“Mistakes are the portals of discovery.” J. Joyce
Have you ever heard of the term atychiphobia? Put simply, it is what we commonly call fear of failure and it is an emotion that humans have developed as a way to protect themselves from potential rejection, humiliation or negative judgement. This is particularly true in a society like ours where people are obsessed by success; failure therefore becomes a proxy for how unintelligent or talentless we are, even though we all know that, in most cases, other factors like serendipity and timing play an important role in it.
Generally, fear of failure can have a negative impact on our perception of our abilities, on the types of goals that we set for ourselves and on whether we reach them successfully, especially in the beginning of our careers, when we may dread the idea of being judged by more experienced and knowledgeable colleagues. If we fall victim to it, we might miss out on opportunities or decide not to put ourselves forward for a role, even unconsciously sabotaging ourselves.
Recent research by Statista shows that in 2020, 48.3 percent of entrepreneurs in the UK had a fear of failure, a percentage similar to that found in the US and Australia. It appears that fear of failure is common even among entrepreneurs, who are often seen as risk-prone individuals because they put their financial resources and reputation on the line to start their own business. The truth is that we have all experienced it at one point or another in our career or personal life. What makes the difference is whether we decide to use it to our advantage, and if so, how.
But what really is failure?
A good starting point is to define what it means specifically to you. Our personal perception of it can be very subjective and context-specific, depending on our objectives and the standards that we set for ourselves. Failure is definitely a multifaceted concept and what in your mind seems like a complete failure may be a simple setback for someone else. Failure can be deeply rooted in lack of confidence and doubt, and the nature of the latter determines whether you use your fear of failure positively or negatively.
On one side there is self-doubt, which can lead to negative attitudes like procrastination and limiting behaviours when making decisions and progressing in your career. Very often perfectionism can also be a by-product of it because it makes us think that we should get everything right before we can put ourselves forward for something. On the other hand, the concept of idea-doubt represents a more positive type of doubt based on the realisation that we never stop learning and we strive to improve what we do.
The key difference is that in the first case we judge ourselves, while in the second we question how we can do things better and have the humility to admit that we might not know everything and can learn a lot from other people and experiences. And that is when fear of failure becomes a motivating factor. So, as someone who is starting off in their career or embarking on the creation of their own management consulting practice, how can you turn fear of failure into a positive force for growth?
One approach to overcoming the fear of failure borrows the idea of worst-case scenario analysis, first introduced by Stoic philosophers and more recently adapted to our current business environment by American entrepreneur and investor Tim Ferriss in his well-known 2017 TED talk. The benefits of this strategy are twofold, on one side you identify and reflect on the potential risks involved and the reasons why you fear them. In particular, understanding the source of your fear is key to planning for it and finding the best way to channel it positively. On the other hand, you think about how to mitigate these risks and try to avoid or minimise failure. This makes you feel more in control of the situation and encourages you to take full ownership of your decisions and actions.
Self-awareness and emotional intelligence become particularly important in this process of evaluating worst-case scenarios and your response to them. And they also help you consider the cost of letting fear paralyse you instead of taking action. Obviously, this is not as simple as it may seem and takes practice, but it is definitely something that can be learnt.
Failure as an invaluable source of feedback
Another element that can help in the process is thinking of failure as a way to receive feedback and advice. Even though it is not always pleasant, it is true that the most useful feedback we get is usually a result of something that did not go as planned or that could be improved. In other words, failure can be one of the best ways to learn and grow and you should always welcome feedback, provided it is respectfully given and constructive - and even ask for it, if it is not immediately available. This process of continuous learning and information seeking from the environment around you is the best way to prepare for potential failure as well as to learn how to accept and leverage it.
Learn from it and move on
Over the last decade, fear of failure has become an increasingly popular topic of research in the entrepreneurship field. A recent article1 published in the International Small Business Journal suggests that when entrepreneurs believe they have the skills and ability to respond to the threat of failure, they actually turn it into motivation and drive to succeed in their entrepreneurial activities. What they develop is an ability to focus on their long-term goals and their main purpose, and they adopt a positive mindset that helps them persist - and even thrive - when facing challenges and barriers. A good example is the “fail fast, fail often” approach, particularly favoured by many start-ups and IT entrepreneurs. In a fast-paced business environment, it can be adopted as a strategy to develop high levels of flexibility and ability to respond to change and disruptive events. The key point is not to succeed every single time but to learn from each experience, improve and move on to a better version of what we were trying to create or achieve. When leveraged properly, this approach can bring significant long-term benefits, resulting in a level of knowledge and expertise that can only be acquired through direct experience and often failure.
In conclusion, if there was one single idea that I would like you to take away from this article, it is that fear of failure is a common feeling, it is normal to experience it and it should not prevent you from being ambitious when setting your goals and pushing yourself outside your comfort zone. Make sure that you prepare for it and learn how to leverage it instead of letting it limit your decisions or your potential for growth and success. And remember that not succeeding in an endeavour is still a more insightful and valuable experience than not having that experience at all!
1 Hunter, Jenkins, Mark-Herbert, International Small Business Journal: Researching Entrepreneurship, 2020, When fear of failure leads to intentions to act entrepreneurially: Insights from threat appraisals and coping efficacy,
In my next article, I will explore further the role of feedback and how important it is to learn how to receive and give it in the most useful and appropriate way so that it becomes a powerful tool for your career progression. In particular, I’ll look at feedback in the context of mentoring and intergenerational collaboration.