…reflections on our fear of failure and how it stops us from attempting new things
I worked on a transformation project for the Federal Ministry of Education early on in my career. It was a large project that involved several consulting firms. The remit was to restructure the parastatals under the ministry.
Together with my colleagues, we brainstormed, conducted research, designed new structures, interviewed ministry staff across the country, and wrote reports. My boss, the CEO, directed our work and attended work status update sessions in Abuja almost every other week.
One time, she had gone to Abuja for the usual meeting with the Minister. It had been scheduled for noon but then rescheduled for 7pm at the last minute. This new timing did not work for her as she had planned to be back in Lagos by afternoon. She called me on her way to the airport and instructed me to take the next available flight to Abuja. I would have to deliver the presentation on her behalf. I immediately felt overwhelmed.
I was comfortable making presentations. It was something I did often. I had, however, never made a presentation to anyone at that level before by myself. I was fully abreast of the project and our work but I wondered how prepared I was to present to the Honourable Minister of Education and her team. I also considered this a big deal as it was a project of national importance. My boss had set me up: I could do nothing about it. If she thought I could do it then I would at least attempt.
I made it to the ministry in just enough time before the Minister arrived. I was the perfect picture of calm making our presentation but internally, I was a hot mess. I was so glad once it ended. My boss texted me before I even got to my seat. Some of the other consultants on the project had messaged her to give feedback about my presentation. Thankfully, their comments were quite effusive. I was relieved!
The fear of failure is one of the greatest fears many of us have. If you ask people randomly about their fears, the root cause of whatever they say they are afraid of could probably be linked to a fear of failing. Some people decline to take on new tasks they are uncomfortable with. Others hesitate before trying out new experiences or even limit their aspirations. They wonder, what if I fail at it? What if I don’t do it well enough?
Why are many of us afraid of failing and invariably, of trying out new things? What stimulates and sustains that fear to the extent that so many would never even attempt doing or experiencing something they are unused to?
An important reason is that we LEARN fear. Children, without other people’s influence, would typically try things first before making a decision. The average child is adventurous enough to touch anything, taste anything, do anything until an adult barks out a restraining comment. When this happens consistently, the child becomes conditioned to respond in a certain way. He/ she will either persist in his/ her action or more likely desist based on the feedback received. Now, if that child grows up in an unsupportive and critical environment, fear may typically be a constant companion.
Being judged by others also makes us entertain fear. As we get older, we tend to place some value on the opinions of other people. Consciously or unconsciously, we seek out feedback on our actions. Some are not so bothered about the feedback they receive. Many others consider that feedback or potential feedback very important to the point of inaction. One would assume that feedback is meant to support improvement but considering how some people deliver it these days, this fear is understandable.
When feedback is consistently unsupportive or when we don’t believe in ourselves enough, we begin to feel inadequate and lose confidence in ourselves and our abilities. Some people also experience failure and decide never to try again, even if they get offered an opportunity to attempt that activity. They wouldn’t even consider that someone had trusted them enough to handle the task, they would just refuse to do it. Others have experienced life-changing events which have affected them severely. For example, a person who has an accident while driving and then refuses to drive ever again.
We should embrace failure instead of resisting it. I don’t mean we should search for opportunities to fail rather we should seek to learn from every failed opportunity. And what can we learn from failing?
Primarily, we discover how not to do things. Every new thing comes with a learning curve which includes opportunities to fail and improve. You discover what works and what doesn’t work. It is better to try than to do nothing.
We should also embrace opportunities to try new things at other people’s expense, e.g. an employer. This potentially limits our exposure and gives us the bandwidth to experiment till we succeed.
How do we conquer our fear? Like Nike’s slogan, “just do it!” Do it afraid but first, prepare yourself. One thing that has helped me is simulating activities before I have to experience them. I imagine myself doing it and forecast any potential issues that may arise so I can plan for it.
I plan to go bungee jumping one day. I’m afraid of doing it but I want to conquer that fear by doing it. I have been watching videos of people bungee jumping for a while and it’s been helping me prepare mentally for when I do it. Will I be afraid when I eventually try it? Most likely but I guess, I will do it anyway. Please don’t ask me why I want to do it though, lol.
You could also volunteer to work with someone else on a task or engage in a new experience with a partner. This could help reduce your fear since you wouldn’t be the only one going through the experience. Together, you can learn how to and how not to do whatever task you have. Asking for guidance is also very important as you get to learn from other people’s mistakes instead of making them yourself.
It is perfectly normal to feel afraid of doing things that are new to you. What we shouldn’t do is sustain that fear so much so that it becomes debilitating. Easier said than done perhaps but many have conquered their fears this way.
When I realised how much I dreaded doing some things, I started asking myself “what’s the worst that would happen?” Confronting that worst-case scenario has made it easier for me to do a lot of things I ordinarily wouldn’t have done. All it takes is the first step towards action. Keep at it and you are on your way to conquering your fears, and this is the way I see things today.