Overcoming the Fear of Failure
You’ve probably seen lists bouncing around the internet of famous people who would not have been successful if they had given up after failing. This list often includes people such as J.K. Rowling, whose Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone manuscript was rejected 12 times before a publisher agreed to print it. If you’re a fan of TED Talks, you’ve probably heard a lot about failure and perseverance. The failures you most often hear are those that result in success.
But what about failures that don’t result in success? No one talks about those. Thomas Edison jokes that he “found 10,000 ways that will not work,” but if the light bulb hadn’t been invented would we be quite as inspired by that quote? It’s the failures that don’t result in success that can trip us up. And “try, try again” isn’t always the best advice. Sometimes you have to move on.
As it turns out, the key to overcoming failure has a lot to do with the way we process failure. Studies have found there are four categories of failure processing:
People who view failure with success-oriented mindsets see failure as a way to grow and improve. These individuals view themselves as “works in progress,” committed to finding out what amazing things will happen when they work hard. Success-oriented people often let their passions drive them and don’t allow failures to define their characters. Oh, that we all had this mindset…
Overstrivers or overachievers avoid failure by achieving. Overstrivers still view failure as a bad thing, and they work really hard in the background to achieve. When overstrivers see success, they still feel inadequate due to all the effort they had to put in to see that success.
Those with a failure-avoiding mindset pretend their failures did not happen. This repression is often known as “hedonic editing,” or lying to oneself. Those with a failure-avoiding mindset don’t worry about succeeding because they don’t want their failure to be put on display. They will often be seen procrastinating or opting out of something at which they feel they will fail. Failure-avoiders are so concerned with their own self-protection that they do not have productive failures.
Failure-accepting individuals internalize their failure. They believe their repeated failures are due to their lack of ability and have stopped attempting success. These people see failure as a reflection of their self worth. When they do achieve success, they feel like it’s a coincidence. Like failure-avoiding, failure-accepting will often pursue things they’re good at; not necessarily what they’re passionate about.
If you’re like me, you read this list and identified with one or two of those lower three categories. Number one sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? So how can we overcome our fears (or avoidance or acceptance) of failure and become more success-oriented? How can we change our fixed mindsets into growth mindsets? There are some things we can do to move our minds toward being more accepting of our failures.
1. Try new things
If we’re to overcome our failure and our fixed mindsets, we can’t continue to do the things we know we’re good at. We have to try new things: new hobbies, new responsibilities, and new experiences.
2. Flirt with failure
If you know you will utterly fail at something, do it when the stakes are low. Don’t try to overcome your failure mindset by quitting your job and becoming an underwater basket weaver when you can’t swim and you can’t weave baskets. Condition yourself to failure when there’s nothing riding on it but your own ego.
3. Accept feedback
Work on accepting harsh feedback and not taking it personally. Be open to criticism, as it will ultimately help you achieve something greater.
4. Be kind to yourself
Pretend your friend were the one doing the failing. What would you say to him or her? Probably something like “that’s okay, at least you tried,” or “look how much you’ve learned.” Treat yourself like you would a friend, with compassion.
Take a moment and reflect: what would your life look like if you weren’t afraid of failure? What would your job look like? How would your business be? Don’t let fear stifle your potential.
About the author
I'm Autumn Nicholson. I earned my Bachelor’s degree in English and took the first editing job I could find, at a marketing company in South Carolina, and have been in the digital marketing field ever since. I'm passionate about high-quality content, impeccable grammar, and cute shoes. You can connect with me here: