Keep the “failure loop” framework in mind. Picture a chain of individual loops. They are connected. The overall chain goes up and to the right — the direction of progress. However, there is a section in each individual loop that goes back down and to the left — the opposite direction of progress.

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 Sander.

Emily Sander is a C-Suite Executive and Founder of Next Level Coaching.

As an ICF-Certified Coach, she guides clients toward new perspectives that enable them to adapt and evolve as leaders. She is the author of the book, Hacking Executive Leadership.

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’?

Of course!

I grew up in Seattle so early in my career, I worked for Microsoft and Amazon. Then, I worked at a series of small-to-medium-sized technology-based businesses. That’s where I managed my first teams. I built and scaled global teams and learned about leadership — what works and what doesn’t. These were organizations in rapid growth stages, so things moved at a breakneck pace. We were bursting at the seams, and “failing fast” and “failing forward” were recurring daily themes.

Personally, I’ve always been a huge proponent of self-growth and improvement — staying sharp, learning, growing, challenging yourself and constantly evolving and refining who you are as a person and a leader. This involves some trial and error, but if done in the right way, it is well worth it.

Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

Through a series of circumstances, I was promoted to an executive team at an early age. I remember sitting in my first leadership meeting. I was by far the youngest and least experienced person in the room. Our CEO opened the meeting and then we went around the table. Everyone gave a brief recap of what was going on with their department. I headed up the newly created account management team. When my turn came, I remember everyone turned to look at me — all these older, professional, very seasoned, very accomplished faces were staring at me. I was extremely nervous and flummoxed. I managed to stammer out “no update” and just looked down at the table. I heard a few sneers, sighs, and chuckles around the room.

I remembered being embarrassed and disappointed in myself. Afterward, I was watching the news and there was a mention of the United States ambassador to the UN and it struck me — how would I feel if that person sat at the security council of the UN and said the equivalent of “no update” when the US was called on to speak? I’d be put off. Come on! Say something! Represent your country! I’d want them to be strong, confident, informed, and able to work with their counterparts to make a difference in the world. I’m in no way comparing myself or what I do to the important work of the UN, but the thought stuck with me. I needed to do better — not for myself, but for my team.

My takeaway: Your job is to go in there and do your best. Go out and get better at the skills you need to help you. Give yourself a little time at it, but you’re going to do this. I was determined to get better. From then on, I thought of myself — not in arrogance, but in humility — as the “ambassador” for my team. I’m their voice at the table, and I need to represent them well.

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?

  1. Encourage failure. Creating and designing a culture where failure is allowed (and at its best encouraged) is key. One of the most important moments for business leaders is when a team member says, “I’ve made a mistake.” It’s a vulnerable time for them — no one likes going to the boss and admitting they messed up. This is a huge leadership moment and opportunity to take relationships and trust to the next level. I remember early in my career, I would think, “Oh no! How could you do this?” Now if this happens, I make sure the situation is being resolved, but one of my main priorities is making sure this person doesn’t feel bad about themselves and is so upset by it that they won’t be proactive in the future. I go out of my way to tell them, “I like that you made this mistake. It shows you were being proactive and decisive. This is exactly what we need from you in this role. These things happen from time to time. We try to minimize them of course, so learn from this and keep going. I need you to keep doing what you’re doing.”
  2. Adapting and evolving. Human beings aren’t stagnant. Leaders don’t stay the same. People grow, improve, adjust, and think of new ideas. To be at the forefront of your game — to lead yourself well and lead others well — you must strive to continuously improve and grow. Years ago, I heard someone on television say about a nominee for the Supreme Court that “she hasn’t changed her mind on this in 20 years, and she won’t for 20 more.” The pundit was meaning it as a compliment — and I understand the point of knowing where one stands on the issues, and sometimes these don’t change — but it came across as a patronizing remark. He said it as if she didn’t have the capacity to think for herself or evolve any part of her thinking on it. Being fully alive and at your peak performance is process is a constant evolution.
  3. Be solution-oriented. Don’t get stuck in the blame game, which derails a lot of people. Assess the situation. Learn from a negative experience to make different choices in the future. But your sole focus should be on what will solve the problem. Focus on the what, not the who. Several years ago, I worked in a toxic department. It was rife with drama and power games. When something went wrong, everyone immediately shifted blame away from themselves to someone else. It was a conditioned response. Leadership propagated and reinforced it. It was awful. The department and company as a whole had a high percentage of voluntary turnover. I eventually became one of them. Remember to be laser focused on making progress, moving in the right direction, what the next steps are.

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?

People are naturally afraid of what feels bad. When you fail at something, it doesn’t feel good. You’re disappointed in yourself. You’re embarrassed. Those feelings make sense from an internal wiring perspective. Our brain is trying to protect us — its top job is to keep us alive. Its operating system is built for running from predators in the Stone Age; it’s not necessarily built for modern life. In today’s world, we often conflate an attack on our identity or reputation with an actual physical attack. After we perceive an event as negative or threatening, we naturally put defense mechanisms up as a result.

Our default instinct is to fear failing.

What are the downsides of being afraid of failure? How can it limit people?

It can hold a person back from doing all they could do. Most people leave potential on the table because of fear of failure.

Anyone who has used the subway in London has heard the phrase “mind the gap” before. It’s played over the intercom when the doors to the cars open, reminding riders to pay attention to the space between the platform and the train so they don’t trip. In a similar way, we need to “mind the gap” — the gap between who we are today and our full potential. Is that gap at an acceptable level? If not, how much of it is because of our fear of failure?

In contrast, can you help articulate a few ways how becoming free from the free of failure can help improve our lives?

Think about this: What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?

Pretend it was impossible for you to fail at anything — whatever you try is going to be wildly successful. What would you do that you’re not doing now? What options would be on the table? What dreams would you go after?

How would you feel? Would you feel heavier or lighter? More creative? Less?

I had a coaching client make this transition. They said, “Emily, before I felt like a bound pigeon and now, I feel like I can soar like an eagle.” Quite poetic! And if you’d guess it changed the choices she made, how she carried herself, and how she interacted with others, you’d be right.

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?

The recurring “failure story” of my life and career has probably been around public speaking. I love sharing ideas and I love meeting new people, but with each new experience, I get extremely nervous. I overthink — and the result isn’t as good as I want it to be.

This goes back to my school days when you have the show and tell presentations up in front of the class. When I knew what day I’d be presenting, I’d think of nothing else. I’d do the mental countdown and dread it the whole time. I distinctly remember telling myself, “It’s only 10 minutes of your life. When it’s done, you won’t remember this.” Oddly enough, I still remember a few of those moments to this day. Some nervous sweating and deafening heartbeats helped make them unforgettable.

Early in my career, part of my job was to onboard new clients and train them on how to use our online platform. I was taking this over from a veteran in the company. She was kind enough to let me shadow her on a few calls. I took copious notes and basically tried to memorize everything verbatim. Finally, the day when I had to deliver the training arrived. To put it generously, it was barely passable. Afterward, when I reluctantly asked the veteran team member for feedback, the best she could muster was, “Well, now you have the first one under your belt.”

An example from later in my career was presenting at board meetings. In my mind at the time, these were high-stakes meetings and my already healthy streak of perfectionism glowed brightly. True story: I actually only remember snapshots of my very first board meeting because I kind of blacked out during the rest of it.

My most recent example is becoming a podcast guest. I wrote a book last year and my publicist said I need to hit the podcast circuit. In the last year, I’ve jumped into being a podcast guest, talking about the various facets of leadership coaching. Most people want to be on the biggest, most-popular podcasts for the greatest exposure. In the beginning, I intentionally looked for the smallest ones.

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’s certainly been a journey. I won’t lie — it’s taken a lot of tears, hard work, and determination to make it through.

While there are some notable exceptions, on the whole, I don’t remember the majority of my school presentations. Time has indeed done its thing.

I ended up getting very, very good at the client training — to the point where I could do them on the fly with no prep. When I left that job, I was the one training others on how to do it.

Board meetings were always something I prepared for, but I didn’t overprepare and ruminate on them past the point of helpfulness. Presenting at board meetings was a topic I brought up with my coach for a while. Yes, even coaches have coaches. After I didn’t bring it up for a while, she eventually asked, “Are you still having board meetings? I’m just curious because they never come up anymore.” I said, “Oh yes. They still happen every quarter, but they’re not as big a deal.”

I’m still working on podcast interviews, but I’ve become much more comfortable. I do sweat from time to time — as just a physical reaction to the occasion — but I call it “power glistening” and just keep going. For me, the turning point was focusing on the audience and my message, and not focusing on myself. Most of the time, I look forward to them now. The enlightening part of podcast guesting was that, even at the beginning when everything was brand new, I knew I would get good at it. I knew where I was in the process. I knew I would “fail” and I knew I could turn it into progress. It was just a matter of starting. I was confident in my ability to succeed.

