Your Fear of Failure Defines You

fear of failureYou are afraid of failure. I know it and so do you. You may try to act tough and brave as if nothing can faze you. Perhaps you try to convince yourself you aren’t really afraid to fail. Deep down you have an intrinsic fear of failing though. It’s present whether you try to hide it or not.

And, guess what? The fear of failure can be a good thing depending on how you respond to it. It’s a natural reaction to uncertain and often high stakes situations. I’m sure our ancient ancestors dealt with the fear of failure on a daily basis. Failing to find a reliable food source or adequate shelter was a very real thing and fear over those scenarios almost assuredly gripped them. However, there wasn’t much choice for them in facing those fears – they either did it or perished. The stakes in modern day society rarely involve life or death. But, the fear of failing is still there and befalls everyone.

Fear of Failure: Life’s Evolution

For infants and toddlers, the fear of failure is essentially nonexistent. Curiosity trumps any notion of failure (how else would babies learn to walk?). However, as our formative years progress, the concept of failure starts to really sink in. The mind becomes better able to process all outcomes of a decision or undertaking including the bad ones. A child learning to ice skate or ride a bike might be hesitant due to concerns of falling and hurting themselves. At this stage, though, the child is scared of a specific event rather than overall failure. In other words, she might not want to hop on her bike without training wheels because she is aware of the possibility of crashing and scraping her knee. She’s afraid of a specific event outcome rather than the concept of achieving overall abject failure at bike riding.

As we continue to age, the fear of failure becomes more developed. The main reason is: other people. We become cognizant of others people’s thoughts and potential judgment of us. What if I come across as a bumbling idiot during my speech and people think I’m a buffoon? What is going to happen if I let my parents down and fail algebra class? Will people laugh at me if I try out for the basketball team and I’m not good enough? If I don’t knock this work project out of the park will my manager be disappointed and fire me? Real or not, your perception of other people’s expectations can result in you placing harsh demands on yourself and then stressing over your ability to meet those demands or fail trying.

How Your Fear of Failure Defines You

There’s really only two ways you can deal with the fear of failing:

  1. Attack it head on - Are you willing to rise to the challenge? When an overwhelming obstacle is placed before you, do you use the fear of failing as motivation to achieve success? Chances are you’ll need to fully dedicate your resources in order to not let yourself or others down. It might require long hours, lots of studying or practice, tiring repetition, or persistent effort. The bottom line is you absolutely don’t want to face the fallout of failing, and this fear pushes you to avoid that outcome by succeeding at all costs. These people are fighters.
  2. Runaway or avoid - Instead of facing your failure fear, you simply don’t even try. This is the “I’m not going to apply to this job because I know I’m not good enough or smart enough” mentality. It’s why people drop out of college or fail on their diets. They’re fearful of what it really takes to accomplish the task. As a result, they shortchange themselves and accept failure by allowing the “inevitable” to happen. In extreme cases, this condition is called atychiphobia which is the “abnormal, unwarranted, and persistent fear of failure.” I call anyone who chooses this type of reaction a hider.

Some might contend there’s another way to handle the fear of failing and that is “to give it a try, but don’t go all out…just do enough to get by.” To me, that’s still succumbing to the fear of failure and is a different variant of running away/avoiding. Putting in a half-hearted effort may be enough to temporarily sidestep those fears, but they’ll come back around sooner or later and bother you just as much then if not more.

Fear of Failure: Are you a Fighter or a Hider?

No one is 100% in either category. There will be instances where you face the fear of failing head on and use that fear as motivation to achieve spectacular results. Other times you might capitulate to the fear and bail out. Oftentimes it depends on certain circumstances such as what stage of life you’re in and how big the obstacle is. The catch is, though, some people possess natural tendencies that instinctively arise when facing the fear of a possible failure. They’re driven to succeed and the fear of failing makes them stronger. My belief is the vast majority of the population does not fall into that category. Most people inherently don’t want to rise to the occasion because the fear of failing is just too strong. It’s all mental perception though. It will probably be difficult at first, but if you change your thinking to completely reject failure, then your fear of letting it happen can be a powerful weapon on the road to success. Plus, you can even be lazy and still come out on top! And, even if you do end up failing, it won’t be for lack of a real honest effort. You won’t sabotage yourself from the get go and you’ll be able to use the experience as a learning opportunity.

Franklin D. Roosevelt famously stated the “only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He’s right. But if you find yourself unable to shake the fear of failure – then use it to your advantage! I’ll leave you with another insightful quote:

“Men are not worried by things, but by their ideas about things. When we meet with difficulties, become anxious or troubled, let us not blame others, but rather ourselves, that is: our ideas about things.” – Epictetus

And if I could append on to the sage wisdom found in Epictetus’s quote, I add simply add: “harness those troubled ideas about things – that fear of failure – and use it to do accomplish great feats.”

