Fear of Failure

To one degree or another most of us have experienced times when we avoid some activity because we’re afraid we’ll fail. Fear of failure can be a major obstacle to effective coping. Have you ever found yourself hesitant to take on a new challenge because you’re afraid you will fail? In some cases, your fear might be quite realistic. That is, you may lack the training or knowledge to complete a task, and you know better than to try and attempt it. The coping problem develops, however, when fear of failure becomes chronic, and your habitual way of dealing with challenging situations is just to walk away. In this case, you’re avoiding, quitting, giving up, and never giving yourself a chance to cope with problems.

Here’s a good general coping strategy for dealing with fear that impedes effective coping. Remind yourself that fear can be a good trait because it will prevent you from becoming too reckless, careless, and overconfident. Instead of putting yourself down for being fearful at the possibility of failing, why not put a more positive spin on things? Why not recast your fear into admitting that you are cautious and just want to get the odds in your favor before moving on? You can modify your fear of failure into a cautious and wise risk assessment. In other words, your fear about being unable to complete a task successfully can be seen as a positive characteristic because it encourages you to assess your odds of success. If the odds are low, you need take steps to determine why and develop a plan for increasing those odds. If your plan is totally unrealistic and you can’t increase those odds, you should abandon the task or redesign your strategy. Viewed in this context, you evaluate the fear as realistic and make it less of a source of concern for you.

Let’s consider two well-known Generals from American history to illustrate this point.

During the Revolutionary War, George Washington spent a lot of time retreating, knowing full well that if he stood and fought, the British would annihilate his army. So Washington, fearing failure, kept avoiding battle. Did he do so because he was a coward, or because he had a strategic plan? In fact, Washington’s fear spurred him to develop a strategic plan: he would turn and fight only when conditions changed the odds a bit in his favor. Give him a cold night, a half-frozen river, and Christmas Eve, he figured a surprise attack on the Hessians at Trenton had a reasonable chance of success. He was correct, and his success at Trenton totally revitalized the morale of the colonies and made a lot of people feel that the British could be defeated. The war continued for many more years, and Washington continued to do a lot of retreating, but he knew his cautionary strategy would pay off in the long run.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have another George, Custer, a general for whom retreat and fear were totally foreign, things to be denied and ignored. During the Civil War, his reckless charges as a cavalry officer paid off, and he began to feel indestructible. Eventually, during the Sioux War a decade after the Civil War, unlike Washington he let his ego get in the way of cautious strategic cost-reward analysis, and we know how that ended!

When you’re faced with risky odds and a fear of failure, let your fear encourage you to take a step back and organize your thinking and actions around determining if you can increase the likelihood of success. If you can’t, then the prudent thing to do is to use your fear of failure to motivate you to act wisely and not take on the task. If you can increase those odds of success, however, go for it by following a realistic strategic plan.

Just make sure you include the consequences of failing in your risk assessment. For instance, during the space initiative of the ‘60s, NASA exemplified what we’re saying with a culture of, “Failure is not an option.” It’s a nice phrase, but NASA faced the reality that failure potential was always present. That harsh reality was brought home by the Gemini capsule fire during a launch rehearsal that resulted in the deaths of three astronauts.

For NASA, “Failure is not an option” in reality translated into, “We’re going to do everything we can to minimize the odds of failure.” Custer did not understand that coping principle; Washington did. Let the example of Washington guide you in your efforts to confront your life challenges.

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