The Fear of Failure

How many of us have watched someone do something and said, “I’ll never do THAT!”   I would bet this is a thought that has crossed your mind so many times in your life that you could not realistically count it.

Thinking back to a much simpler time as a child there were many things that were scary to me.  Fireworks, or other loud noises, new people, but nothing seemed worse than little girls.  They were like an alien from the planet Venus. Playing games together was fun sometimes, but they always had to try to kiss you or hold your hand.  At that age it was just like…  YUK!

There was always this one boy in class that seemed to be a little more mature than the rest of us.  He had girlfriends and did not seem to be bothered by all that “mushy stuff”.  I always thought of that boy as being fearless and wished secretly to be just like him.  Fear can be a powerful tool, but luckily we do grow out of some fears while unfortunately developing others.

This brings me to the topic of my blog this week: the fear of failure.

As a teacher I have had many opportunities to discuss with people what they want to accomplish in life.  I have also had an opportunity to discuss what people fear, or in this case, what they describe as something they will never do.  Why do some of us have a fear of new or different things, while others do not?  Psychologists call it the “fight or flee response“, an inborn survival instinct design to keep us alive.

As with any theory, whether proven or still just a hypothesis, there is always the exception to the rule.  Look at skateboarding, surfing, or other extreme sports that people enjoy.  People who participate in these types of sports seem like they do dangerous things so that they can say, “I looked danger in the face and laughed.”  Nothing wrong with that, everyone needs a hobby, but most would agree that this approach is not for everyone.

So what, then, can we say truly holds some of us back from enjoying a fuller life?  I believe it all comes back to the fear of failure.  So let’s ask ourselves a question:  What would you ATTEMPT to do if you KNEW you could NOT FAIL?

Would that be rock climbing, sky diving, or something else like asking out a pretty girl or guy?  Here is a thought…   how about Social Dancing?  The fear of failure is defined in psychology as an irrational fear that we will not succeed.  This can include uncertainty about our future, which can cause someone to devalue their sense of self.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, our 32nd President of the United States and widely considered the sixth most admired person from the 20th century said these words regarding fear: (excerpt as follows)

“This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance…”

Roosevelt was speaking of the economy in his famous address to the nation, but I think that we can apply his concept to anything that we undertake.  It really comes down to this:  I can have fear, but I need not be fearful.

Let me share a story with you from Dr. Timothy Pychyl regarding fear and procrastination.  He writes, “Here’s my most mundane and personally earliest example of this realization of freedom, choice, inaction and the cost of waiting on the sidelines of life. It’s a simple story of my first school dance. A dance at a time in my life when getting that close to a girl seemed like a very good idea.

We, boys and girls 12-13 years of age, crowded into the dimly lit gymnasium migrating quickly to opposite walls, a gulf of shiny hardwood floor between the sexes. Nervously, the boys joked amongst ourselves as the DJ began to play songs over the loud speakers. Dance music, but no one was dancing (well, some of the girls were by themselves on the other side of the gym). Song after song was played. I wanted to dance, but I lacked the courage to cross that floor, that huge expanse, to risk rejection.

Finally, a few of the teachers, males and females, escorted some of us to the floor. With this necessary catalyst to break down our inaction, the dance began. My vivid memory from that moment besides how wonderfully long “Hey Jude” is for dancing, was the question in my mind, “Why did we wait until the end of the dance to start dancing?

It has been a metaphor for me in my adult years. Why wait to dance? Why let fear immobilize me? Why not act on intention, on desire?

In my business people tell me all the time that they do not have the ability to learn to dance.  They use an expression that I bet you have heard before: “I have two left feet”.  Being a teacher requires that I have the ability to understand what motivates people.  Motivation is also a key factor in helping people deal with fear.  So my job is to help people overcome their fears and find success by helping them reach and eventually exceed their goals.

I accomplish this by helping students develop and maintain a sense of competence.  This plays an essential role in their ability to pursue their goals effectively.  Meeting goals and feeling competent eliminates the fear of failure and allows them to feel that other goals are now possible.  When I tell you that I can help a person turn two left feet into two right feet…  I truly mean it.

True competence comes down to this: confidence in your abilities built on continuing success. It is also reflected in personal perception. When you recall the past, what does it look like?  How is it seen in your mind’s eye?  Do you feed your fears by remembering times when you did fail?  Are you optimistically remembering your many successes to bolster your sense of competence? The choice is ultimately yours.

Dr. Timothy Pychyl offered some friendly advice at the end of his writing. He wrote, “In spite of feeling overwhelmed by the task at hand, in spite of not feeling like doing it, in spite of fearing failure, in spite of seeing little value in a necessary task, have courage to persist and continue. This choice will define you, just as the choice not to persist, to needlessly delay may have already defined you through procrastination.

Of course, the choice is yours. My advice, not that you asked for it, is dance sooner not later. In spite of that big, barren space between you and your goal, in spite of the fear of rejection or humiliation, dance.

“What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?”

Remember to keep dancing!



5 Comments on “The Fear of Failure

  1. Ryan, I absolutely love this post. I have read it three times already. No wonder your students love you! Anne

  2. Pingback: Perception & Effort in the Classroom | Engaging Ideas

  3. Pingback: It’s Not an End Game « L.E.G.A.C.Y.

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