Overcoming the Fear of Failure

As we witnessed incredible examples of dedication and performance at this year’s Winter Olympics, we were reminded that one thing these athletes did not suffer from that many of the rest of us do, is a fear of failure. In order to attain and achieve such high levels of sports performance, fear of failure — if it was ever present — for them was conquered.

So what is fear of failure, are we always aware of it and how can we overcome it? With the following story, I will focus on one aspect of the fear of failure – the role of purpose and meaning.

Bobby was an artist. He loved to create, to express himself through the works he produced. But he could never settle and pursue one avenue of artistic endeavor; he would continually move from chalks to oils, from poetry writing to sculpting.

Bobby believed himself to be a true artist — it was who he was, deeply connected to his sense of identity. Engaging in artistic endeavors gave him a sense of purpose and meaning in his life. He always believed that one day he would make it, one day he would be a successful artist, recognized and respected by his peers. But that ‘one day’ never came, it always remained somewhere off in the distance, something Bobby knew would come but never actually arrived.

On one level he believed himself to be a good artist; he loved working and the results he produced. So why did success elude him, what was holding him back? Why did he move from project to project without committing, without promoting or submitting his work? 

Bobby was experiencing a deep level fear of failure. He didn’t feel fear in his day-to-day life experience, but this deep level fear was the key driver behind his behavior, affecting his perceptions and beliefs. His sense of purpose and meaning were directly attached to his identity as an artist. By moving from project to project and never ‘exposing’ his work, it could never be judged by others and he could never fail.

Bobby feared that if his work was challenged, he might learn he was not the caliber of artist he wanted to believe he was. His sense of meaning and purpose would be shattered. These deep level beliefs were the machinery behind the fear that prevented Bobby from moving forward, from taking the necessary steps to succeed in his life as an artist.

So, what does Bobby need to make the shift, to achieve that success and overcome the deep level fear that is driving his behavior? First is the recognition that he’s not witnessing the sorts of results he really wants in his life; he needs to get really sick and tired of not having the results he wants.  Then he has to take responsibility for what he is experiencing. Whether he develops an awareness of his fear of failure or not, by acknowledging that his actions are preventing him achieving success he can begin to walk an alternative path.

Chances are, when Bobby really focuses on what he wants to experience, what he wants to achieve, that pang of fear will rear its head and grumble in the pit of his stomach, maybe even tingle down his arms and legs.  At that point he will need to believe that even if his output does not meet the expectations of other people, he can allow himself to be flexible enough to expand his sense of meaning and purpose; to expand his sense of self. As he does this, the path opens up in front of him and he no longer needs to hide. He can face the world head-on knowing he has the depth and wisdom to tackle any challenge.

In the end, failure is only really failure when we give up. Retaining an ambition to move forward, coupled with flexibility of action and the knowledge that movement is always possible, keeps us open for success!

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