How do you naturally react to the fear of failure? Do you shrink away and avert the challenge or do you intrinsically want to conquer that fear? If you’re prone to the former, do you think being more aware of such a trait will allow you to consciously use that fear for “good instead of evil”?

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Image courtesy of Doc Rogers at Flickr.

14 Responses to Your Fear of Failure Defines You

  1. moneystepper February 25, 2014 at 3:05 am #

    A very timely post in my life – thanks Mr. Utopia. Come on then fear – I’m ready for you!! ;)
    moneystepper recently posted…2013 UK unemployment rate falls to 7.2% – Is the unemployment rate higher or lower than average in your region?My Profile

    • Mr. Utopia February 25, 2014 at 11:19 am #

      I wrote it just for you moneystepper! Kidding aside, I hope the article helps you in making the most of any fear of failure you might have. I have a feeling I’ll need to re-read my own words often in the future.

  2. DC @ Young Adult Money February 26, 2014 at 9:54 am #

    I think at times the fear of failure has driven complacency in my life. I’m particularly afraid of public failure. Unfortunately that’s also where some of the biggest successes come from, whether it’s a job or business or something else.
    DC @ Young Adult Money recently posted…How I Decluttered Thousands of BelongingsMy Profile

    • Mr. Utopia February 26, 2014 at 12:11 pm #

      Yeah, it’s definitely not easy. The path of least resistance is so simple to follow especially when there is an overriding fear of failure. But, as you pointed out, the reward potential is often the greatest when the fear is the greatest! So, leveraging that fear can have amazing returns.

  3. Andrew@LivingRichCheaply February 26, 2014 at 10:42 am #

    Unfortunately I’m the type of person who fears failure. Good point separating the fighter and hider perspective. I definitely am a fighter when it’s something that I am forced to face. However, if it is something that is avoidable, many times, I will avoid having to fight that fight.
    Andrew@LivingRichCheaply recently posted…Are We Overworked?My Profile

  4. Mr. Utopia February 26, 2014 at 12:16 pm #

    That’s an important distinguishment. When your back is to the wall and you have absolutely no choice to face the fear, then it’s almost easier (even if the task at hand is tough). When there is a choice, though, to fight or hide, that’s when the real challenge arises…and where the most reward, intrinsically and externally, can often be found.

  5. Ryan @ Impersonal Finance February 27, 2014 at 9:48 am #

    I definitely try to use fear to my advantage. I think it can be an amazing motivation to get something done. That being said, I try not to let it run me too much. I like to be successful in any endeavor I take on, but I know that can’t always be the case, right? But like DC said above, it’s public failure that gets to me. That’s one of the reasons that making your goals known can push your towards success. You just have to keep trying in the face of that fear. Eat it and own it.
    Ryan @ Impersonal Finance recently posted…study failure as you do successMy Profile

    • Mr. Utopia February 27, 2014 at 2:49 pm #

      Well said. There is a fine line to walk between using your fear of failure push you to higher levels of success and letting it totally obsess your every waking moment. You can’t let using it as motivation detract or cause you to neglect other important areas of your life like your family.

  6. Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life March 1, 2014 at 9:11 am #

    I am a fighter for sure. That’s the only way to make it in the entertainment industry :)
    Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life recently posted…Moving Forward: Fast, Slow, and Constant.My Profile

    • Mr. Utopia March 2, 2014 at 11:21 am #

      Yes, I can imagine you’d have less of an option in the entertainment industry. If you don’t face your fears and use them as motivation to excel, then you’re probably not going to last long.

  7. Little House March 4, 2014 at 6:44 am #

    I’d say I’m mostly a fighter. I plow full-steam ahead for things that peak my interest and usually achieve my goals. However, I can also think of times when I’ve given up because the process either became too hard, I changed my mind, or I lost interest.
    Little House recently posted…Second Quarter GoalsMy Profile

    • Mr. Utopia March 4, 2014 at 4:10 pm #

      Good point about losing interest. No reason to harness the power of your fear if you aren’t at all interested in whatever it concerns. But, if you are interested and do want it, then use the fear to motivate you to succeed instead of to shy away from the challenge.

  8. Don @ Breath of Optimism March 10, 2014 at 12:16 pm #

    Failure simply means you are taking a step outside of your comfort zone and are growing as person. If you never fail, then you are just going through life as is – content with how things are. You are never growing, never striving to be a better person. I’ll fail any day since it means that I am pushing forward with life. We only get one shot at it, might as well make it the best it can be!
    Don @ Breath of Optimism recently posted…What Is Your Why?My Profile

    • Mr. Utopia March 10, 2014 at 5:33 pm #

      Well said, but knowing you should step out of your comfort zone and actually doing so are two different things. It can be especially difficult to tackle that fear when the stakes are high. I think people are wired differently too. Some naturally embrace the fear while others shy away from it. Either way, when facing up to the fear, the best way is to use it as motivation instead of a huge obstacle blocking your way.

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