When I was 11, I was asked to spell the word “beautiful” in a test at school. I got it wrong, missed out that silent ‘a’ and got only 9 out of 10 in the test. I was devastated. I’ve always been a conscientious person so not doing well in any kind of test that I’d studied hard for used to upset me. What would my parents say? Would they be disappointed in me? I was disappointed enough in myself that’s for sure that I have remembered it in detail, this one moment of my life, for nearly 40 years. This moment, when I considered myself a failure.
Now obviously, I can hear you shouting “it’s only a spelling test, get over yourself!” and you would be right! For this minor misdemeanour was nothing in the grand scheme of my life of failures. I have failed far more spectacularly than that in the intervening years:
- I failed my grade 7 violin exam first time round – passed it with merit 2nd time
- I failed to get into Bristol Old Vic Theatre School at 19 – gutted!
- I failed to get a part in the first play I auditioned for at university – I was robbed!
- I failed to get the boy I was in love with to even notice me – although looking back, that’s probably a good thing
- I failed to……
….. you get the idea. On the one hand, I could consider my whole life as a series of failures that have led me to my current, miserable position. But I don’t!
Firstly I’m not in a miserable position and I’m definitely not a miserable person. And secondly, I believe that ‘failing’ is a good thing since it is reason I can spell the word ‘beautiful’ today – I learned how to do it, by failing.
It strikes me that being prepared to fail is the prerequisite of success and if you try to go through your life without failing, then you are setting yourself up for a life of mediocrity, deficiency and regret.
Fear of failure holds people back
If you are scared of failing, then you will achieve very little. Fear of failure halts progress since most people with a fear of failure never try to succeed in the first place. They don’t enter the race, they don’t try to succeed and they never aim higher than that which can be accomplished with the minimum of effort – all because they’re scared. Now you might argue that the ‘fight or flight’ response is a well-designed evolutionary step which allows us to live to fight another day. You would be right. But the fear of failure that is truly worrying is where we allow ourselves to settle for less than we deserve – for inferiority and inadequacy. And that can’t be good.
Everyone fails – that’s how we learn to succeed
Do you remember when you were one? You most likely won’t be able to, but the point is that when children are little, they have not yet learned to be scared of failing – they are inquisitive, they try things out, they are creative – they just go for it. Have you ever watched children in the playground? Most of them are, by adult standards, fearless! They do not have the concept of failure that we learn as we grow older for that takes time and experience to develop. It takes time to learn that to ‘fail’ by someone else’s standards, often leads to the withdrawal of love from a parent or carer. And it is this that we are ultimately scared of. We do anything to avoid losing love even if that is to our detriment.
Imagine what your life would be like if you’d given up trying to walk because you kept falling over? Or if you’d given up trying to speak because you didn’t use a fronted adverbial in the correct place? (I’m still not sure about that one but my 10 year is spot on!) The point is, we ALL fail, and we all fail often. That really is how we learn to succeed. What we need to do is to weed out that little voice in our head that tells us that when we ‘fail’ it’s because we are ‘stupid’ or ‘worthless’ or that ‘everyone will laugh at us and no one will love us’ because those are the thoughts that really lead to us failing. Those are the thoughts that hold us back and stop us achieving what we’re really capable of. It’s ‘fear’ that is the enemy, not the thing you are trying to achieve.
In the film “The Green Lantern”, the hero begins the film thinking that he has to show no fear in order to vanquish the enemy (who interestingly feeds on other people’s fears). He tries at first, and fails because he his fear is too great. But in the true ‘hero’s journey’ style, his mentor tells him that the goal is not to banish fear completely, but to overcome it. And in doing so, he vanquishes his foe and saves the world. It’s the premise behind Susan Jeffer’s inspirational book, “Feel the fear and do it anyway”.
How to get over the fear of failure (in anything)
In order to get over the fear of failure you need to turn these negative thoughts into positives. Try re-framing the experience as ‘feedback’ rather than thinking that you have failed at something.
Thomas Edison, the man credited with inventing the modern light bulb, was reported to have quipped to a reporter who had commented on his struggle saying, “I haven’t failed, I’ve discovered 10,000 ways how NOT to invent the light bulb”. Now whether this is an urban myth or actually happened is immaterial but what is relevant is the attitude behind the words. Re-framing or thinking of the problem differently is the key to learning the lessons needed to succeed and move forward.
So hear are some pointers to help you overcome a fear of failure and succeed:
- Don’t try to cover it up as you will only end up lying to yourself. Be honest about what the problem is, but don’t over-exaggerate it either. Put it into the proper perspective.
- Remind yourself that all feedback is useful and can be constructive for it will give you the means of moving forward.
- Go over what you did well or correctly first so that any ‘failure’ can be viewed in a better perspective – it might not be that everything you are doing is wrong – you might just have to redo one small part of it to succeed overall.
- Look honestly at the situation and ask what you could have done differently to get a different result – for example if you were trying to
- Take the steps necessary to correct the problem – listen to feedback and do what is needed – in other words, try again!
- Be prepared to fail again in order to succeed in the end. Go back to step one and repeat, until you triumph.
It’s your life, so allowing yourself the luxury of making mistakes will ultimately, I believe, lead to your success.
Here’s to the brave!
If you like this, why not read about what positive thinking is really about and see if you are really engaging all your power.