, I’ve tried this before, and I failed. So, the chances are, I’ll fail again”.
Regrets: The What If Vs Oh Well Battle. Who wins? YOU decide:
There are three primary possible outcomes when setting a goal. Of course, there are vast numbers of possible outcomes, but I’m going to focus on three.
1. The first one is easy: success. Achieving your goal. Don't question it just enjoy it and celebrate.
2. The What If Factor. You have a goal, and you allow the fear of failure in. At this point, thousand of what if questions will start running through your head: What if I can’t? What if I fail? What if they laugh?… and so it goes on.
There are two things to note: Firstly, the ‘what if questions’ we ask are rarely positive, so can fill us with enough dread to make us walk away.
Secondly, if we set ourselves a goal that is really important to us but we give up, these ‘what if questions will change, becoming: what if I’d tried/kept going/done xyz…? Not only will these questions change but they will hang around like a bad smell until such a time when you either try again OR you forgive yourself for walking away. And trust me, this can take a while!
Oh well, I’ve tried: this one occurs when you’ve tried to achieve your goal, but it hasn’t quite worked out the way you wanted it to. Many people will beat themselves up about being a failure at this point. However, allowing yourself to simply acknowledging you did the best you could but it wasn’t meant to be right now, will put yourself at peace. I guess it’s almost like saying, “oh well, that method didn’t quite work, what can I try next.
The first outcome will always be desirable, of course. But when you’re drilling down into your goals and the fear of failure starts to creep in, ask yourself: