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Sabotaging Success Part 1: How ‘Fear Of Failure’ Will Wreck Your Business (Unless You Take Action Now)

By April 27, 2012June 26th, 2015Marketing Insights & Strategy
Sabotaging Success Part 1: How ‘Fear Of Failure’ Will Wreck Your Business And Crush Your Dreams (Unless You Take Action Now)

How’s that title for a dose of negativity? I thought about it for a while and wondered if I should put a positive spin on it, like “How To Succeed In Business”. But that’s not nearly as threatening and catchy, is it? Plus it’s not really what this series is about.

The problem with success is that it’s defined differently for everyone, and there are as many paths to get there as there are people walking them.

But there are some pretty surefire ways to fail, and those are the things I want to talk about, because success is hard. You’ve got to work to achieve it. But failure is pretty simple, and the Fail Monster can sneak up on you when you’re not looking and suck you down into an abyss of… well, failure.

And so, to arms, fellow marketers and business folks! I want you to be on the lookout for these wily beasts and fight them off the moment they rear their ugly little heads. In  the next few posts in this series I’ll help you recognize them and share some ideas for what to do when they threaten.

Fail Monster #1: Fear Of Failure

One of the biggest barriers to your success is the fear that you just won’t make it there. You might fall short. You might totally mess up along the way. You might… gasp!… make mistakes and feel sort of stupid.

I’ve struggled with this Monster since birth. When I was a kid, I did well in school. I was praised repeatedly for being “smart” and for getting good grades. Instead of driving me to succeed, it had the opposite effect; it made me totally afraid to get a bad grade.

Other kids may well have been driven to succeed, but I was driven to hope and pray that nobody would ask me to “do well” again, just in case I couldn’t.

I struggle with the same fear to this day. There are times when I purposefully avoid something because I may not know how to do it. I could look stupid doing it. I could do it wrong. Someone else might hate it, someone else might disapprove. Many times this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m afraid that I can’t, and so I can’t. I fail because I’ve set myself up to fail – because I expect to fail.

How about you? Do you have moments in your career where you’re simply too afraid to try something new or different? When you resist change because you think you might get it wrong?

The Failure Monster’s Child: Hesitation

Sometimes fear isn’t stark. It doesn’t make your heart beat faster or induce you to pull your hair out in anxiety. Sometimes you may not realize that fear is what’s keeping you back.

This subtle fear comes in the guise of hesitation. You may put something off, delay a project, wait to join a conversation, stand back and watch for a while to see what happens.

We overthink, we worry, we muse. We do this to our own detriment because we can’t succeed if we can’t get off center. This type of fear keeps us mired in the “what ifs”. What if I paint the room the wrong color? What if I say something dumb on Twitter? And so we stop and wait, thinking that one day when we know how to do it right, when we’re sure we’ll get it right, then we’ll give it a shot.

Think about it for a moment. Is there something in your life that you’re putting off, waiting to do, because you “need more time” or “want to know more”? How long have you been waiting?

The Weapons: Conviction And Courage

Now that I’ve admitted to be being completely neurotic, let me assure you that neither I, nor you if you can relate, are destined to fail. The Monster may bare its nasty fangs but I have weapons, and so do you.

The only way to combat this particular monster is to reach within to your own store of strength and conviction. I can’t help you. Your best friend/husband/wife/mother/boss can’t help you. No amount of praise can help you.

As grown-ups we have much more ethereal fears than simply failing an eighth grade math test. What if I don’t make enough money? What if my client hates my idea? What if I sound dumb? What if nobody cheers for me?

The truth in business is that you may not make enough money, your client may very well hate your ideas and even fire you! Sometimes you might even sound like a moron.

Courage means that you move ahead in spite of all that. You must choose to succeed. You will be afraid but you will go on anyway, with the knowledge that you can, no matter what the little voice says, no matter what the setbacks, no matter how hard the road.

The only way to succeed is to acknowledge the fear and the hesitation and move on in spite of it.

The simplest way to guarantee failure is to give in – and wait until you and everything around you – is perfect. 

Define Your Success

To wage war with this Monster, you must start with a definition of success and don’t waver from it for a second. That may mean money, it may mean recognition, it may mean something as grand as helping others combat hunger and poverty, or as simple as publishing a book.

Whatever your marker for success is, write it down. Keep it in a gorgeous leather journal or on half a dozen sticky notes on the refrigerator, I don’t care. Make it real and definitive. This is your drive, your motivation.

