Despite knowing that calculated risk can produce the greatest rewards, many people are terrified of failure. The possibility of not being successful in our every endeavor clouds our judgment—and often holds us back from achieving our most desired goals.
But with a bit of work, you can reframe your fear of failure into a tool for motivation and self-empowerment.
Why are you so afraid to fail?
We are afraid of failure because of what it triggers: disappointment, humiliation, and shame, just to name a few feelings. Failure is often tied to the worst-case scenario we imagine unfolding as a consequence of our actions.
For example, if you are offered a big promotion, but aren’t confident that your skills and know-how guarantee your success, you may imagine that your failure is inevitable and will result in losing your job. As a consequence, you turn down the job—even if it was your dream role.
This scenario may seem extreme, but it’s not out of the ordinary: people tend to turn down opportunities because of their fear of failure.
Confront your fear
In everyday discourse, we are used to speaking about failure negatively, but what if we didn’t? Instead of seeing failure as the path to unwanted consequences and hardship, it is helpful to see failure as a lesson. This may seem cliched or unrealistic, but it’s actually quite useful. The more you see failure as a learning opportunity, the less ambiguous and scary it seems.
When you feel that fear sneak up on you, the best thing you can do is confront it:
- Before you make any decisions, take a step back and ask yourself what exactly you are scared of. What’s the worst-case scenario you keep imagining?
- Once you have acknowledged your fear and identified the worst case, ask yourself if your nightmare scenario is based on facts or feelings.
- It’s time to reframe your mindset and focus on what you know to be true. Look at each feeling you wrote down: what facts about the situation you are in refute your feelings about failure?
Pro Tip: When you are figuring out whether your fear is based on facts or feelings, write it down. Make a simple table and sort your thoughts into a “facts” or “feelings” column.
Time to reframe
Let’s say your worst-case scenario is that you are promoted to manager, but you turn out to be the most incompetent leader your organization has ever seen. As a result, you are fired, lose your salary and benefits, and find it hard to land another job.
However, when you write down your facts and feelings, you realize that your entire nightmare situation is based mostly on feelings—insecurity over your readiness for this promotion, fear of making mistakes, unworthiness, and imposter syndrome.
Now you turn to the facts. Facts that refute your feelings may include: how your work contributions have benefitted your team and organization, your history of promotions, relevant past experience, and the feedback you have received from your current manager.
Going through the above three-step process will help you be more curious and analytical about your fear, as well as help you see how that fear is hindering you. It is from this place of new understanding that you want to make any judgment calls or decisions.
Recover from failure
Even if you do fail, it’s important to keep perspective and realize it’s not the end of the world. The real failure would be if you learn nothing from your experience. No one expects you to be perfect, but you are expected to learn lessons and find solutions when a project does not go as planned.
To help you recover with your head held high and better luck next time, ask yourself the five ‘W’ questions:
- What: What was expected? What was planned for? What went wrong? What was going well? What was going well then stopped?
- Who: Who was staffed on this project? Were the right people staffed? Were there relevant skill sets or expertise not represented?
- When: When did it become clear that things were not going as planned? Was the timeline too ambitious? Were deadlines too casual?
- Where: Where did everyone get work done? Were there opportunities for all relevant stakeholders to come together and discuss the work?
- Why: Why did this failure happen? What lessons can you extrapolate from this experience and apply to future projects?
Put yourself first
You need to recognize when fear is in the driver’s seat instead of you. The louder you allow your fear of failure to become, the harder it will be for you to recognize that your insecurities are being activated. And this will never produce your desired results.
You never want a fear of failure to prevent you from going after opportunities and goals that not only fulfill you, but also serve and support those around you.
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