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.

Becoming “good” at failing is a skill you can develop. It involves reframing and transforming the traditional sense of “failure” as the end instead of what it really is: another step in the process.

Step 1. Keep the “failure loop” framework in mind. Picture a chain of individual loops. They are connected. The overall chain goes up and to the right — the direction of progress. However, there is a section in each individual loop that goes back down and to the left — the opposite direction of progress.

Step 2. When a “failure event” occurs, know where you are in the process. You are in the bottom section of the individual loop (going down and to the left). This is when you get that dark pit in your stomach. The presentation didn’t go well; the decision turned out to be the wrong one; etc. It feels like crap. Most people stop and wallow in this phase — perhaps staying there forever and slapping the label of “failure” on their forehead. But we know better, so we move to the next step.

Step 3. Find the lesson out of the experience. This can be painful or straightforward. If it was an emotionally charged event, you might give yourself some time or ask for an outside opinion (a trusted friend, mentor, or coach). If it’s something you can easily do yourself, make a note of it. You should be able to articulate it.

Step 4. Apply the lesson in the future. Congratulations! You’ve just pulled yourself up the chain to the next level — up and to the right. You’ve made progress. You’ve grown. You’ve improved. This may be something people can point to and see or it might be internal. But trust me, when you’ve leveled up, you know it. You feel it. It’s distinct.

Step 5. Stay on your growth edge. This is one step outside your comfort zone. Sprint out past your comfort zone and you may get snapped back like a rubber band. But steadily pushing yourself when the time is right is a good thing. If you make this a habit and part of who you are, you’ll never truly fail again. This kind of failure is the mark of a successful person.

One of my favorite quotes is: “I succeed because I’m willing to fail more times than you’re willing to try”

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?

Yes, I think it’s possible to fail in many ways — one can get quite creative with it! I think Aristotle is referring to the virtue of courage as the one way to succeed. Sure, there are many permutations for how failure can be transformed into success, but they all must pass through an act of courage. Read that way, yes, I believe it’s true.

Overcoming fear takes courage and acting courageously is very powerful.

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. 🙂

I would design a world where failure was celebrated (or at least seen for what it truly is). Instead of people feeling embarrassed or in some cases being berated for making a mistake, if it was made with good intentions, it would just be commonplace — even celebrated. Even the way we talk about it would be different.

Imagine a world where this was the response to failure: “Today I made a lot of progress towards my goal because I failed epically and learned a ton.”

Think we can make that a movement?

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 🙂

Lol! This is great.

I’d have to say Michael Jordan. I always remember when he went to play baseball and people called him a “failure” — I was so impressed when he did that. First of all, he was brave enough to try something new. He clearly didn’t have to — he was doing just fine in basketball. Secondly, the regular media and talking heads had a field day with the story at the time, but I remember the actual scouts and baseball experts saying he was impressively good. It would take anyone time to build up a whole new skillset for a new sport — and Michael did it so quickly, he was so athletically gifted, he was so focused on it, and people didn’t give him credit for how hard that was. Finally, I loved that he went back to basketball and won three more titles!

How can our readers further follow your work online?


They can head over to my website — there are a number of free resources and information available there. They can also follow me at Next Level Coaching on LinkedIn and @NextLevelEmily on Twitter for tons of practical business and leadership tips.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.


  • Savio P. Clemente

    TEDx Speaker, Media Journalist, Board Certified Wellness Coach, Best-Selling Author & Cancer Survivor

    Savio P. Clemente, TEDx speaker and Stage 3 cancer survivor, infuses transformative insights into every article. His journey battling cancer fuels a mission to empower survivors and industry leaders towards living a truly healthy, wealthy, and wise lifestyle. As a Board-Certified Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC, ACC), Savio guides readers to embrace self-discovery and rewrite narratives by loving their inner stranger, as outlined in his acclaimed TEDx talk: "7 Minutes to Wellness: How to Love Your Inner Stranger." Through his best-selling book and impactful work as a media journalist — covering inspirational stories of resilience and exploring wellness trends — Savio has collaborated with notable celebrities and TV personalities, bringing his insights to diverse audiences and touching countless lives. His philosophy, "to know thyself is to heal thyself," resonates in every piece.