How to Overcome a Fear Of Failure – Failing is just learning

I come across many clients who have a fear of failure. It shows up in people differently. For me, my fear of failure is about risk avoidance. I am incredibly good at avoiding risk, it’s one of my core strengths!!!! Let me share a bit about how this shows up in me

My Story with Failure

From a young age I found school easy. I studied and worked hard but I never really struggled with education. Good job really as I don’t think I’d have been very good at it! I can remember being very calculating about my studies. I chose subjects that I knew I would do well in, rather than the ones that I enjoyed the most. 

When it came to applying to University I only applied to ones that I knew I’d get the grades for, rather than striving for the university I wanted to go to the most and taking a risk. At University I applied the same logic, I chose my options based on which exams I knew I could pass well. My goal was to get a first and so I chose a path that would lead me there.

On the one hand it was smart move, but it wasn’t courageous or particularly stretching. 

Fast forward the clock a number of years and this pattern continues. I applied for jobs that I was confident I could get, I set goals that I knew I could achieve. Effort was always required but not so much effort that I’d risk not achieving it. When was the last time I really set myself a goal that was on the edge of my stretch zone, something that would really require me to up my game and do things in ways that I have never done before. Too much risk for me gives rise to the possibility of not achieving and this isn’t something I’m used to or subconsciously even willing to do. 

One of my core values is achievement, I am motivated by moving forward, achieving goals and learning as I do, so it makes sense that I would want my goals to be achievable. 

Where is the line between a goal being achievable and it being too safe? Would the risk of failing encourage even more effort and action? 

Today I have to work really hard at goal setting to make sure that my goals are stretching enough that I learn from them. There has to be the right level of risk involved such that I don’t get lazy with my desire to achieve. I know that my tendency to avoid risk and discomfort slows my progression and hinders my ability to achieve what I want and I have learnt to focus on what I can learn and how I can grow from obstacles I face, rather than perceiving them as possible points of failure. Today I’m conscious of it but through the years it’s not something I was aware of.

When I sit and reflect on “What was it about failure that I didn’t like?” I think failure wasn’t something I was used to, I didn’t really know what to do with it. Given the fact that I calculated my path to strong grades at school and Uni, I became regarded as a high achiever and I suppose I took this on as an identity. Failing didn’t fit with that identity. Not that this should have mattered anyway, because in whose eyes would I fail? Only mine I expect. I’m pretty sure the people around me would have focused on all of the things I’d achieved in the pursuit of my goals rather than the one thing that didn’t land.

Failure is just a perspective.

Maybe you have a fear of failure, or you can see it in someone else. Here’s some things I’ve learnt along to way. I hope you find them useful. 

1) Identify what you are really scared of

For example, if you are scared of letting people down, who exactly? And what do they think about this? If you’re scared of letting yourself down – what does this mean exactly? What would have to happen for you to let yourself down? How realistic is it that you will do that? Are you not letting yourself down anyway by letting fear get in the way? What if you’re afraid of making a twit of yourself? Well how would you handle it if that did happen? Think the fear through, don’t let it stop you because you fail to understand it.

2) Learn to take on a growth mindset

A growth mindset is a mindset that enables you to learn from experience and apply these learnings. In order to achieve anything, you need to be able to learn, adapt and grow. Don’t expect to be able to achieve success without any form of practice of perseverance. Maybe you can achieve what you want without making any mistakes but that’s unlikely. Mistakes are marvellous where you can take the learning and move on.

3) Break it down

Fear of failure gets in the way when the goal is too big. Imagine a mountain climber that has a goal to climb Mt Everest. Do you think they can achieve this goal without a training plan or any practice walks? Any large goal needs to be broken down into a series of smaller manageable steps. A vision is great, but a vision is of something in the future. You also need to know what you’ll be doing next week and the week after that contributes to making this vision a reality.

4) Get real

What’s real and what’s just in your head? Let’s look at a really common fear of not taking on an opportunity because you’re afraid you might mess it up. Look at this from an outside perspective. What’s your track record? How likely are you to fundamentally mess it up? What would failure actually look like? How could you mitigate it? Your self doubt and self talk isn’t necessarily factual or real. Try to approach your fears objectively by talking them through with someone. Get some different perspectives so you can separate what’s in your head from reality.

5) Get inspired by ‘other failures’

I use the term ‘failures’ loosly because people can’t be failures. Failure is just an event or a circumstance, it is not a characteristic. Look up some people who in the traditional sense ‘failed’ before they made it to ‘success’. Your definition of failure and success might be different to theirs but my point is if we all stopped every time we felt a fear of failing, then the world would be missing some extraordinary things. Here’s a few names to get you started:

JK Rowling
Steve Jobs
Albert Einstein
Richard Branson


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