Whenever fear or doubt creeps in, I want you to visualize your success and imagine yourself at the very pinnacle of it. Recognize yourself as that successful person in your vision. Use this beautiful vision as your inspiration and know that you will get there, as long as you get moving.

Define Your Fear

Instead of some vague fear of failing, I want you to pinpoint exactly what you’re afraid of. Is it a general fear of looking dumb in front of people you want to impress? Is it a more specific fear that you won’t be able to make enough money to support your family?

Write down everything you’re afraid of. Then divide them into two groups: things you can control and things you can’t.

If you’re afraid of giving a keynote speech because it might rain that day and ruin your hair, well, that’s something you’re just going to have to forget about. You can’t control the weather and though we may try to tame it, hair can have a mind of its own. That is completely outside your area of control.

If you’re afraid of your joke falling flat, you can exert some control over that by practicing and making sure you’ve got the delivery nailed.

Recognizing that things can go wrong but that you can’t control them all can relieve you of some of the pressure to be perfect. And preparing for the rest can give you a sense of confidence about your task – and ultimate journey – ahead.

Take One Step

Whenever you think you “can’t” or are “waiting” for the moon to be perfect, I want you to pull out your definition and take one small step toward it. If you want to write a novel, you have to start with the first sentence.

In his book Rework, Jason Fried tells about Ben Saunders, a record-holder for marathon Arctic journeys, who had so many cold miles and months ahead of him that all he could do was focus on getting to the next bit of ice. If he’d spent that time dwelling on the challenge and possible failure of the expedition he may never have achieved his fame.

I want you to focus on whatever you next bit of ice is. You don’t need to know everything or be ready for anything to simply take one step ahead. Appreciate every single step along the way as an achievement.

Be A Negative Nancy

Pull out your list of fears again and focus on those that are within your circle of control. I want you to further divide them into rational and irrational fears. If you’re afraid you’ll walk up to the podium and the audience will immediately nod off, that sounds like an irrational fear. It’s just flotsam your brain is throwing in your way. Ignore it.

A rational fear may be walking onto stage and forgetting your opening line. So before you do that, I want you to take your rational fears and imagine the worst thing that could happen.

Often the worst thing that could happen is a lot less traumatic than we think. In Ben Saunder’s case, I imagine the worst thing that could have happened is he could have frozen to death in the middle of the North Pole. That’s a pretty serious consequence! But for most of us, the worst thing that could happen is we’ll sound silly, make a gaffe, miss a deadline.

There are two benefits to being a Negative Nancy. The first is that it can help you realize that your fears are not life-threatening. You can then approach a task rationally, and even though you may not be able to squash the fear, you’ll still be braver than you were.

The second is that if there is a dire consequence to failure, it will help you plan and attend to the details necessary to improve your odds of success. I bet if Ben never imagined freezing to death, he wouldn’t have brought that extra pair of wooly socks, and maybe those socks made all the difference.

If you’re afraid of forgetting your opening line, imagine yourself forgetting it and what you’d do. Imagine yourself starting halfway through a sentence and circling back, or winging your opening altogether. The point is that imagining a worst-case-scenario can help you plan for it as best as you can. That alone can be enough to get you moving again.

Be careful though – don’t let planning become obsessing or take the place of acting. At some point, you must know that you’ve planned as much as you can, and it’s time to do.

Learn The Easy Way

If you have a mentor, a coach or just a really good reading list, learn the lessons, processes and methods that others who have gone before you – and probably failed a time or two – have to teach.

There is no magical well of confidence that successful people tap into. Many great people are where they are today not because they weren’t afraid to fail, but because they weren’t afraid to get back up. The difference between successful people and those who spend their lives watching and waiting is that successful people persevere in spite of doubt. Take what they have to teach and use it, let it guide and inspire you.

This is how I learned much of what I know about marketing today. I paid close attention to what worked for other people. I took courses, I read books. I piggybacked on ideas that people smarter than me had to share. This isn’t cheating, it’s just being smart. I didn’t invent the idea of time-tracking but you’d better believe that when I learned how useful it could be, I started doing it! I didn’t uncover the secrets of a successful Facebook page but you’d better believe that when I saw what was working for leaders in the industry, I adopted their methods.

Learn, adopt, adapt. That’s your mantra.

Learn The Hard Way

If you can jump off a cliff and land on a comfy cushion, great. But if you land on a plot of cracked cement, get yourself stitched back up and jump again. Remember how many times you fell off your bike or got hit in the head with a ball as a kid before you learned to ride or catch? I bet you cried, but I bet you got back up and did it again, and eventually you succeeded.

