“Failure is not an option!” You hear it all the time as a movie trope or in inspirational talks. You may even say it to yourself before a big task. We all know it doesn’t mean failure isn’t a possibility. It means something is so important that failure is unthinkable. The intended effect is to build focus and determination. But it’s not a mantra for life.
Truth is, failure is always an option. Sometimes it’s a requirement. Without it, there’s no success. I’ll explain how to overcome your fear of failure, the difference between what you do with it, and what it does to you.
What Is Success?
Success is hard to define because it means so many different things to everyone. What’s easier to describe is what success is not.
Success and failure are not black and white. It’s very much relative to your perspective. Someone who gets into any college who is the first person ever in their family to do so could rightfully be considered a resounding success.
Meanwhile, someone who has had every opportunity to take advantage of private schooling, familial ties, and tutoring but goes to a vocational school could potentially be seen as having failed.
Also, success is not perfection. Perfection is a mirage that can prevent you from moving toward success.
If you wait until conditions are perfect, opportunities will simply pass you by. And if perfection is the actual goal, you will never get there and just burn out along the way.
Ultimately, success isn’t a destination. No one gets to a point in their life and confidently states, “Now, I am a success!” You can point to successful moments in your life, but it will never be a state of being.
But even though it’s hard to pinpoint what success is, it’s easier to know what fosters it. It involves a lot of hard work, a lot of grit, and maybe even a little luck.
But most importantly, it takes failure. A lot of failures. So don’t fear it. Embrace it.
One more thing about success, you’re not going to find it on Facebook or Instagram. Those are platforms to make other people think you’re successful.
In reality, expending effort to make yourself look Facebook or IG fabulous detracts from real success. Don’t fall into that trap.
What Is Failure?
Again, it will be easier to describe what failure is not.
Failure doesn’t define you as a person. It’s an event. To describe a person as a failure is neglecting to see the totality of that person’s life.
At the end of the movie classic, It’s a Wonderful Life” (spoiler alert!), George’s guardian angel writes in a note to him, “No man is a failure who has friends.”
It doesn’t mean the more friends you have the more successful you are. It means by loving and being loved, you will always have worth.
Failure isn’t permanent. It may feel like it’s been a long time since you’ve circled the bases in the joy of victory, but the day will come.
Granted, you won’t be successful in everything you do, but learning that can help you move on to things you can be successful in.
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Failure, as an event, is virtually unavoidable on the path to success. It’s like getting wet to swim. You’ll never learn how to swim without getting wet.
Show me someone who has never failed, and I will show you someone who has never accomplished anything meaningful in their life. They will likely be timid, idle, and somewhat selfish.
It’s like what Theodore Roosevelt said, “The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything.”
My failure story is a little different than most, but I think it describes the fear of failure well.
I was a straight “A” student. I got a good S.A.T. score and graduated in the top 10 of my high school class of 620. It’s one of the top schools in my state.
School was easy. By all academic measures, I was successful. But I was woefully unprepared for life.
I was like a boxer who never got punched, so when I got hit for the first time, I wanted to leave the ring. Early in college, I got my first F in a core class to my major.
I was required to get no less than a C to move on in my field of study. Imagine my despair when I got a D the second time I took it.
At this point, I was so afraid of failure I wanted to drop out of school. Not only had my ego taken a massive hit, but I started to think my future was looking bleak.
It paralyzed me. I thought I was stupid and would never succeed at anything for the rest of my life.
But the ironic thing is THAT was my failure. It wasn’t the grades. It was my perspective.
At the first sign of resistance, I was ready to give up. I hadn’t worked hard for anything in my life, so I thought all of life would be easy.
This tiny dose of reality was enough to topple my house of cards. And if I would have stayed in that mindset, it could have sent me into a spiral of self-doubt and subsequent failures that would have been difficult to recover from.
But thankfully, my friends talked some sense into me, and it helped turn things around. I won’t tell you I got nothing but stellar grades after that. I had many all-nighters and had to graduate late.
I would have traded every high school report card for the grittiness I learned.
