Friday, July 13, 2020

Why fear of failure is the most common blockage to success

A balanced outlook on life is more important than you think.

Consider this: every strength can become a weakness; every talent contains elements that sometimes make it into a handicap. Today, we’re urged constantly to be winners and to achieve high standards. If being a winner is everything, what does that make losing feel like? Attitudes like this can make people so terrified of failure that it blocks them from doing the very things that might help them become what they desire. Put simply, it ruins their lives. Here’s how it happens.
Trial and error are essential to solving life’s problems and building achievement. Yet many people fail to make any trials—to change, try new things, or just to open their minds to fresh options— because they’re so afraid of making an error. They can’t accept the idea of being seen to make a mistake—even if it’s essential to find the correct answer. They draw back from trying anything new in case it might prove they’ve been wrong in the past. Their fear of risk stymies all progress.

Yet each error is the critical feedback that these people will need to start a new trial that will proceed through new errors and new trials to converge on a better solution. Making an error isn’t simply a failure. Every error is a step on the path to a success. No errors usually means no successes either.

So why do they make the mistake of believing that the error is somehow harmful to them, when it’s actually helpful? How have they become so deeply invested in protecting their egos, and in trying to replay past achievements, that they give up opportunities for a better future?

Our superstitious bosses

The answers are depressingly banal:
  • Highly successful people quickly tend to become superstitious. They’ve maybe never really experienced failure, so it holds a terrible fear for them. They’ll do almost anything to keep that fear at bay, from steadfastly ignoring needed change to the silly rituals some sports champions follow to “ensure” another win.

  • For them, change seems to represent only the potential of failure, not the chance of greater success. They attribute their past achievements to specific actions taken then, not to a process of adaptation and improvement. It’s as if they focus so much on the moment of triumph that they forget the way they reached it. They try to freeze that blissful instant in place by repeating past actions again and again.

  • They suffer the secret fear that any change might move the basis for winning into areas where they are not so strong. It’s as if a sports champion faced a change in the rules of the game. Alter those, and his or her long-practiced skills might no longer count for so much. And the very idea of developing new skills, given all the effort it took to develop the original ones, is terrifying.

  • They become so used to focusing on a set path to success that they over-estimate its long-term value and dismiss the potential benefits of change. Whenever a positive value, like achievement, becomes too strong in someone’s life, it’s on the way to becoming a major handicap. It’s as if they try to freeze the current (successful) situation in place to avoid needing to make yet more effort to change with future circumstances.

The curse of unbalanced values

A sense of achievement is an extremely powerful value for most successful people. They’ve built their lives on it. They’ve always achieved at everything they do: school, sports, the arts, hobbies, work. Each fresh achievement adds to the power of the value in their lives.

Gradually, failure becomes unthinkable. They’ve never failed in anything they’ve done, so have no experience of rising above it. It becomes the supreme nightmare: a frightful horror they must avoid at any cost. And the simplest way is never to take a risk by trying any other approach. Stick rigidly to what you know you can do. Protect your butt. Work the longest hours. Double and triple check everything. Be the most conscientious and conservative person in the universe.

And if you have to do anything risky—and constant hard work, diligence, brutal working schedules, and harrying subordinates won’t ward it off—use every possible means to make sure you don’t fail. Lie, cheat, falsify numbers, hide anything negative. The collapse of ethical standards in certain major US corporations has much more to do with fear of failure among long-term high achievers than criminal intent. Many of those guys at Enron and Arthur Andersen and Adelphi were supreme high-fliers, basking in the flattery of the media. Failure became an impossible prospect.

Beware of unbalanced values in your life. Beware when any one value—however benign in itself—becomes too powerful. Over-achievers destroy their lives and the lives of those who work for them. People too attached to “goodness” and morality become self-righteous bigots. Those whose values for building close relationships become unbalanced slide into smothering their friends and family with constant expressions of affection and demands for love in return.

Balance counts for more than you think. Some tartness must season the sweetest dish. A little selfishness is valuable even in the most caring person. And a little failure is essential to preserve everyone’s perspective on success.

So, are you a positive person? Maybe you need to cherish your negative side too.

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Michelle Kunz said...

