I collaborated on this article with a friend and colleague. We both agreed to explore why, as people, so many of us fear failure.
According to Dictionary.com, to fail is to, "be unsuccessful in achieving one's goal". This definition sounds pretty innocuous. So it makes us wonder why the idea of failing can create so much strife for people. To the extent where people seem to want to avoid it at all costs.
The above definition means that we have failed many times. Surely we all have. For many of us (if not all) our greatest successes in life will be peppered with instances of failing. It follows that one can't happen without the other - as point A to point B is rarely a straight line. There is always lots of stuff to learn.
When writing this article, we both agree that we are defined, at our most deepest level, by our most challenging circumstances in life. In these times we learn the most. Even if we don't know it at the time. These circumstances give us character. They give us the grit. They can push our shoulders back and make us more determined. Give us the determination to live, love and be loved. The grit to keep pushing forward. Without challenge and the inevitable experiences of failing life becomes stale. Boring. Numb. The muteness of it all would be deafening.
Failing makes us better people.
Failing makes us better people. Plain and simple. Stomaching failing can be seriously hard though. Often because of the, sometimes painful truth that comes with it. The reality that something we touched has gone wrong.
In the mire, though, there are some very important lessons that are the foundation of life. Life now and in the future. The spring board to a better place. For this though we really need to switch on our ears and actively hear what these lessons are telling us. Openness enables us to be more in-tune, aware and better players; and, for some, better leaders. Because we become comfortable with our limits and rough edges. We all have them. Simply, through fallibility we become more human. Fallibility is normal. We'd be robots otherwise. The more we embrace it the less threatened we feel. The less we feel the pain when the inevitable happens.
While our successes fade away; our failings seem to be etched on tablets of stone.
It is perplexing that failing in isolated things can make us feel like a total failure. The mind, our minds, have a tendency towards loss-bias; i.e. if we experience failing at something, even inconsequential, it can trigger feelings of anxiety in our minds that tell us stories of an existential threat to our very existence. Like a soap opera playing all the way to the 'duff duff' conclusion. Our minds don't easily forget these feelings. They have a tendency to dig them up again and again like an excited puppy - digging holes in your nicely manicured back garden.
Failing and 'a failure' are very different. Failing is momentary. Contextual. Often with short-lived consequences. Being a failure is, well, not real. A bold statement, I know, but the very idea of being 'a failure' is just too final in a life that can be changed from one moment to the next. Nothing in life is that final except for death - and some would even argue that death isn't even final depending on your belief in various faiths.
Failing is contextual. There are regularly external triggers - e.g. relationship breakdowns (personal and business), a job that doesn't go right, a company where you don't fit in, a project that runs over time or costs more. I have news: if you experience failing in any of these areas it doesn't mean that you are a failure. The reality is that nine-times-out-of-ten you have the opportunity to move on and learn from the experience. Here's the gold - you will almost certainly be better the next time around.
You have a choice to do something with the experience you gain from things that did not go as planned. Choice is a wonderful thing. In every moment you live you can choose to see something one way or another. Where someone sees something as closed, someone else will see it as open. If you look at the work of people like Eckhart Tolle, he would say something like, 'As long as your mind with its conditioned patterns runs your life then what choice do you have? None!'. In essence, we learn patterns that have, embedded in them, a dislike of failing because of the visceral reaction. This reaction to it is stored deeply in our brain's neurological pathways. We're normally not conscious of it but these patterns of aversion are damaging our much needed confidence and capacity for creativity and innovation. We limit the levels of our own potential through self-imposed boundaries.
Mark Manson, the author of the great book 'The Subtle Art Of Not Giving a F*ck' created the law 'Manson's Law of Avoidance' and has the right idea when he says that our self limiting beliefs trigger procrastination and this is "...due to the fact that underlying our worst procrastination is a deep underlying fear that doesn’t go away. Maybe it’s a fear of failure. Maybe it’s a fear of success. Maybe it’s a fear of vulnerability. Or maybe it’s a fear of hurting someone else".
We learn to be hooked on success and learn to despise failing from a very young age.
Looking at this from another perspective, in the article Why We All Have A Fear of Failure, Knudsen (July 2018) there is a postulation that we fear failing because, at a very young age, we learn about being rewarded for getting the right answer. We love rewards. Rewards trigger chemicals in the brain such as dopamine and this makes us feel really good. Rewards at a young age manifest themselves in ways such as class commendation, visible recognition and/or being included in the top set of achievers. This all feeds the machine. At an early age we become hooked. Of course, it is right recognise success. We must do this. The problem arises though when, conversely, we are castigated, and in some cases punished, for getting the wrong answer. This is our education system in a nutshell. This was my experience of school. Carrot and stick. You see it transferring into our workplaces with appraisal systems, incentives schemes and promotion criterion. We live in a society that is powered by a fear of failing. This is hindering not helping the creative mind.
