5 Steps to be afraid to fail and keep focus

Martijn Ruitenburg

Fear of failure....I'm getting a bit tired of it.....-and maybe you as well.

Like me, I'm sure you can think of a few examples of things you'd rather do differently. You'd like to express your opinion in a meeting, but you don't because you're afraid you might say something stupid. You'd like to call a colleague to discuss his behavior, but you're afraid that in the moment you won't have the courage to say what you really want to say. Or, you would like to pitch an idea, but you are afraid the client will reject it.

These are examples of moments you regret afterwards, because you explicitly told yourself to do it differently this time. It can make you irritated or even discouraged. Thoughts of what could go wrong and outweighing the risks with the opportunities can lead to the much hated and dreaded fear of failure. For some people, perhaps you included, fear of failure is a real obstacle. You want to get rid of it, preferably today. And that is understandable: a life without this kind of fear would be much nicer/easier. 

However, in this blog I’d like to show you the other side of fear of failure. I want to show you how we ourselves, and our environment, often play an important role in making fear of failure play in important role in our choices. And, I want to introduce you to having the courage to fail: the choice to embrace the chance of failure in the moment and thus reward yourself by doing what you actually wanted to do.

The label of fear of failure

Since I have been meeting people who want to get the best out of themselves, the term 'fear of failure' has started to bother me. It is being used too often in situations where people are unable to show the desired behavior because their mind is preoccupied with things that could possibly go wrong.

The fear or doubt related to the possible negative consequences of certain choices or certain behavior often directs our behavior. The possible benefits or positive consequences of certain choices apparently are not strong enough to change this behavior.

If these moments occur often, it takes little effort for yourself and those around you to discover a problematic pattern in these situations: you have fear of failure. This simply means nothing more than that you often have thoughts about what could go wrong and you are afraid of not achieving a certain desired outcome.

Two objections to fear of failure

And we all recognize these thoughts, don't we? The fear of an undesirable outcome of your behavior is nothing new for many of us, including me. But the ease with which the term 'fear of failure', and all the characteristics that go with it, are linked to this behavior bothers me.

My resistance against the term fear of failure consists mainly of the following two objections:

1.         The label itself - it makes you really believe in it.

2.         The negative load attached to the term - you have to get rid of fear of failure. 

The first objection concerns the label itself.  Others often like to label something or someone. And, truth be told, you often do it yourself. You will judge a neat person in a suit who is constantly looking around at a trainstation differently from an unkempt person with a long beard who exhibits the same behavior.

That judgement is simply the result of the difference in the group of people to which you classify these two people, and the corresponding characteristics of that group. If you had to ask or investigate the specific characteristics (both inner and outer) of each person, you would get very tired and waste a lot of time. 

So, (unconsciously) applying a label creates order and saves us a lot of energy. And, based on all the assumptions that come for free with this label, it often directly determines how you behave. If you label the man in the suit 'businessman', you might keep looking to see if that person has found the person he is looking for. If you label the man with the beard a vagrant, you might move a few meters away.

So labelling yourself as someone with fear of failure in certain situations is not very strange, but it is awkward. From that moment on, it will also influence your behavior in other areas, without you controlling that or even being aware of it. The common thread is that you increasingly won’t do the things you would like to do.

You will more quickly avoid making difficult choices in other situations, because you have come to know yourself as someone who does not dare to make difficult choices. And this continues: you notice every event or situation that confirms this label, you take it seriously ('you see') and it therefore confirms what you already thought: a disappointing performance is the result of this fear of failure. And so you automatically start to believe in it even more.

Fear of failure is not good, is it?

My second, and main, objection lies in the negative connotation of fear of failure. Of course, it is not nice if your thoughts are dominated by the biggest risks and pitfalls. However, being afraid of failure is often seen as an insurmountable and permanent limitation.

‘Without fear of failure, I would make more contact with others', or 'Without fear of failure, I would call that company where I have always wanted to work and ask if they are still looking for someone', or, 'Without fear of failure I would take the chance and ask that person who I really like on a date'.

Fear of failure is seen as a huge obstacle. So it is best to get rid of it as soon as possible. The question is, however, whether that is even possible....