And the next time I got smacked in the mouth, I smacked back. I eventually graduated my major with honors and also earned two minors.
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Overcoming the Fear of Failure
There’s a reason no one offers advice on how to overcome failure itself because you can’t. It’s pointless and counter-productive. You have to overcome your fear of failure.
It’s not to say you have like it. Who likes failure? But getting over your fear of it will allow you to accept it, learn from it, and be even bolder the next time you try.
A big reason we fear failure is because we think of it as a dead-end. We think that once we get there, that’s it.
In reality, failure is only a fork in the road. When we experience failure it’s a chance to stop, learn, and try again, or to reassess the direction you’re headed.
If you look at each failure as a learning experience, you’ve successfully reframed something dreaded into something valuable.
Don’t wallow in your failure. Take a long look at it and see the lessons I promise you will be there.
Or perhaps if you keep coming up against the same difficulties, failure can be an opportunity to change direction. Nothing is saying your first (or even seventeenth) career choice is the one you will thrive in.
Albert Einstein failed miserably as an insurance salesman, and thank goodness he did.
Face Your Fear
They say confidence breeds success, but what breeds confidence? No one is born with self-confidence. Confidence comes from facing up to your fears and overcoming them.
The primary reason we fear anything is because we are unsure of what will happen. We fear failure because we don’t have a realistic view of what failure will do to us.
Give words to your fear. Don’t let it continue to exist as a nebulous boogieman in the shadows.
It may seem strange but think about the worst-case scenario. In fact, say it out loud. Go there. This allows you to do a lot of productive things.
First, you might be able to see failing isn’t so bad. Some of the things that will come to mind will likely not be as terrible as you imagined they were before.
Second, you might realize you have some irrational fears. You won’t lose all your friends. People won’t point at you and laugh. You won’t become a meme.
Lastly, it will give you an idea of how you can recover from your massive failure. When you fail (and you will) you now have an immediate plan of action.
Get Back on the Horse
Finally, when you do fail, get off your ass. If you just give up after you fail, it will be harder to try again later.
You will have lived with that sting for a while, and the memory of that pain will haunt your future efforts. Then doubt will creep in and take residence in your brain. This is the path of self-sabotage.
The first catch of my first little league baseball practice smacked me straight between my eyes.
If the coach didn’t make me catch 20 more balls immediately, I probably never would’ve played a game in my life and would have missed out on two consecutive championship seasons.
Know Your Enemies
When you’re afraid of failure, there are usually several habits and mindsets that take you there. Treat them like the enemies to your success.
Negativity is never good when you’re trying to get over your fear of failure. A healthy dose of pessimism isn’t bad, but when it turns into a dark cloud of self- loathing, it does no good.
Thinking negatively is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Taken to an extreme, negativity can easily turn into catastrophizing. It’s when you believe something is far worse than it is.
If you have a tendency to do this, think about the last thing when you assumed the worst was going to happen. Did it?
Even if it did, was it the end of the world?
A surprising contributor to fear of failure is perfectionism. If you want everything to be perfect, it will always lead to failure.
The problem wasn’t that you failed. The problem was you made the conditions of success impossible.
There’s nothing wrong with striving for perfection. But making it a requirement for success is misguided.
Lastly, don’t pin your self-worth to your failures. You are much more than the sum of your accomplishments (or lack thereof).
If you believe how often or how greatly you fail determines your value, the fear of failure will always be there.
Healthy Habits of Fearless Failures
What does someone who has a healthy relationship with failure look like? Unsurprisingly, the same things that give successful people their glow.
You will find them hard at work and taking action. A mantra of someone unafraid of failure is one experiment is worth a thousand theories.
It gives them momentum when they do fail, they keep plugging along until they achieve some measure of success.
Thomas Edison once said, “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”
He knew what he was talking about. He failed to find the right filament for his light bulb over a thousand times before its discovery.
Also, it helps stifle the fear of failure if you’re unable to take yourself too seriously. If you embarrass easily or the thought of looking like a fool petrifies you, failure will be harder to depersonalize.
Once you’ve reframed your fear as an invaluable learning tool, there’s no stopping you.