Six steps to overcome the fear of failure

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It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.

~ J.K.Rowling

Fear is an essential part of being human. In the early days of mankind, being afraid of predators and other natural dangers was necessary to survive. Over the past few centuries, as mankind became less susceptible to the vagaries of nature, this response has slowly been losing relevance. But, our biological brains, trained over millenia of evolution, have not registered this rapid change in human society. Fear still causes our brains thinking capability to shut down and the natural response to take over.

Failure at any task you undertake causes feelings of inadequacy and a chance of social rejection. The brain interprets it as a threat to your identity and triggers the fight or flight response, the natural reaction to fear. Most people default to the flight response when faced with fear of failure, i.e., not doing the task that could lead to failure. The fear builds on itself, giving rise to doomsday scenarios, and paralyzes you from taking action. And, as Winston Churchill said, “I never worry about action, but only inaction.”

For example, the fear of public speaking has its roots in the fear of failure. Even though you may be consciously aware that failing to deliver a good presentation will not result in getting fired, much less physical injury, you become tense and your heart rate increases. The brain interprets these signals as indicators of threat and triggers the body’s fear response. Since the emotional center of the brain that recognizes fear is separate from the language center of the brain, you can not put into words the discomfort you feel. This often leads to fumbling or forgetting the speech entirely. To avoid such discomfort, you actively avoid opportunities of public speaking, even though you know that they will be beneficial. The fear of failure becomes a self fulfilling prophecy, a hurdle in your growth,

There is a way to combat this fear, though I am no expert at it (I deal with it on almost a daily basis). There is a 6 step process I follow to overcome my fear. You can train yourself to be conscious of when fear takes over and use the process to overcome it.

  1. Acknowledge the fear
    Be honest with yourself and acknowledge that you are facing the fear of failure. It only means that whatever you are trying to do may not have the outcome you expect.
  2. Accept failure as one possible outcome
    No matter what you do, failure is only one of the possible outcomes. More often than not chances of success are equal to chances of failure.
  3. Think about the consequences of failure
    Be realistic about it. The doomsday scenarios in your mind are all imaginary. Failing in one interview does not mean you are unfit for employment, for life. You will not starve to death if people do not buy your self published book.
  4. Think about what you can change
    This is your plan to bounce back from failure. You can not get an employer to hire you, or get people to buy your book, unless they want to. You can change only what is in your control. Read up more on the subject matter for the next interview or read a book on nonverbal communication to project confidence. Change the cover design of your book or use a new marketing technique to increase the sales of your book. Plan your strategy to overcome the failure before you get to it.
  5. Imagine the results of success
    Imagine what it would be like to be successful. What would you experience, feel, and do. Will it enable you to earn more so you can buy the new car you wanted? Will it free up your time so you can go for a holiday trip abroad? Put as much detail as you can into your success scenarios.
  6. Take action
    You knew this step was coming. All the previous steps will amount to nothing unless you actually do something. Make a to-do list, announce it on facebook for public accountability, or tell a friend and promise to pay up if you haven’t done it. Whatever it takes to make you commit to taking action.

Fear is not just mental, it is physical too. Mindful action will break the pattern of your body’s physical reaction to fear. Success and failure are outcomes of action; milestones of progress. True failure is when you stop progressing; letting fear cripple you from taking action.

Ray Allen is at the top of the all-time NBA leader-board for most 3-point field goals made. He failed to make the shot 6 times out of every 10, but he didn’t stop trying. His success count is at 2855 because his failure count is at 4656. He didn’t allow failure, let alone fear of it, stop him. Now, he is the best in the world. You may or may not make the 3-pointer from the line. But, if you don’t take the shot, for the fear of missing, it is the same as not making it. Step up, take the shot, and watch your fear melt away.

The concept of how the brain reacts to fear is inspired by the book ‘Emotional Intelligence’, by David Goleman.

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