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Why failure beats fear

Which is worse – the fear of failing or actually failing?

All of us have things that we won’t attempt to do since we believe we will fail when we try. We’re not interested in finding out if we are right about them or not. We’ve decided that whatever it is, it’s not worth attempting – the potential cost of failure is too high.

Note that it’s the fear of failure and not failure itself that keeps us from trying. We don’t actually know if we would fail, and fear keeps us from finding out if we are right or not.

I’m not in favor of failure, either. It’s no fun, it can be painful, and the memories can last a lifetime. But I am very much in favor of failure when it is the result of thoughtful planning and a sincere effort to achieve something. (More players lose at the Olympics than win.) Failure is a form of feedback, a form of learning. For example, when children fall off their bikes while they are learning to ride, they get feedback, and they can learn that they need to sit or balance in a different way. Then they can try again. When we try to solve a problem and the method we choose fails, we get feedback, and we can learn to adjust our approach.

Personally, I would rather deal with failure than fear. I can’t fight fear. It’s like a ghost that appears and taunts us, but when we try to suppress it, it vanishes only to appear later. Failure, on the other hand, is often concrete. We fall and hurt ourselves trying to climb a tree. We get a D and learn that being good at math requires far more work than we thought. We lose a job due to our lack of judgement, spend money on plans that fall through, and say or do things that drive people away from us. We can correct these mistakes, which failure has made clear. But we can’t remove the fear that colors our anticipation of failure.

So for me, failure beats fear. I can learn from my mistakes, but I’ll never grow from the mistakes I’m afraid to make.



Fail better

No one likes to fail. No one plans to fail. But we all fail at something at some time in our lives.

Failing is embarrassing, even humiliating. Public failure is devastating.

I still remember trying to lead a class auction in 5th grade. I had neither the personality nor the skill to do this. And after several very painful minutes I was very publicly replaced. That was nearly 40 years ago. So the memory of failing can stick with us for a long time.

Since we are going to fail at times, it’s very important that we have the right attitude toward failure. If we fear it, we will magnify its impact in our own minds. If we see it as a normal part of growing, it will still hurt when we fail, but we’ll be able to move past this experience. And for those who actually see failure as a growth opportunity, they may feel some temporary disappointment. But they’ll be right back trying again as soon as possible.

So how do you fail? Do you see your failures as temporary, or as a permanent fixture in your life? Do you evaluate what you did incorrectly, choose 1 thing to do differently in the future, and move on? Or do you wrap your entire life around your failures and shy away from new experiences?

The choice is yours. But I encourage you to fail well, to make failure an ally on your path to personal growth. Choose to grow through the experience instead of becoming a victim.

Learn to fail better.

P.S. After my failure as an auctioneer, I later made a living as a public speaker and trainer. So I did manage to get over this – but the memory remains, and I use it to remind me that failure isn’t fatal.

Everyone wants to succeed

Another way of saying this is that people don’t like to fail. I know I don’t like it. Can’t imagine anyone does. But I’m smart enough to know that I have learned a great deal from my failures, even if I didn’t like the way things turned out. I have learned to “fail better.” But I enjoy success a lot more.

So if everyone wants to succeed in some area – or many areas of their life – why doesn’t this happen more often? Why don’t we hear daily about the victories that others are having?

In some cases this is because the victories are very personal and not easily shared. In other cases people often don’t see their accomplishments in a balanced way. They discount their achievements, especially when they compare them to the achievements of others.

But I believe the biggest reason that we don’t hear more success stories is that most of us have a hard time defining success. We let other people or outside circumstances choose our yardstick for us. And if we let someone else choose how success should look for us, I don’t see how we can ever be satisfied.

So for me the first step in moving toward success is to define what success will look like. If I don’t do this, how will I know if I succeeded?

For example, if I want to be successful in my career, I need to define for myself what my life will look like when I reach this goal. What will I be doing, and where will I be doing it? Will I be working with others or be on my own? Will I be leading or working under another person? And is this an end goal or a step on the way to something larger?

In my own life I made a deliberate choice many years ago to put family before career. And I have succeeded because I have met my goals of raising two very smart and highly motivated daughter who are now each very successfully building careers and lives of their own. My own career is not very exciting, and probably not going anywhere anytime soon. But I am successful. So in this case it was extremely important for me to define what success would look like when I reached my goal.

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