How to Manage the Fear of Failure

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This is the third article in the series Removing Barriers to Creating Amazing Things. Previous articles have dealt with removing physical barriers and managing your inner critic. This big honker of a post will examine our attitudes toward failure and end with some strategies on managing the fear of failure.

But first I want to start with some song lyrics from Ben Folds Five. These lyrics are from the song Regrets off the album The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner.

“I thought about the hours wasted
Watching TV, drinking beer
I thought about the things I thought about
Until immobilized with fear
And all the great ideas I had
And how we just made fun
Of those who had the guts to try and fail
And then I ended up in jail
Regrets, regrets”


Fear of failure is like an invisible fence, the kind used for dogs. In an invisible fence, wires are buried around the perimeter of a yard. The dog wears a collar with a radio transmitter. When the dog gets near the perimeter, the collar emits a little warning buzzer. If the dog keeps going, the beep gets louder, and if he goes outside the perimeter, he gets a little shock.

This is classic classical conditioning at work. After a few shocks, the dog only needs to hear the buzzer to know that if he goes any further, he will experience an unpleasant feeling.

Fear of failure is quite similar, except that instead of wearing a collar, we have these pesky things called brains. As I said previously in How to Manage Your Inner Critic, the brain wants us to be safe, comfortable and protected. In order to do this, the brain creates an invisible perimeter and tells us not to go outside.

“Enemies lurk outside,” the brain says, “and you could be hurt. You could fall on your face. Stay in here, where it’s safe.”

When we get close to this invisible fence, instead of a warning buzzer, we experience all kinds of strange things: scenarios in which we are ridiculed, abandoned, humiliated, and ruined. When we get even closer, instead of a shock, we get things like anxiety, cynicism, and perfectionism.

But you know what? That collar only has a limited range, and once you go far enough outside the perimeter, the collar stops working altogether. Of course, you might find that another invisible fence lies farther out in the distance, and the shocks are greater, but that’s no different.

Fear sucks.

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.”Mark Twain

In the past, fear served humans well. Fear kept us safe from predators, the elements, and other humans. When venturing out into new lands, we had to be especially careful. Tigers and hostile tribes lurked in the bushes, waiting until the prime moment to pounce. By creating scenarios and imagining these threats, the brain made us keep our guard up; it’s easier to fight when your weapon is at the ready.

Now, at least in the  developed world, we have little to fear from predators and enemies, but the brain continues to conjure threats and dangers.


Any creative endeavor involves setting out for new territory. Thoughts of doing and creating amazing things make us uncomfortable and anxious. When we create, we put ourselves and our hearts out there. We open ourselves up for public ridicule and shaming. Sure, some people are happy to create only for themselves, and that’s fine, but having an audience will, I promise, influence and improve your work. Having an audience is like having a source of feedback.

And there’s the rub.  You need feedback to improve, but when the brain gleefully points how awful it is to fail, we stop ourselves from taking the steps necessary for that feedback.

What’s Wrong With Failure?

Our attitude toward failure is learned in school and reinforced through mass culture. If you do horribly in a class, you ‘earn’ an F (for failure!). The problem is that ‘earning’ an F usually results from not trying. Laziness and apathy were the cause of this failure.

As we get older, though, we begin to perceive failure a little differently: failure changes from laziness and not trying to actually trying but not having any success. Failing starts to equal doing something wrong. Failure can also mean screwing up…big time.

This is a huge shift. Think about it. Look back at the lyrics from the beginning…who is the bigger ‘failure?’ The guy who sat on the couch drinking beer and laughing at the people out there failing? Or the people actually trying and failing?

History is filled with people who ‘failed.’ You’ve probably heard these stories a million times, but just in case…

  • Michael Jordan failed when he tried out for his high school basketball team.
  • Thomas Edison failed 10,000 times before invented the light bulb.
  • Robert Pirsig failed 121 times to find a publisher for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

You get the point. If we say that failure is not getting something right the first time, then these people were bigger failures than the Hindenburg. Yet today, all three of these failures are regarded as wildly successful individuals.

As creative people, we are  way too hard on ourselves. Every rejection is personal,  and every unrealized dream is the end of the world. Yet, by giving into that mentality, we start to think about taking the easy road, the path most traveled. If we give up on what we were meant to do, we will end up doing something we don’t want to do, only because it is the safe, easy, and fail-proof path.

Redefining Failure

“A calm sea does not make a skilled sailor.” –African proverb

As people who create amazing things, we need to redefine failure.

Merriam-Webster’s first definition of failure is an omission of occurrence or performance. Yet, if you’re actually trying to do or create something, then you have performed something. The problem is you didn’t get the desired result or outcome. So, in this sense, you have had only limited success.

When your creation fails, it does not mean that you failed. It just means you either didn’t find the right audience or you need to improve your skills. We all have setbacks and we all make mistakes.

