Fear of Failure / Fear of Success

As part of the Precision Nutrition Lean Eating program I am going through at present (Feb. 2014), we were asked to examine our fears with regards to the program, and that got me thinking about the nature of fear when it comes to failure or success of achieving goals or tasks we set ourselves.

There will always be things that are genuinely beyond our control that can influence our success or failure at something, but here we are talking about the things we CAN control – our own behaviours and choices.

Fear of Failure

When it comes to the things you can control with regards to the success or failure of anything, really, I see only two types of genuine failure:  Technical Failure and Character Failure.

Technical Failure

With Technical Failure, you don’t have sufficient or appropriate knowledge, physical ability or experience to execute correctly.  Technical failures can usually be overcome through learning and practice, or the application of a different process/technique.  Unless there is a real risk of imminent physical, financial or mental/spiritual danger or harm as a result of Technical Failure, there is absolutely nothing to fear from it.

Character Failure

The only way to have a Failure of Character is to not give it an honest effort.  You can’t suffer a Failure of Character from genuinely trying – trying is how you succeed!  If you try your best and discover your technical limitations, then you have succeeded in terms of character, regardless of the ultimate outcome of the task at hand.

If the task itself seems so enormous that you are scared to try, break it into manageable pieces, or better yet, a single action at a time (like we discussed in the article “Focus On Behaviours, Not Outcomes.”)

There is no “kind of” trying – as Yoda says

 "Do, or do not.  There is no try.”

Trying something new and failing is cause for celebration!  You have exercised your will in the face of fear, and discovered where you need to grow and improve so you can try again (and again, and again if necessary) until you reach a successful outcome.  One of history's great inventors, Thomas Edison, said this about failure:

“Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.”

“I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”

Fear of Success

“Fear of Success” is somewhat of a misnomer.  Unless they are attempting something that they WANT to fail in the end, nobody really fears a successful outcome itself.

What I believe we actually fear FROM a successful outcome is the discovery that it was a lack of will, rather than a lack of skill, that prevented us from being successful in the past, and what that discovery might say about our character.

This discovery can really hurt the ego.  Finding out that you could have been successful all along if you only applied yourself can be rough because it suggests a failure of character.  It hints at the possibility of a personal failing, like laziness, lack of fortitude, or just a general “I suck” kind of lack of character.

You imagine that people (or yourself) might say, “Well, if he could have been this good all along, what was wrong with him that he didn’t do this already?  Why did he suck so bad before?”

The fear of experiencing that criticism (from yourself or others) can be paralyzing.  You might sabotage your efforts, subconsciously or otherwise, to fool yourself that it is a technical failure.  You might simply not start the project or journey at all, for fear of this discovery, or, one of my personal perfectionist black holes, you might spend countless hours analyzing and re-analyzing the possibilities and researching “to prepare” to start, but never really starting.

What so-called “Fear of Success” really boils down to is the fear that, even with a successful outcome, we are opening ourselves up to criticism for a lack of similar performance in the past.

What you need to get your head around is:

  • Discovering that you have always had the talent or ability to succeed DOESN’T indicate a Failure of Character.  Your struggle to succeed on the character side of things just took longer to get through, but you eventually succeeded on the character side of things by trying in the first place!

  • Genuinely not knowing or believing beforehand that you were capable of success is, like Technical Failure, a lack of knowledge, only in this instance it is a lack of personal knowledge.  You didn’t know what you were capable of because you hadn’t yet tested yourself, and once you did test yourself, you succeeded!

  • Other people really don’t care that much about your past performance, especially in this day and age of infinitely short attention spans.  Your present success shines far brighter than any past failure!

Given the above, there is no rational basis to fear criticism following a successful outcome.  I know, I know, fear can often be irrational, but if you at least know it is not rational, you can work to master the fear and execute anyway.

Risk vs. Reward

Now, the pragmatist in me feels compelled to make sure that I make it clear that, before making an attempt at anything, whether it be to lose weight, start a business, or whatever, we need to assess the risk vs. the reward.

  • If you achieve Technical Failure, what is the worst-case scenario in terms of your physical, financial or mental/spiritual well-being?  Is the risk of that worst-case scenario worth the reward of success?
  • How quickly could you regroup and make another attempt if you reach Technical Failure?  Does your timescale allow you the opportunity to make several attempts?
  • What is the worst-case scenario of a Character Failure, where you just don't even make the effort?  What potential benefit do you stand to lose by not trying?

If the risks are inconsequential and the timeframe is flexible, this assessment may take you no time at all.  If the risks are greater and/or you have a limited timeframe during which to achieve success, you might need to spend some more time on this assessment before making that Character decision to go ahead and try.

You may even decide that the risk is not worth the reward, and that is OK, too.  You can always revisit the same scenario down the road, when the timing and circumstances are different.

So, to sum it all up:

  1. Unless there is genuine risk of immediate physical, financial or mental/spiritual peril, there is nothing wrong with achieving Technical Failure – it simply gives you a new base of knowledge as the starting point for your next attempt.

  2. If you haven’t yet tested yourself, you don’t know whether or not you are capable.

  3. The only way to experience Character Failure is to not try at all.

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