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Leverage your fear of failure for success

To overcome a fear of failure, change your mindset and see it as a fulcrum that can allow you to grow and innovate.

5 min read


fear of failure

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Each time we accomplish something — big or small — we see a version of ourselves that we didn’t yet know existed. It is inside of this space, between who we were and who we just realized through this achievement that we can become, that the burden of our potential comes to rest upon our shoulders. It’s exciting, it’s amazing, it’s humbling. It’s wonderful. But it’s also stressful, anxiety-provoking, identity-shifting and impostor syndrome-rendering. It’s hell.

Gassner Otting

It’s wonderful and it’s hell. It’s Wonderhell.

It’s wonderful because we see what more we can become. But it’s hell because we know that the road to get there is most certainly lined with possibilities for failure.

Let’s not fake it ’til we make it

The fear of failure limits our ability to determine who we are when we are at our very best — to groove the pattern as a leader when we are that best self. If we try to prevent failure by acting like we know what we’re doing, we will groove that pattern instead: of acting like we know what we are doing. We won’t actually learn how to do it. Nor will we learn why and how it works — or whether or not we actually find that work personally meaningful. 

You may think that if you keep faking it, you can never fail. But this setup forces you to speak using other people’s voices, and to act using other people’s mannerisms. You try to control for everything and end up controlling nothing. Rather than holding more tightly to the reins, you need to allow space for trying out new things, for failure and feedback. This approach will offer greater insight into the areas where you are in consonance, so you can focus on what really matters and gain traction over those things. 

Re-categorize failure from finale to fulcrum

We teach our students that failure is part of the process. Each new school year, they repeat the process of adopting a beginner’s mindset. They figure out algebra, and then it’s time for geometry. They figure out geometry, and then it’s time for trigonometry. Then, they figure out trigonometry, and — hold the phone! — calculus is in the house. Over and over, year after year, our children learn that this beginner’s mindset is not just okay. It’s necessary. It’s how they grow.

Some of the most successful people on our planet credit these moments in school for helping them do what had never been done before. Sergey Brin and Larry Page, co-founders of Google, are both children of academics, yet when asked about how this helped them become successful start-up entrepreneurs, they point instead to their Montessori School training, where there were no failures or dead ends — just new questions to ask. “Part of that training was being self-motivated,” Page explains, “questioning what’s going on in the world, doing things a little bit different.”

Yet somewhere along the line, we adults forget this lesson. We get hired to do something because, at one point, we demonstrated competence in that thing. We get paid, praised and even promoted for it. Then time passes, and we become so afraid that if we try something else, we might fail. We think failure is final, but we should remember that failure is fulcrum: the place where we learn and grow and innovate and iterate. 

Take a lesson from the pros

Serena Williams is one of the fiercest competitors ever to grace the tennis court (or any athletic stage, for that matter), and yet in practice, she doesn’t spend all her time working on what she has perfected. She does some of that, of course, to groove the pattern and make sure that certain shots were nor mere accidents. But spending more time being uncomfortable — fixing what’s not working, going deep into the pain cave and facing her failures — ensures that she can always come out stronger. 

Is the fear of failure, the agony of the work and the uncertainty of the outcome any less exquisite for Serena as it is for you or me? I doubt it. To get better, we each have to dance with the demons that reside at the darkest depths of our personal pain caves, screaming at us to slow down, to give in, to stop. While those caves might look different for each of us, the exquisite, local, personal pain feels exactly the same.


Author and executive coach Laura Gassner Otting inspires people to push past the doubt and indecision that keep great ideas in limbo by helping audiences think bigger and accept greater challenges and delivers strategic thinking across the start-up, corporate, nonprofit, political and philanthropic landscapes. Gassner Otting has written three books, including “Wonderhell: Why Success Doesn’t Feel Like It Should …What to Do About It,” “Limitless: How To Ignore Everybody, Carve Your Own Path, and Live Your Best Life,” and “Mission-Drive: Moving From Profit to Purpose.”

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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