Great post and definitely observably true, down to the smallest child (once they've entered school, that is). Before school, we aren't afraid to "fail" because it is essential to our survival. We must fall down again and again if we are going to figure out that walking thing. So we don't mind, we keep at it, and we learn from each fall and then we get the walking thing and we fall some more.

Meanwhile, my husband was reading in a Baseball Hall of Fame trivia book about one of the all time great players, I forget which one, best known for hitting. Guess what? He's also in the Hall of Fame for the WORST season of hitting for the same team when he was a rookie! So there you go.

Someone else once said that the surest sign of success was the number of failures one could claim. The trouble is, people quit too soon. They need to fail MORE to succeed more greatly. Wow, is that scary, or what?

I'm reading!

7:51 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, Michelle. Great comment!

I'm glad you're reading.

7:55 PM  
Charlie said...

Nice article. Since failures are meant for us so that we can learn from it, avoiding it is like running away from the lessons we're suppose to learn.

1:42 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Charlie.

Yes, trying to run away from failure isn't possible anyway. It's like trying to run away from yourself.

Keep reading, my friend.

7:21 AM  
Ian Mayman said...

There is a lot of focus here on successful people fearing failure, but what about unsuccessful people fearing success? Reading this makes me think it is a fear of success for me, but equally it could be a fear of more failure that causes me to procrastinate. Maybe it doesn't just affect successful people.

If you succeed in life, you accumulate wealth and many friends. Perhaps fear of failure is not a fear of failing but a fear of losing the trappings of success. So to avoid losing, some people self-sabotage so as avoid gaining.

5:04 PM  
Marie said...

I agree. Fear of failure is sometimes caused by the influence of other people like our bosses. Pressure can easily create fear if we don't know how to deal with it.

7:02 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

There are some good points in your comment, Ian.

I'm not sure people fear success — real success. I do think they fear at least some other things associated with success though.

Many people fear that they won't be able to stay successful. For them, it may seem better never to have achieved success at all than to make it and have it taken away from them. Those are your people who self-sabotage.

Others fear the obligations that success will bring and the expectations others will then have of them. That all seems like a lot of hard work that they can avoid by staying mediocre. Mostly they don't even try.

And then there are those who fear that they will be seen to be trying to succeed and failing. They also don't make the attempt, since that way they won't ever be identified as a failure. You can often spot them because they generally heap scorn on what is counted as success, mostly as a way of claiming that "I could, of course, be successful if I wanted to — but I don't."

My point was that successful people are often assumed to be free of anxiety and fear as a result of their success. The exact opposite tends to be true, since each new triumph raises the bar and sets expectations so much higher for the next time.

Keep reading, my friend.

7:13 PM  
Sensaria Amy said...

Wow, this article really hit home for me. I am an achiever, and always have been. I am also a perfectionist - which has become my nemesis at times. I work for a great direct sales company which I love, so this is really great advice for me because the best way to learn is to just try, try, try! I'm learning that when I step out in courage, I grow the most. And then I wonder why I was so scared! I think we all fear change to some degree. When I am confronted with something new, I always get butterflies in my stomach. I haven't gotten used to that yet, but I am learning to push myself forward when that happens. Positive or negative, the results are always worthwhile because I am always learning! Thank you for writing this article. I am definitely going to be passing it on to all my friends and colleagues!

6:23 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment and kind words, Sensaria Amy (or is it Amy Sensaria?).

I'm glad that you found this article useful.

Keep reading, my friend.

7:07 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Marie.

I'm sorry it has taken so long to appear. The system trapped it for some reason.

Better late than never.

9:48 AM  
John said...

At some point, I think fear of failure has a benefit to offer in our journey to success which is giving us the right reason. For instance, students who fear failure spend more time studying their lessons than those who don't.

8:30 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, John.

I believe that you're right. Some degree of fear of failure is normal amd even useful.

The problem comes when someone become too fearful of failure to use it well.

Keep reading, my friend.

10:15 PM  
Howie said...

I agree with John. Our lives are full of different situations. Thus, we have to be wise in making decisions. We can always go back to the basics if we get confused.
Thanks for sharing this wonderful article.

8:24 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Howie. I'm very flattered.

Glad you liked the article. Keep reading, my friend.

8:41 PM  

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