Overcoming the Fear of Failure
What I learned from “Creativity, Inc.” by Ed Catmull
For most of us, the idea of failure can be terrifying. No matter how many times we hear catchy phrases like
If you learn from defeat, you haven’t really lost.
hear motivational speakers say
Failure is simply the opportunity to start again, this time more wisely.
or see motivational posters with quotes like
Never let success go to your head. Never let failure go to your heart.
it never seems to make a difference. Logically, I know that failure is imperative to growth, that it’s one of the best ways to learn, and that it doesn’t impact my value as a person, but my fear of failure is too deeply ingrained, my heart can’t believe it and whenever I fail, I still have the same emotional reaction I did as a child.
Catmull talks about how “from a very early age, the message is drilled into our heads: Failure is bad; failure means you didn’t study or prepare; failure means you slacked off or – worse! – aren’t smart enough to begin with. Thus, failure is something to be ashamed of.” Let’s be honest, no matter how many times we tell ourselves otherwise, making mistakes is embarrassing and that’s not going to change just because we’ve memorized a few motivational quotes.
There are two parts to any failure:
- The event itself, with all the attached disappointment, confusion, and shame.
- Our reaction to it. This is the part we can control.
To fully overcome the fear of failure we need to recognize and learn to separate the initial pain of failure and the benefit achieved from the resulting growth. Unfortunately, in my experience, removing the pain that comes from the initial event itself is almost impossible to do on our own, it needs to be done in community. This is because the pain comes from interacting with the expectations, responses, and judgements of others, if they view failure in the traditional way, it will always be painful for us.
So that brings us to the second part, our reaction to failure. I knew a pastor once who always said, “It’s okay to feel like that, but you can’t stay like that.” Our emotions are not innately good or bad, they just are. How we choose to act is what’s good or bad, constructive or destructive.
“In a fear-based, failure-averse culture, people will consciously or unconsciously avoid risk. They will seek instead to repeat something safe that’s been good enough in the past.” –Ed Catmull
If we’re serious about wanting to live more intentionally, if we want to start making choices that allow us to thrive in every area of our lives, then these are risks we must take. Thriving intentionally is about improvement, improvement is a type of change, and implementing change is risky. Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying: “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” So if we want to implement the new in our lives, the question needs to changes from, how do we avoid failure? To, how do we remove the fear that has become so innately tied to failure?
One of the best ways to separate the two parts of failure is by looking back. When is a time that you failed? When did you take a risk that did not work out how you were hoping? This exercise is most beneficial if not done immediately, but a few weeks or even a few months down the road (or at both times if you’re really keen to learn!). Looking back, ask yourself these questions:
- Define the failure (did you fail to meet a specific goal, did somebody else reject it, what made it a failure?)
- Why did you fail?
- What could you have done differently to prevent failure?
- What will you do differently moving forward?
- What did you learn about yourself? About collaboration? About your goals?
The more we focus on the benefits and things we learned from our past failures, the easier it is to see the benefits when we fail in the present moment. We’re not trying to convince ourselves that the initial failure was good or that we should have enjoyed it, but we’re trying to differentiate the pain from the benefit.
This is not a one-time fix. Overcoming the fear of failure is something we’re in for the long haul. But if we can start to habitually assess every failure, to revisit them later to see what unexpected benefits came from them, we can shift our mindset. And when our focus shifts, when we’re not so afraid, we may be amazed by the great things we can accomplish.