Engagement, Reframing, Success

What if I Fail?

Fear of FailureI’ve heard some common complaints about making life changes from many of the clients I’ve coached over the years. One of the most common is a fear of failing. It saddens me to think about just how many people defeat themselves before they ever begin. Let’s take a deep look at this fear of failure.

The first question I typically ask when I hear that someone is fearing failure, is, “Well, why do you fear failure?” If we look back over the course of our lives, there are plenty of examples of things we succeeded at, only after having failed repeatedly. Take your mind all the way back to childhood. How many times did you attempt to tie your shoes unsuccessfully before you got it? How many times did you crash your bicycle before you learned to successfully coordinate your balance, your feet, your hands on the handlebars? How many times did your teacher kick back a report, or go over a math problem before you got it? The simply fact is, before we can do something successfully, we most often have to do it poorly enough times to get the proper skills to overcome the failure.

It is very rare that anyone becomes an “instant expert” at anything they do. We see many stories of overnight successes, but the media rarely takes the time or explores the depth of these stories to talk about the long time of preparation that allowed the success to happen. If you’ve never drawn more than a stick figure, you can’t simply decide to paint like Da Vinci. If you don’t know more than a very basic open chord on the guitar, you’re not going to one day, pick up that axe and shred like Eddie Van Halen. Even many of the world’s wealthiest people have claimed bankruptcy and/or had multiple failed business ventures in their past.

So whether it’s wanting to start your own business, change careers, find a new and health relationship, quit a bad habit or adopt a new one, failure is not only likely, it’s an almost necessary part of the process. So again, I’ll ask you, “Why do you fear failure?” Is it because you got scolded for not passing a test, or getting a poor grade? Certainly, many of us grew up with the pressures of performance placed on us by our parents. Sometimes, falling short of the expectations our family had of us could be very painful, even scarring. And, most of the time, this wasn’t an intentional attempt at attacking our self-esteem, nor simply a sadistic form of entertainment, in truth, our parents often pushed us hard, hoping that we could go on to be more successful than they were.

Perhaps you fear failure because you’ve talked big about what you’re going to do to everyone you know, and so you fear failing because of the embarassment you’ll feel when everyone chuckles and says they “told you so.” But, when you are striving to accomplish big things, just learn to be quiet about what you’re doing until you’ve already succeeded. Then you simply won’t have to hear the naysayers. Really, the tease because they are usually just trying to deflect their own sense of inadequacy. The reality is, if you do succeed, then they have to question themselves about why they haven’t taken on greater challenges in their own lives. And that can be a painful reminder for them.

And, sometimes it isn’t a fear of failure at all. Sometimes it’s actually a fear of success. We all tend to want things to stay the same, even if our present conditions are nearly intolerable. Because whether you’re broke, unhappy, even abused, it’s familiar, and familiarity is often a comfort in itself. You might dig deep and ponder whether you’re simply afraid that somehow life will be “different” if you do succeed. You might think that the people you love will not be able to stick around, or that their feelings may change. You might believe that your life will get more complicated. And if you have any of these doubts lingering in your mind, you may well be sabotaging your own efforts.

Ultimately, all I can tell you is that the greatest failure is to never try. And you may evade the sense of that failure all the way through life until you are on your death bed, thinking of all the things you might have done. By then, it will simply be too late. So, don’t squander any more of the precious time you have. Whatever it is you want, go and get it. Grab the brass ring, walk through the fire, and seize what it is you want. You only get one life.