Mar 28, 2023 19 min read
Conquering the fear of failure
It is crucial for any organization, whether it is a startup or a large corporation, to innovate and experiment. But nurturing innovations requires employees to be able to take risks and to try different things. Fearing failure is something which inhibits innovation in general. This article talks about the fear of failure and how individuals can be less fearful from failure and organizations can nurture employees who are brave and embrace failure as a learning step
Who invented the light Bulb?
Thomas Edison – Right?
We all know the answer to this basic school General Knowledge question.
But what we might not be knowing is that Edison made numerous attempts to create a working light bulb, but it took him over 1,000 attempts to finally succeed.
When asked about his failures, Edison famously said, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." Despite his many failed attempts, Edison remained committed to innovation and experimentation, and eventually succeeded in creating a commercially viable light bulb that transformed the world.
Edison's story shows that failure is not something to be feared, but rather an essential part of the innovation process. Today, Edison is remembered not just for his invention of the light bulb, but also for his unwavering commitment to innovation and his willingness to keep trying in the face of failure.
Failure is a learning experience and an opportunity for growth and self-improvement. Although, the above narrative sounds quite motivating but we all due to various reasons have experienced the fear of failure. While researching for this article I got to know that there is a phobia associated with the fear of failing which is known as Atychiphobia.
Atychiphobia is defined as an intense fear of failure. It may cause you to put off or avoid any activity or scenario that has the potential for an unsuccessful outcome. Someone with this condition may be scared to try new things, take risks, or embrace growth for fear of failure.
Sadly, I also diagnosed myself from suffering from the above condition. Though the medical condition is fairly difficult to pronounce, it is relatively simple to document because some or most people fear failure:
A loss of self-confidence or self-esteem: Many people measure their self-worth based on their accomplishments. Failure can make them feel like they are not good enough or not capable, which can lead to a loss of self-esteem or confidence.
Failure is shameful: Failure can be a public event, and people may fear being judged or criticized by others for their mistakes or shortcomings.
Fear of consequences: Failure can have negative consequences such as financial loss, job loss, or social consequences, which can lead to anxiety and stress.
Perfectionism: Some people have a strong desire to be perfect or to avoid making mistakes. Failure can be seen as a personal flaw or a sign of weakness.
Uncertainty & Lack of Control: Failure can be unpredictable and uncertain, which can create anxiety and fear of the unknown. It may also make people feel they are not in control of their lives.
Overcoming the fear of failure
We all acknowledge that fear of failure is real and it sub-consciously might be stopping us from taking the leap in terms of career, love, or self- improvement. So how can the same be surmounted. Some general pointers are:
Recognize that failure is a natural part of learning and growth. Everyone fails at some point, and it's through our failures that we learn and grow. Instead of seeing it as something to be avoided at all costs, see it as an opportunity to learn and improve.
Practice self-compassion. Be kind to yourself and treat yourself with the same kindness and understanding you would offer to a friend who is struggling.
James Clear, (Author of Atomic Habits) who is one of my favorite non-fiction authors has an interesting take on the same. James Clear talks about Fear-Based Decision Making which is when you let your fears or worries dictate your actions (or, in most cases, your lack of action). An apt example for the same is “I would like to speak on the stage but what if people judge me or laugh at me when I do the same”. James says that no one is wanting you to fail- Maybe you’ll succeed. Maybe you’ll fail. For the most part, nobody cares one way or the other.
Bestselling author (The 4-Hour Work Week) and Entrepreneur Tim Ferris in his popular Ted Talk titled - Why you should define your fears instead of your goals quotes the words of Seneca, a famous stoic writer "We suffer more often in imagination than in reality." He practices creating a fear-setting which is like a goal setting exercise. Fear Setting involves 3 simple steps:
Write the task that you fear – Egs. “What if I volunteer to take part in the elocution competition” now make three columns listing
Define– make a list of the worst things you can imagine happening if you take that step.
Prevent - What can you do to prevent each of the point on the list above
Repair - if the worst-case scenarios happen, what could you do to repair the damage even a little bit, or who could you ask for help
What might be the benefits of an attempt or a partial success – evaluate the wins of tackling the fear
The Cost of Inaction – document what you will lose out if you decide on status quo
How Matthew McConaughey – tackled the Fear of Failure and re-invented his acting career
A great example of dispelling the fear of failure also comes from a Hollywood actor and author (Greenlights) that I greatly admire. Matthew McConaughey’s a popular Hollywood actor has had a career with many ups and downs. He emerged in the recent years as a respectable actor from being just a movie star. He developed into a serious actor from the face of romantic comedies, winning the Oscar for best actor in a leading role in 2014 for his work in "Dallas Buyers Club."