Learn from your failures. In each lies valuable lessons.

Remember: Every failure is an education.

Before we get into strategies for managing the fear of failure, let’s take a look at some symptoms of this odious problem.

What does fear of failure look like?

Fear of failure takes many forms, but it usually comes down to one thing: not trying. How does fear of failure manifest itself?

  • Procrastination: We put off doing things in order to avoid the imagined pain of doing them. In reality, the pain of not doing them is usually worse [than the pain of actually doing them].
  • Anxiety. The thought that we might fail paralyzes us and prevents us from even trying. If you think about some big idea and you get a weird feeling in your stomach, that’s anxiety. Fortunately, it’s easy to channel this anxiety into creative energy, but you have to get started to do it.
  • Cynicism: Some people become cynical and say everything is shit. This is really just an excuse not to try (and to keep your fragile little ego safe in the process).
  • Waiting for something or someone. You can wait for years, but nothing could come along. No one will rescue you. The world won’t change in your favor.
  • Worrying about others. People don’t like to upset the dynamics of their social circle. Yet, when you start trying things, you run the risk of doing just that and, if you have limited success, those who were made uncomfortable by your efforts will be the first to point out your failures.
  • Perfectionism. Nothing is perfect. Nothing. You can spend years working out the final details, but eventually you have to say enough is enough and trust that you’ve done the best you could.

Managing the Fear of Failure

In my opinion, the most important thing you can do to manage the fear of failure is to ask yourself one question: “Realistically, what is the worst that could happen?”

That’s it. Imagine the worst-case scenario. This is very powerful. When you really scrutinize all the worst-case scenarios, you realize they’re not that bad. In almost all cases, you’ll still have your family, friends, and finances. You might look like a goof for a few minutes, but people forget things quite quickly. And… assuming you learn from whatever missteps you make, eventually the things you do and create will supplant any early setbacks.

Here are more techniques for managing the fear of failure:

  • Judge success based on your own results. Don’t compare your results to those of others. We all progress at a different pace.
  • Set small, concrete goals. Rather than focus on one huge goal, focus on small and specific goals.  Let’s say you want to make a living as a painter. Not easy, but doable. Focus on selling one piece a month.
  • Remember that you are not your work. If something you make is poorly received, either look for ways to improve it or chalk it up to a learning experience and move onto the next thing.
  • Set a cut-off date. You’ve seen the guys that are rocking well past their prime. Their goal is to get a record deal. While their persistence is admirable, they never set a concrete goal or took responsibility for their own success. They waited on someone to rescue them. No one did.
  • Take responsibility. Your success depends on you alone. While it’s easy to blame external forces (the shitty economy, a rotten town, lazy friends), these are all beyond your control.
  • Recognize that nothing is a sure thing. All endeavors require risk. Entrepreneurs risk capital and reputation. Artists and creators risk their mental well-being, but that risk is the price of  admission for playing the game.
  • Rest assured that failure gets easier. The first ones burn, but after a while, it gets easier. Especially once you get some honest feedback and learn to learn from your mistakes.

Who am I to talk about failure?

I am proud to say I have had a lot of ‘failures.’ From each I learned some valuable lessons.

  • I failed Calculus. Twice. I also learned two things: one, it’s okay to quit things that just don’t work. Two, don’t go to class with a hangover.
  • The first time I ever sang in front of an audience, my guitar and voice were out of tune. My voice cracked. I forgot the words. I quit after my second song and left in shame. Yet, a few months later, I was happily crooning away in front of larger and larger audiences.
  • My first attempt at creating an information product, Pizza Confidential, sold only a few copies. I spent more on advertising than I made in book sales. Yet, from that experience, I learned some valuable lessons. (If you know anyone who delivers pizza, do me favor and send them the link).
  • The first time I spent any significant time away from home, I set out to hike all 2,176+ miles of the Appalachian Trail. After a couple months, though, I bitched out and went home. A couple years later, I am wrapping up my first year of living abroad.
  • I am collecting an impressive pile of  rejection slips for my short fiction. At first they were form letters, but I’ve also started to get some valuable personal feedback from editors.
  • This list could continue, but that’s enough for one post.

[podcast] [/podcast]

Over to You:

  • How has failure helped you grow?
  • Have you ever been paralyzed by what you later learned was an irrational fear of failure?
  • What can we learn from the failure of others?

Here’s to a 2010 full of failure! ! !

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photo credit: tommy the pariah

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • How to Overcome the Fear of Failure June 28, 2010, 3:25 am

    You need to fail, you will fail, it’s piece of the improving program, part of the best way we mankind find out, and the only method we seriously learn. Failure is definitely doing a thing the wrong manner. We might have got 9 variables appropriate nevertheless the tenth wrong leading to our plan failing. This way you can overcome the fear of failure.