View failure as a part of the learning process. Believing that failure is reflective of some innate ability can hinder you from pursuing challenging goals. By viewing failure as being a part of the learning process, you’ll be more likely to persist in the face of challenges.

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 Jalisha Jenifer.

Jalisha Jenifer is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Psychology at Barnard College, Columbia University. As a researcher, Jalisha investigates how students’ emotions and beliefs about learning impact the decisions they make while navigating educational spaces. She credits her own educational experiences in K-12 as well as her time at Princeton University (B.A.) and the University of Chicago (Ph.D.) for shaping her perspective on how our response to failure can shape our academic and life trajectories.

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’?

Thanks so much for having me! I’m really excited to share my story.

Growing up, I was always interested in school. I idolized my teachers in K-12 and thought I would pursue a career in primary or secondary education. However, as I got older I realized that my interest in teaching was less about the actual content being taught and more about the process of learning. I wanted to know why some students seemed to have an easier time in school than others. By the time I reached high school, I had discovered the field of psychology and how it can be used to understand the science of learning. I became obsessed with understanding not only how our brains function during learning, but also how our goals and fears can shape our learning experiences.

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?

While I was pursuing my Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, I was invited to speak in a math class full of local high school students about research on math anxiety and how the fear of math can hijack your brain when trying to solve math problems. Since the class was relatively small, I decided to format the talk as more of a roundtable where I would tell students about some research studies and they could share stories about their own experiences in math with me. That format worked perfectly. The students seemed so eager to share with both me and their classmates the struggles they’ve faced with math and their own fears around failing in the subject. I was also able to tell them about some amazing research studies (many of which were conducted by my graduate school advisors Sian Beilock and Susan Levine) that could help them navigate and overcome their fear of math. That roundtable was such a transformative experience for me because it not only highlighted the importance of this topic, but also showed me how the experiences of actual students can and should inform the work that I do.

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 definitely think that a good leader has to be perseverant. There will always be obstacles on the road to success, and being able to push through those challenges is critical. But I also think my empathetic nature has helped me connect with others in a way that fosters strong communication between myself and those I lead. Being open-minded also helps me view information from multiple perspectives and create a collaborative research culture that feels inclusive and supportive.

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?

I think that people are so afraid of failure because we often view failure as being a sort of litmus test for what we are capable of as individuals. For example, we tend to attribute the cause of our failures to fixed characteristics about ourselves (thinking things like “I’m not smart enough”) rather than to more malleable characteristics about ourselves or even the situation (i.e. “I should have spent more time working on that” or “I wish I had been given more information so I could have prepared better”). But we also fear failure because of how we think other people will view our failures. We worry that others will view our failures as being defining characteristics of who we are and what we can do.

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

Being afraid of failure can seriously limit your learning and growth as an individual. In my research, I investigate how the fear of math can lead to various avoidance behaviors that can have a serious impact on your math performance and career aspirations. Most recently, my collaborators and I found that students who are anxious about math often make sub-optimal decisions when studying for math exams by avoiding effortful study strategies. Specifically, they tend to allocate more of their study time to things like reading the textbook and less of their time actually solving practice problems compared to their less-anxious peers. While this might not seem like a big deal, we found that the fear-related avoidance behaviors people engage in can prevent them from achieving their goals. Our study specifically focused on students enrolled in AP Calculus who were motivated to pass the AP exam, and we found that their avoidant behaviors during studying negatively impacted their exam scores.

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

I think that becoming free from the fear of failure can improve our lives in many ways, but one of the primary ways it can help us is by freeing our minds to think about the things that really matter. For example, a lot of research finds that people who are anxious around math experience repeated worries and ruminations about their fear that can interfere with their ability to think clearly during math-related situations. Alleviating those fears can reduce our stress levels and help us become better thinkers and decision-makers.

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?

My most recent experience with failure happened a few weeks ago when I learned that a research study that I submitted to an academic journal for publication was rejected. I spent 4+ years working on that project with many collaborators, and so it was difficult to hear that the journal was not interested in publishing the article!

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?

I think one of the things I am most fortunate for in my profession is the collaborative nature of the work. Since most of my research projects are conducted with other people, I not only share my successes but also my failures with my entire team. This helped me view my failure experience as being less about me and more about the work itself. We are also fortunate to have a comprehensive review system in my field where each rejected publication is given feedback regarding why the publication was rejected and how it can be improved. This gave me hope that the work wasn’t a complete failure and that we may be able to learn and grow from this experience to successfully publish the paper in the future!

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.

  1. View failure as a part of the learning process. Believing that failure is reflective of some innate ability can hinder you from pursuing challenging goals. By viewing failure as being a part of the learning process, you’ll be more likely to persist in the face of challenges.
  2. Surround yourself with supportive peers. Failure can feel extremely isolating when you’re all alone. By surrounding yourself with likeminded others, you can share in the highs and lows together.
  3. Remember that other people fail, too. Reminding yourself that very successful people also experienced failure (including Olympic athletes and even Einstein) can help you view failure as being normal.
  4. Plan for failure in advance. Since failure is oftentimes inevitable on the road to success, it can be helpful to think through how you will deal with failure before it even happens. This can allow you to have a backup plan in place before your emotions hijack your ability to think and make decisions clearly.
  5. Keep the end goal in mind. Remembering why we set out to do something and what truly motivates us can help us persist despite failures and setbacks.

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?

I think what Aristotle meant is that although we can “fail” in many ways on the road to success, we can only become successful by actually trying to pursue our goals. I completely agree that you can’t be successful if you don’t try!

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 love to inspire a movement to change the narrative around math in the United States. It’s so common to hear people describe themselves as not being a “math person”, which sets us up to believe that math ability is something that certain people are just born with. This viewpoint can be toxic for students who struggle with math in school. That mindset can impact the types of careers students pursue and ultimately the amount of income they earn later in life, so it’s important to shift this narrative to make some real change in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) pipeline.

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 🙂

The people who come to mind immediately are of course many of the big names in politics who I admire and have enough power and influence to change the narrative around math. However, I think a more unconventional person that would also have the power to shake things up is Trevor Noah. I think his platform as a relatable, political comedian could be a really powerful way to start interesting and important conversations about math in this country, and I would love the opportunity to chat with him about this idea!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Please follow me on Twitter! @jalishajenifer

I’ve also recently joined the Education for Persistence and Innovation Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, so I definitely recommend checking out their website to read more about how to overcome the fear of failure!

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.