It didn't happen overnight for McConaughey to transform. In fact, it was the result of a deliberate decision to change the course of his career. A transformation which meant stepping out of his comfort zone, which meant being vulnerable and exposing himself to a completely new genre of movies. A change which required consciously saying no to easy money and repetitive roles, a change which required facing the fear of failing. In the early 2000s, McConaughey was known for his roles in romantic comedies like "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days." However, these films did not earn him much critical praise.
In 2008, McConaughey decided to take a break from acting and reevaluate his career. He turned down several romantic comedy roles and instead focused on smaller, more challenging projects. As per the actor he wanted "to be scared in ways I didn't know the answer to". He declined all the cozy jobs for two years as he awaited the earth-shattering ones, and ultimately, they appeared.
McConaughey's went on to start in the 2011 courtroom thriller "The Lincoln Lawyer" which marked one of his early successes. The film received positive reviews and helped to establish McConaughey as a serious actor and get better acting roles. He then went on to receive praise for his work in movies like “Mud", “Interstellar” and TV series like the "True Detective."
How organizations can help in dispelling the fear of failure
Culture at an organization can be pivotal for dispelling the fear of failure. An organizational culture which nurtures and promotes risk -taking, experimentation and learning from mistakes can lead to a workforce which is more confident and more innovative.
Fail forward is one concept which means that you have chosen to respect each failure for the lessons it teaches you, and to apply those lessons to future efforts, even if those efforts may also fail. Each failure brings you closer to ultimate success when you're failing forward. Failing forward means that being wrong or trying something without success is ok. At Google Fail- forward is practiced as culture and there is a system and policy in place which celebrates failures and encourages employees to share their experiences with the rest of the organization. At Google the same is known as Post-Mortem.
Google has a definitive guidelines and criteria of when to go for a Post-mortem. At Google, Post-mortem is not about pointing fingers at any given person or team, but about using what is learned to build resilience and prepare for future issues that may arise along the way. Discussion of failures in public and working together to investigate their root causes, everyone gets the opportunity to learn from each incident. The documentation of this procedure creates a permanent resource that the team and subsequent teams can refer to when needed.
Another way in which organizations can motivate employees to less fearful of failure is Emphasizing a Growth Mindset. A growth mindset means that you thrive on challenge, and don’t see failure to describe yourself but as a springboard for growth and developing your abilities. Your intelligence and talents are all susceptible to growth. This way of thinking places a strong emphasis on the fact that learning from failures and perseverance are both essential components of success. Amazon the e-market leader encourages its employees to take risks and learn from their mistakes, and has a program called "Just Do It Awards" that recognizes employees who take risks and innovate. In this any employee may themselves or a colleague for a Just Do It Award by submitting a summary of the innovative idea or action they took. A panel of judges, made up of senior leaders from across the company, reviews the nominations and selects winners.
Fear is a natural response and stimuli to human beings which helps in our survival, but sometimes fear is something which limits us from achieving our potential. The same is true for organizations, a brave workforce which is open to trying different solutions are prone to reach a more innovative and sometimes better solution to a problem. Dispelling the fear of failure starts from an individual level which begins when we are children and raised by our parents. However, like all skills, not fearing failure is something which can be taught and practiced. The first step towards conquering the fear of failure is diagnosing the fear. Diagnosis and then working on it may help you make the leap. When in doubt remember Swami Vivekananda’s words “It is all a play” or as the millennials say YOLO.
Additionally, it greatly helps when organizations have a culture where failure is seen as progress and not as doom or a recipe for witch-hunt. The culture is made up by the employees. So, the next time your sub-ordinate or colleague fails, try, and motivate him for his effort and focus on the learning. Our corporation has innovation as its core value also greatly focusses on learning from failures, but in the energy sector, being surrounded by hydrocarbons, failure may just not be limited to monetary but may lead to fatality. We need to optimize and find a balance towards a culture which does not condemn Failure without compromising safety.
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