When I was about 9 or 10, I really wanted to be able to do a back-bend. That’s the trick you see a gymnast do so effortlessly, where she bends over backwards and touches her hands to the floor in a perfect arch. I vividly remember the first time I tried, standing in front of the TV in my grandmother’s living room, watching someone do it on the screen in front of me. I bent over backwards, put my hands out… and fell smack on my skull. Holy crap did that hurt.

Next time I tried, I did it with a pillow behind me.

I’d like to tell you how many times I fell on my skull but when you get hit on the head that many times, you cease to be able to think straight, let alone count. Perhaps a wiser move would have been to take a class or get a coach, but at that particular moment I was determined to do it.

And so I did. Not only that, but I learned to get back up again into a standing position afterwards. Not that day, but some day after a whole lot of skull cracking.

Now, I’m not going to tell you I am a gymnast of any sort today. But I never wanted to be a gymnast. I simply wanted to do that damn back-bend. Nobody encouraged me. Nobody patted me on the head and said “good job!” Nobody even knew I could do it. But I did, and that defined my success.

I’ve learned a lot about my business this way, too. “Trial by fire” we call it as grownups. It hurt, but in the end I learned. And you will, too.

Embrace Your Failure

So you’ve made a mistake, broken something (hopefully not your skull) or sounded like a complete imbecile. Dissect it and figure out what went wrong. Did you leave out an important step? Did you ignore a detail? Did you not know enough and now have more information in your arsenal?

I want you to stop fearing failure and be grateful for it. Look at it like a hurdle in a relay race. Maybe you tripped over it and fell on your face, but that’s one hurdle behind you that you won’t be tripping over again.

Of course, that means you must learn. If you keep tripping over the same hurdle again and again, clearly you’re doing something wrong! At that point, bench yourself until you can figure out why you’re making the same mistake repeatedly instead of aiming for the next mistake up ahead.

Don’t Be A Politician

In a lot of cases, we’re more afraid of looking or sounding stupid than of actually being stupid. This fear of failing publicly keeps many of us back. Take my school grades – I was terrified to fail because so many people were watching. But I didn’t hesitate to fall on my head in a back-bend because that was for an audience of me.

I want you to avoid the impulse to always come out looking and smelling like a rose. How many times have you watched politicians in an interview try to backpedal and talk around things they simply refuse to admit? Just once I want one of them to step out and say, “Yup, that was a picture of me naked on the internet. Pretty stupid, right?”

If and when you fail or make a mistake, I want you to acknowledge it, own it, and then figure out what you’re going to do to get back on track.

“Wow, I totally messed that up.”

“Boy, I shouldn’t have done that.”

You can’t learn otherwise and learning is the only way to combat both failure and the fear of it. So next time you say something stupid, miss a deadline, botch a meeting, screw up a client account, I want you to admit it, determine what went wrong and plan to fix it.

Know That You Are Going To Fail

Here’s something you must know: you will fail. Few and far between are those who simply wake up one day enmeshed in success. They have their one brilliant idea, get rich, take a long vacation and spend the rest of their lives telling other people the “secret” to doing it just like they did.

Forget those people.

You are going to have to work. You are going to get things wrong. You are going to get fired! Heck, I’ve been fired, I’ve lost business and money and time and energy. Yet here I am, not doing so badly after all.

Starting out knowing that somewhere along the way you’re going to make mistakes and fail is what’s going to get you over your fear. Insisting that you can, will, or want to be perfect is what’s going to hold you back.

Success is a journey, littered with crappy stuff along the way. And you can be so much more than you think, if you’d just get out of your own way, look your fear in the eye and then step on its ugly little head. So whether you’re afraid of the icky little failures along the way or the big “I’ll never be able to do this” failure, it’s time to acknowledge, plan and conquer. Only you can do that, and only if you start right now.

Tell me now, what’s keeping you back? What’s standing in the way of working toward your goal or dream? Share your thoughts in the comments and let’s have a conversation… or are you too afraid, hm???

Read More In This Series

Sabotaging Success Part 2: The Paradox Of Wanting Success But Avoiding It… Because You’re Not Really Sure What You’ll Do When You Get There

Sabotaging Success Part 3: How Jumping Into Business Without Knowing Where You’re Headed Is A Recipe For Failure (And What To Do About It)

Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • Adrienne says:

    Dang Carol, this was a great post. 

    I resonated with this one a little too much.  Now for some things I’ve gotten so much better and I realize that I’m not going to die by moving forward.  The majority of the time I’m really mad at myself afterwards because I should have done it much sooner.  Stupid things were holding me back.