An unfair struggle

When you really start to feel you suffer from fear of failure (objection #1) and experience it as something you have to get rid of as soon as possible (objection #2), an unfair struggle ensues.

The fear of failure that you experience begins to become a real obstacle to doing what you want to do and what is important to you. You try to convince yourself that you really have a good idea and that giving your opinion is really important, but you do not succeed in doing so. Your behavior doesn’t change.

Convincing yourself is just one of the many ways in which you try to deal with your fear of failure. Other examples of how people deal with fear of failure: avoiding situations, not doing your best or thinking about something for a long time. Unintentionally, but behavior with the purpose of reducing the fear of failure and thereby increasing the chance of 'successful' behavior. 

Perhaps this is the moment to conclude: the feeling of fear of failure remains and your behavior does not change. The only thing you have learned so far is that you have invested a lot of time and energy without the desired outcome/result. Simply because you are fighting an unfair battle with the phenomenon of fear of failure and are starting to get tired of it....

An unfair struggle

When you really start to feel you suffer from fear of failure (objection #1) and experience it as something you have to get rid of as soon as possible (objection #2), an unfair struggle ensues.

The fear of failure that you experience begins to become a real obstacle to doing what you want to do and what is important to you. You try to convince yourself that you really have a good idea and that giving your opinion is really important, but you do not succeed in doing so. Your behavior doesn’t change.

Convincing yourself is just one of the many ways in which you try to deal with your fear of failure. Other examples of how people deal with fear of failure: avoiding situations, not doing your best or thinking about something for a long time. Unintentionally, but behavior with the purpose of reducing the fear of failure and thereby increasing the chance of 'successful' behavior. 

Perhaps this is the moment to conclude: the feeling of fear of failure remains and your behavior does not change. The only thing you have learned so far is that you have invested a lot of time and energy without the desired outcome/result. Simply because you are fighting an unfair battle with the phenomenon of fear of failure and are starting to get tired of it....

The art of courage of failure

If you more often want to do what you think is important, I grant you the courage to fail: the guts to make choices that fit what's important to you and how you want to behave, knowing you can lose something in the process.

Your colleagues may find your opinion superfluous and your idea bad. That is a real and unavoidable risk of sticking out your neck. You can choose to notice this fear and give your opinion. The fear of 'losing' something will then no longer determine the choices you make, because courage of failure means that you accept that fear or doubt. You take the risk of falling with your eyes wide open...

That is the essence of courage of failure: making choices that are difficult in the moment, but which provide real gain because in the long run you are sailing your own course.

Staying on track is only possible with courage of failure

Experiencing the fear of failure as a problem, and therefore wanting to get rid of it as soon as possible, is only one side of the coin. The other side of the coin may tell you something valuable and is worth exploring. This other side gives you insight into what is important to you. That is why fear of failure is a valuable (often unconscious) guide for every human being.

Think about it: the more important it is for you to present your brilliant solution, the more afraid you are that people will reject it. If there is something to lose, and therefore something to fail at, there is also something to gain. Athletes experience this literally every day or every week. Do you want to win? Then you are often afraid to lose! Do you want to perform well? Then you are often afraid that it will go wrong!

And so the fear of failure tells you what is important for you. And so, thanks to the fear of failure, you know that you are on the right track. Fear of failure is a very valuable indicator that you’d like to cherish!

The most important question you want to ask yourself more often is: Do I have the courage to fail? Am I prepared to go full steam ahead for what is important and valuable to me?

To help you to do what you want to do more often, here is a challenge for you: choose one thing that you have wanted to do or have been putting off for a long time and go and do it!

Follow the step-by-step plan below:

1.         Describe concretely what your choice or behavior looks like.

For example: 'I want to give my opinion about the proposed change in the next meeting'.

2.         Notice what you think and feel: be open to doubt, worry, fear or tension.

3.         Recognize the obstacles for doing what you want to do.

4.         Replace the word 'but' by 'and

Example: "I doubt, but I want to give my opinion" becomes "I doubt and I want to give my opinion".

5.         Choose & Do 

Have you done it? Let your mind be too critical about how it went and be proud of the way you have shown courage of failure!

And, let me know how you like it!

Martijn Ruitenburg is a sports and performance psychologist and one of the owners of Focus like a Pro. He works with professionals in business and sports on a daily basis to improve focus.