I recently watched a fascinating TED talk about procrastination to an audience of Princeton University students by a motivation coach and author Nic Voge. In the talk Nic shares his theory on why we all fear failure to a greater or lesser extent. The cruel part in all of this is that those who have the highest achievement drive fear failure the most. Because the stakes for them failing at something feel really, really high. Even if, in reality, they are not. It therefore creates a tension that forces avoidance and procrastination and this can ultimately lead to mediocre outcomes. In the talk he used a magic quadrant to illustrate this point. (I have used some artistic licence and added some box descriptions in the quadrant below that has embellished Nic's version a little.)
We wonder why there is a collective lack of innovative and strategic thinking in our lives and companies. It is evident that fear keeps people in the safe zone. People paddle (think swan) and grasp for what they feel is safe and familiar on the path right in front of them. In so doing they miss a much broader range of opportunity. Through a fear of failing we're creating and re-enforcing the conditions that undermine the need for risk-taking, creativity and innovation. We need more people in the top left box of this quadrant. This is a situation created by the self-imposed limits; limits that are a result of an incremental conditioning throughout our whole lives.We have deep protective mechanisms and these mechanisms in the brain are not OK with failing.
In the book 'The 12 Rules For Life' by the Canadian author and psychologist Jordan Peterson he describes (in Rule # 4) how our focus in life can, inadvertently, be so narrow that we deem success or failure to be linked to things that could fit on the top of a pinhead (metaphorically speaking). When, if we were to look more broadly and not so narrowly then our perception would shift dramatically. The things we had previously thought to be key and defining in our lives perhaps no longer are - because they are just part of a broader landscape rather than being the the landscape itself.
We start off part of the problem. Then stay as part of the problem by judging others.
We're part of a viscous cycle. We fan the flames of the fire by engaging in the behaviour of being judgmental of others; if we subjectively deem them to have failed. We throw these stones from our newly purchased, mortgaged to the hilt, glass-house on mount-moral-high-ground. Hoping against all hope that no-one throws stones back at us. We yield, though, what we sow. Our experience of life creates and re-enforces neural pathways in our brains that trigger an avoidance of failing. Avoidance that is triggered through an outright fear of it. In simple terms, we don't want our own glass-house to break. We are more likely to engage in throwing stones outwardly as covering fire.
If you we go through the process of asking the 'five-whys', I believe that we will eventually get to shame. This is the underlying reason why we run from failing. Feelings associated with failing are unpleasant. Emotions are chemical signals that something is happening. In the case of negative emotions the signal is telling you something is wrong and that needs to change. Yet we tend to invest our efforts in stopping the signal (i.e. ending the bad feeling) rather than trying to understand what is going on. Sometimes we are successful in the former which reinforces behaviours which can ultimately ruin your life. So in this context, shame is a signal that there is a lesson to be learned not a feeling to be avoided. Don’t try to stop feeling it but detach (e.g. mindfulness) acknowledge it and look at it from the outside a little to find out what it is telling you. We fear failing sticking to us like a character-defining smell that becomes omnipotent. We are much more likely to only talk about our failing using hushed tones. But when we talk about failing more openly we're providing an essential service to ourselves and the rest of society as a real-world source that others can learn from. As Richard Bach is quoted as saying, "Your only obligation in any lifetime is to speak the truth".
Brenè Brown, in her recent Netflix programme about Courage, re-enforces the idea that those who are more open to being vulnerable lead much happier and more fulfilled lives. Those people who accept shame, and allow it in, also enable the ingress of all the happier emotions too. Because the barriers are down and that enables us to feel everything.
So, we believe that these five simple, actionable points are essential - if we are to change our society for the better.
1. Celebrate failing as an essential flag-stone on the path of learning.
We fear failing because we fear being judged by other people. The answer, then, is simple. Do. Not. Judge. People / Yourself. It really is that simple. Judgment is entirely subjective. This will reduce the impact of the shame-type emotions we all feel. The ones that can eat away at our inner feelings of self-worth. Because we become more human. Often, what we project out as judgment is what we fear somewhere inside for ourselves. We judge others because we judge ourselves. Brutal, but we do. Even if we do it unconsciously. It is the case that we see life through a highly subjective lens and often when we're judging people it can be a mirror onto our feelings and fears about ourselves. It's a sort of defense mechanism. We want others to be as, or more, fallible as we are. This behaviour is damaging for people. It is damaging for our society. It is damaging for business and our economy. It is damaging for our mental health. We should change how we see instances of what we perceive to be failing. We should regard failing as an essential part of progress towards success. It is an opportunity. Without failing there is no success. Without failing there is no innovation - but we never celebrate those who give us the indirect leg up. Without failing there is no evolution. We should celebrate failing as the best opportunity we have to learn.
