“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed. “
-Michael Jordan

As an executive coach, I have talked to hundreds upon hundreds of people regularly and on a one-to-one basis over the years. In these conversations, I repeatedly hear play-by-plays of different people’s intimate thoughts, hopes, and fears. Fear of failure is right up there on the top ten playlist of fears that comes up as a recurring tune. It paralyzes us and creates angst and anxiety in the best of us.

When I ask why a perceived failure is so scary, I hear things like:

“I will be considered a loser.”

“Everyone will be let down,”

“I could lose my job,”

“People will think less of me.”

“I don’t fail at things.”

I remember a conversation with one man that still plays in my head to this day, although we had it several years ago. He was having severe health issues caused by stress. His marriage was on the brink of divorce. He was wrought with fear of failing in his new executive position, and was working almost 24/7 to prevent that from happening. His fear of failure in this new position had taken over his identity, and his need for validation with “success” in this new role had usurped everything else in his life. Like a slow poison, his fear was actually paralyzing his ability to step back and put this role and his career into context and perspective with the rest of his life. He wanted to make sure he didn’t “fail”.

What is “failure”? When you boil it down, failure is not meeting a certain predetermined measure or criteria for success or successful performance. If you fail, you didn’t meet a standard for success. In a society that values and heralds winning, no-one wants to be the one who fails. Failure means losing. A common story we create about losing or failing at something is that it equates to us not being worthy as a person.

Sometimes stakes are high, and we fail greatly and publicly.

As a result, we feel ashamed.

Less than.

Like we have let ourselves and others down.

Or as I have heard those I speak to describe it and have also experienced myself –“I feel like a fool”.

What I have observed is that the fear of failure itself is a paralyzing poison.

Failure is a natural learning ground. When we fail, we learn what doesn’t work. We learn to adjust. We learn to bounce back and try a different approach. If we avoid failure, we can’t learn. We stay stagnant and stuck.

Although it is hard to remember during a time when we think we have “failed”, ask yourself these questions when you are paralyzed by the fear of failure at something:

  1. What is most important here?
  2. What am I learning?
  3. Am I attaching my personal worthiness and identity to a successful outcome?
  4. Am I so attached to the outcome that I can’t see the value of alternate ones without me as the center?
  5. Whose script is playing in my head?
  6. Am I being true to what I deem to be most important in the bigger scheme of things?
  7. What matters most?
  8. Is my need for personal and ego validation getting in the way of my overall impact?

We take ourselves too seriously in this learning process called life. We see ourselves as the main characters and often want to prove that we are the protagonists and not fools who fail.

I am reminded of these wise words from William Shakespeare:

“A fool thinks himself to be wise…but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

Keep trying.
Keep learning.
Keep moving forward…
Stay foolish and wise…

Send me a note with your stories of dealing with the fear of failure. I’d love to hear about them…

Originally published at www.janetioli.com