Accept that failure provides a chance to learn. It’s easy to say from the other side but trust me: failure can be the best opportunity to learn. Although it’s not known whether this phrase is apocryphal or not, Thomas Eddison, the inventor of the lightbulb after years of trial and error, said: “I haven’t failed — I’ve just found 10,000 that won’t work. Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
The Fear of Failure is one of the most common restraints that holds people back from pursuing great ideas. Imagine if we could become totally free from the fear of failure. Imagine what we could then manifest and create. In this interview series, we are talking to leaders who can share stories and insights from their experience about “Becoming Free From the Fear of Failure.” As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Emily E K Murdoch, USA Today Bestselling Author of historical romance. Her background in academia has led to studying in the Bodleian Library, designing exhibits at the Yorkshire Museum, and researching for Ian Hislop/BBC documentaries. With over fifty books published, she now writes full-time.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?
I’m a Brit, born and raised just below London. Fortunately, my parents loved learning and culture and the arts, creating a home full of the love of music and the opera and the ballet. I am so grateful to them! My parents themselves are wide readers, and I knew that I wanted to be an author “when I grow up”. I didn’t know any authors so I had no idea really how you became one, so I went to study History and English at university. During my studies and after graduation, I volunteered, interned, and worked at a variety of museums and heritage sites. After that, I simultaneously balanced my author career with getting a “day job”. I became a Chief Brand Officer before becoming a full time author.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Being a British author often means that I miss out on opportunities out there, because they all (seem!) to happen in America. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the world can be smaller than we think.
During the pandemic, I received an email from a high school in Texas, and we set up a call where I could talk to their book club!
Although I was nervous, it was incredible. These teenagers were curious, witty, and widely read, fascinated to learn more about the writing process, and eager to listen. It was just wonderful! I’d love to do it again.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I’m not sure whether they are traits, necessarily, or circumstances that I was fortunate enough to be given/created, but here we go!
Firstly, you need a support system. There’s no particular template for what this has to look like: blood family or chosen family, friends or colleagues… Anyone who will support you, encourage you, and help you to keep going when things get tough.
Secondly, you need an understanding of finances. It’s not glamorous, but you will be making financial decisions even if you don’t know it, so you need to be financially literate. There are free courses out there online (please trust government and charity sources!) so study up.
And thirdly, you need passion. Not just a desire to do something, not a feeling that you could do it. You have to feel like you couldn’t go on without doing it. That quitting just isn’t an option.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the concept of becoming free from failure. Let’s zoom in a bit. From your experience, why exactly are people so afraid of failure? Why is failure so frightening to us?
Failure is frightening because we feel like it says something about ourselves: our very core, our very being. We often think more in terms of being a failure rather than having a failure. We don’t like to think that our character is default or broken, and failure often feels like a personal failing. See, it’s right there in the word!
What are the downsides of being afraid of failure? How can it limit people?
If you’re afraid to fail, you become afraid to try — and then you stop trying.
I know it’s a cliche, the idea that if you aim for the stars and still hit the moon, you’ve gone further than you ever thought…but it’s a cliche for a reason.
By reducing our trying we immediately reduce our success and guarantee our failure. If you never apply for that promotion, you’ve already failed. You are 100% certain not to get it! But if you do apply, you’ve lowered your odds of failure. You haven’t completely removed it; it could be that you’ve only moved to a 99% failure rate. But that’s still better than not trying at all.
In contrast, can you help articulate a few ways how becoming free from the free of failure can help improve our lives?
I am naturally a risk averse person: I don’t like change, and I don’t like doing something different if I don’t have any guarantees!
But that often means that we lose out on the most exciting opportunities in our lives. How often have we heard from people who met their significant other on a wild adventure, or they took a job in an unknown city, or they pushed themselves beyond their comfort zone and changed their lives.
Failure isn’t always ‘bad’. Learning to fail well is important. But having a fear of failure that really constricts us can be so frustrating, especially for our loved ones around us. They want us to succeed, and pushing past that fear can really improve our lives.
We would love to hear your story about your experience dealing with failure. Would you be able to share a story about that with us?