    Now if I can be 100% honest with you here, I still have one fear that continues to hold me back.  I’m deathly afraid of speaking in front of people.  I’ve been invited to speak at a conference later this year and I have until the middle of June to decide.  

    When I was young we use to do plays for our family and I would get up on our little stage and freeze. I did it later on in class during my school years and I even did it in exams.

    I can prepare all I want and know exactly what I’m going to say but once I get up there, my face turns beat read, my stomach starts churning and I forget everything I was going to say.  I’ve tried reading what I need to say but couldn’t even concentrate on what I was reading.

    Several people have recommended Toastmasters but I’ve done the same thing there.  I can’t get past the comfortableness of saying what I want to say.  I’m holding myself back I know and I’m not the only one who has dealt with these issues.  I’m really mad at myself for still acting this way but for right now, this is the only thing still holding me back.  

    Can’t wait to hear your other parts to this.  Or maybe not!  🙂

    • Adrienne, I feel your pain! Believe me, I used that example of speaking to people in public because it’s also one of the things I’m deathly afraid of. It has the same effect on me that it has on you… I get really anxious and turn bright red and can’t get a word out and sometimes I end up breaking out in nervous giggles which really does nothing to promote a professional image. I like my space on this side of the keyboard! 

      You do so many videos, though, and you’re so good at them! Look at public speaking as doing a video, just with a few more people in the room 🙂

      Sometimes it helps to practice with other people. Start by yourself, then borrow your mom, then borrow two or three friends. In fact, you could make a whole video out of your speech and then watch it back, even with other people, so you get more comfortable with the idea.

      I also find it helpful to do the “what’s the worst thing that could happen” trick. I totally understand though, that the worst thing is really THE WORST THING – which usually means you can’t remember a thing you want to say. Perhaps you can solicit some help ahead of time. For instance, if there is a moderator, or a person interviewing you, tell them your fears and let them know that if you freeze up they have to prompt you. Give them your opening line or some way to make a light joke out of it and help you get in the groove. If it’s a speech in front of a bunch of people, see if you can network with them first. Even if you connect well with one other person and tell them how terrified you are, you can get yourself an ally – and while you’re speaking, you can try to focus on that one person as “friendly” and not one of the other terrifying monsters in the audience 🙂

      Well, I say you have to go for it. You are smart and personable and if you can do it on camera you can do it in real life!

  • Nicky_price says:

    Wow, wow, Carol, this was a little too close to home for me as well.  I guess most of us have this little demon inside that tries to kid us that something we want to do is really frightening. 
    When I was younger, I had the opposite to you – my Dad always seemed to compare me to my super intelligent sister and I never felt good enough, so have been fighting those feelings of not wanting to try something incase I am not good enough.  If ever there is competition, I back off when really it’s because I don’t think I could deal with failure.

    By the way, I’m very impressed you can still do a back bend!

    • Nicky, I think your situation is pretty common. I bet some of my younger brothers could tell you they heard a lot of “but your sister did well in school, why can’t you?” Unfortunately that kind of stuff stays with you forever and you just have to recognize and fight it. I’m sure parents mean well and think they are being motivational but it’s such tricky territory. I hope you won’t back off and remind yourself that you are 100% good enough to do whatever you want!

  • Hi Carol,

    What a great post about not being afraid of failure. Every time I read something about fear of failure, I think about my mother. Such a talented woman who never achieved half of what she could have because she was afraid of failure.  Not that she’s ever been a failure, NO, but she could have gone way up there, and never did.

    In my mother’s case it was because of how she had been raised.  In any case, it’s a lot because of whatever happened to us before we even reached the age of 7.  

    I can totally understand how in your case, people giving you so many compliments could have scared you and make you feel the way it did.  What they should have said is, “it’s great, Carol, you are amazing, but you know what? If you don’t do that great next time, you will still be amazing all the same”.  Of course we know that very few people will even think of that and even way less back then.

    I really enjoy your post and I hope that anyone needed to beat their fear of success will stumble upon this 🙂

    • When I used to teach kindergarten, I was actually taught about how to respond to kids without telling them “great job” or something like that, for the very reason that they could get caught up in trying to please you (the adult) and feel bad if they don’t. The approach was basically to make non-judgmental statements that brought attention to something the child did – for example, instead of saying “wow, I love the picture you drew!” you could say something like, “I notice you used a lot of green in that picture.” More of a conversation starter and a way to get kids to be proud of their own work instead of always waiting for you to praise them. Anyway, I wish more people learned that, I bet it could be helpful!