2. Learn from our 5 year-olds; take their appetite for failing into adult-hood.
When we are younger, much younger, at the start of our development age, failing is just an accepted part of life. For example, consider a five year-old who still navigating their way through the quagmire of learning the English language. If they get something wrong and someone corrects them, they simply correct themselves and move on - they don't feel shame at that age. It is how they learn. Yet at some point, as we get older and start to become younger adults, the idea and consequences of failing become much less desirable. This is almost certainly because we have no real concept of shame at this age, or at least not the level of visceral response that we develop as we get older. Shame is acute and we fear that it carries a stigma. Even when, for most part, it does not. The fear of this stigma creates a pressure on us. Pressure we place on ourselves that drives protective behaviour. It becomes a vicious cycle. When all paths to success are peppered with instances of failing. Let's stop sweeping the reality under the proverbial carpet or sugar coating what actually happens. The better story is the one that really tells what happened, what went well, what didn't go well, what we did about it and importantly what we have learned. Let's re-learn our appetite for failing. Think like a five year-old. Take more risks. You never know where they might go.
3. Shift in mindset: accept that chances of success are one-in-twenty when innovating and then failing won't feel as bad.
According to Scott Brinker's Martec's Law we are living in a time where the pace of technological evolution has surpassed human's and business's ability to keep up. This is presenting challenges for us all as we try to cope and flourish within this new normal. There will be a lot of trial and error as we navigate our way through this next fifty or so years. This requires a huge mindset shift; that when we try things we are much more likely to fail than succeed. We need to be ready for this. Embrace the idea that the path to anywhere in life is never linear. Sh*t happens. We need to deal with it. With the one-in-twenty chances of success rate you would think that we'd know better. Perhaps we believe (or hope) that our version is going to be the one out of the one-in-twenty. By openly acknowledging what can go wrong we can allow for it - provide somehow for the consequences. Be ready to go again. Then set expectations in our own minds and that of others.
4. Balance the mind and body's response on this precarious path.
Success creates a dopamine hit that is quite addictive. The reaction we get from succeeding triggers heightened activity in the brain’s reward centres that releases dopamine and other chemicals like serotonin, creating an instant euphoria. It is why we pursue winning and success so much. The problem is, that it’s a behavioural conditioning that makes the idea of failing, in some cases, literally painful. The response in our bodies releases the stress chemical we now know to be poisonous in high doses - cortisol. This is the chemical released into the body when we feel or perceive there to be a threat. Despite the profound impact on the human body and brain we spend large amounts of our days swimming in it. We therefore need to re-adjust how we think about and therefore how it makes us feel to avoid unnecessary strife. A large amount of time, it is just the thought of failure that triggers cortisol release. In this case, you haven’t even failed but the prospect of doing so leaves you swimming and ironically causes the failure you fear most. Like the person who freezes up giving a big speech. When you think it, it can become the reality. But thinking is not real. It is just thinking.
Part of the problem, is that we see success and failing as different paths; like the one in the image. It is often presented as a choice. Who would choose failure, right? The issue is that it's a choice that we never really have. What isn’t shown though in such images is that even where the paths might initially be separate, that they will merge back in again a short way down the road.
This is because, in most cases, we get another go at the thing we failed at. The experience we gain benefits us hugely in some other thing we get involved in. We can share what we have learned either directly or indirectly as it becomes a useful chapter in our personalised catalogue of wisdom.
5. Take action to change things. It starts with you. It starts now.
Failing is a very important life achievement for us all. Yes, I said "achievement". Life is full of difficulties, setbacks, challenges and failings. Resisting reality only creates mental torment. So we need to unleash latent capabilities in creativity and innovation through encouraging risk taking. People will only take risks if the consequences of failing become less dramatic.
Let's stop educating this out of our people. Turn the volume down in a society with a low tolerance of failing. It starts with us. The fear of failing needs to be tackled head on. In schools. In the workplace. In life. In so doing we will take the handbrake off human potential - we really believe this. We will unleash the much-desired creativity and innovation at a time when we need it most. Imagine a world where failure was “pain free” and you could see incremental value in everything which didn’t go how you intended. More and more ideas will flow. More and more of us will try new things. We will worry less about the consequences. We will be much happier - through less stress. Not only do we need to make it OK to fail. We need to encourage it. To reward it. To celebrate it. This is the route to a more fulfilled life. For all of us.
Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts - Winston Churchill. Let's get used to it.