I would never call myself a perfectionist, but I have always been academic, and striven to prove myself that way. When at university, my aim was a first. Of course it was. That was the best grade you could get.
For those who don’t know, in the UK, university degree results are graded as follows:
2.i (two-one): 60–69%
2.ii (two-two): 50–59%
When results day came around, you had to go to your department board and look up your candidate number and see your percentage. When I got there…I saw that I had 69%.
One percent from a first.
I was devastated. When you’re twenty one, things like that feel like the end of the world. I was certain that the rest of my life would be clouded by this result; that everyone would ask whether I got a first or not, and when I admitted that I did not, opportunities would literally close off before me.
How did you rebound and recover after that? What did you learn from this whole episode? What advice would you give to others based on that story?
It was hard. I don’t want to sugar coat it!
My boyfriend at the time (husband now!) spent the whole afternoon listening to me talk about it. I’m a verbal processor, I have to speak out my thoughts and feelings to understand them, and he was so patient, calmly listening to all my catastrophizing.
And that’s what I needed at the time. Someone to listen. To sympathize. We have a saying now: sympathy, or solutions? Sometimes what you need is both, sometimes you are desperate for solutions, but sometimes…sometimes you just want to be heard.
And then I picked myself up. Continued with my Masters, got jobs, wrote books, achieved things I never thought I could. And you know what? No one ever asked about my degree result.
That moment, of looking up at the board convinced that my life was over, has really taught me that failures are stepping stones. And so are successes! Each one is designed to get us to the next step along the path. When you’re ten steps further down the path, you hardly remember what that first step was.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that everyone can take to become free from the fear of failure”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Accept that failure provides a chance to learn. It’s easy to say from the other side but trust me: failure can be the best opportunity to learn. Although it’s not known whether this phrase is apocryphal or not, Thomas Eddison, the inventor of the lightbulb after years of trial and error, said: “I haven’t failed — I’ve just found 10,000 that won’t work. Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
- Know that it’s okay to feel sad. Hustle culture tells you to get back up on your feet — but I want to encourage you to feel your feelings before you do that. It’s okay to feel sad. If anything, I’d encourage it! Failure that hurts means it was something you desperately wanted. Dedicate some time to a grieving process before you look to move on.
- Recognise if this was your failure or just circumstances. Sometimes it’s you. But sometimes it’s not! Understanding where or how the failure happens gives you an opportunity to — you’ve guessed it — learn. If it’s you, is it something you want to change, develop, alter within you? The answer can be yes or no. Or was this circumstantial? Bad timing, someone else’s actions? Don’t beat yourself up for that.
- Ask trusted mentors. Before you start your next challenge, have a conversation with someone you trust who is further along the path than you. They’ll have insight that you simply cannot buy. Ask them deep, specific questions — and be ready to hear the answers.
- Be brave for your next adventure. Failure can teach us, guide us, challenge us — but it shouldn’t hold us back. You should be looking for your next adventure, next challenge, next opportunity. And then once you’ve reviewed your failure, questioned yourself and others, considered if anything needs to change…move on.
The famous Greek philosopher Aristotle once said, “It is possible to fail in many ways…while to succeed is possible only in one way.” Based on your experience, have you found this quote to be true? What do you think Aristotle really meant?
Far be it for me to disagree with Aristotle (!), but I have already experienced so many different kinds of success, each of which I’ve approached through different paths. Some of the things I’ve been convinced would be successful have actually been very unsuccessful — and vice versa.
I suppose the only way I agree with Aristotle is that the one way you can succeed is to be happy with what you’ve achieved. Whatever you create, whatever you do, as long as you can look at the path of your life and smile, you’ve succeeded.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
There’s never been a greater change in a country when universal literacy is introduced. I would love more libraries, more reading, more literacy everywhere. Wouldn’t that be incredible?
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
I would adore spending some time with Dolly Parton. She’s done so much for the world, but her work with children and reading is so inspiring. I’d love to tell her just how appreciated she is.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can check out my website at www.emilyekmurdoch.com, follow me on social @emilyekmurdoch, and sign up to my mailing list here
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.