Fear of Failure

Fear of Failure

By Desmond Yeoh

Ceramic Products Manufacturer in Malaysia

Ceramic Products

Robert Kelsey wrote in an article, ‘Is fear of failure holding you back’ about a research in the 1960s by John Atkinson, then working at Stanford University, who conducted a series of experiments on children. Atkinson noted that they could be divided into two categories: those focused on winning the reward, who approached the task with what he called a “need for achievement,” and those focused on their seemingly inevitable failure, who had what Atkinson termed a “fear of failure” based on their desire to avoid the public humiliation of failure.

Kelsey wrote, “In one experiment the children played a game of hoop-the-peg, with greater rewards offered for greater distances. The “need for achievement” kids stood a challenging but realistic distance from the peg — adding concentration if they failed. Those with fear of failure, meanwhile, stood either right on top of the peg or so far back that failure was almost certain.”

“Of course, those choosing the impossible distance effectively disguised their fear of failure, not least because everyone failed at such a distance. Yet that was the better response. Many of the fear of failure kids became disruptive — intonating that they didn’t care for the game with some even trying to halt the entire process.”

In other words, the children who suffered from the fear of failure (which Kelsey labelled High-FFs) either set impossible goals so that they have an excuse for failure or set goals that are too easy, where success is guaranteed. All of us have a fear of failure to a certain extent but when it becomes disruptive to our life, it must be addressed. Kelsey wrote, “From here, it’s easy to see how such a divide can impact our career progression: indeed, our entire lives. High-FFs keep their ambitions either low or — as a mask for their insecurities — extraordinarily high (knowing that failing to become a TV star will be kindly judged). It’s the challenging but achievable career choices (such as joining the professions) that are avoided by High-FFs”.

How do we solve the problem if we are High-FFs? If we have the problem and are willing to admit it, then we are already half way through. That is why I advocate that our spiritual practices can improve our work performance by helping us to better observe our thoughts and emotions, thus leading to better self-understanding. By understanding how the fear of failure is adversely affecting our life, we can choose to reject the negative thought patterns that we had previously accepted to be correct. If we can see the link between our fear of failure and the resulting negative thought patterns, those thought patterns will no longer be able to cause a reaction from us. Even if we are not High-FFs, it is useful to understand the problems they face in order to see how we may be impacted in a milder manner.

Kelsey developed a seven step process of overcoming the fear of failure. He wrote:

“1. Discover your true values. If those pop-star goals are a mask you’ll need to go back to square one and calculate what really motivates you. This requires you to establish the values and principles that underline your existence. It’s these that should drive your goal setting, not your insecurities.

2. Establish your goals. With your values written down, visualise yourself 10-years’ hence. Every detail should be imagined: house, car, partner, office, dog (or cat). Importantly, also focus on the details of your career. What will you do day-to-day, where and with whom? Then ensure it dovetails with your values — otherwise it will almost certainly fail.

3. Work out the milestones. The 10-year horizon is long-enough to make anything possible: including professional exams. Yet you have to ensure the path you take is the right one. So visualize yourself in five years’ time. What has to be in place to ensure the 10-year goals are achievable? Then do the same for two years — thinking about the needs for the five-year horizon. Then one year. Then six months. Then three months, one month and one week. And what can you do tomorrow to make sure the one-week goal is conquered?

4. Develop a strategy and tactics. Of course, goals fail without strong execution, while “busyness” can lead us in the wrong direction. We need a strategy — a plan that ensures our actions lead us towards our objectives. So undertake a SWOT analysis: looking at your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats. This should help a strategy emerge because we can execute tactics on our strengths while developing skills to overcome our weaknesses. Meanwhile, we can pursue the opportunities (if goal-focused) and plan to navigate the threats.

5. Execute efficiently. According to Stephen Covey, all activities fall into four boxes: urgent and important, urgent and unimportant, not urgent and important, and not urgent and unimportant. We spend our time on urgent-box activities neglecting the not-urgent-and-important box that is vital for achieving our long-term goals. Yet if we start here, our activities become driven by our goals allowing us to control urgent-and-unimportant activities (otherwise called interruptions) and potentially reframing our not-urgent-and-unimportant activities as refreshing moments where we can enjoy our progress.

6. Deal with people. For High-FFs, other people are a problem. Too often, we become reactive and defensive, or potentially manipulated by people leveraging off our insecurities. Yet dealing with difficult people is possible once we have “developed our compassion” — i.e. we’ve stopped seeing the world from our own perspective and, instead, seen it from theirs. If done genuinely, we can then forge win-win strategies that turn potential enemies and barriers to our progress into allies that can help us achieve our goals.

7. Find your unique gift. Still struggling? Just maybe you haven’t found your unique gift. Everyone has a special talent or insight that they should first discover and then offer to others. Mine was a curiosity regarding my condition (as a High-FF) and a background in writing. I combined the two to write ‘What’s Stopping You?’ What’s yours?”

The fear of failure may manifest itself as seeing only the negatives in One’s endeavour and coming up reasons to give up on One’s endeavour instead of persevering on. For example, at work, instead of putting in the effort to earn a promotion, One may come out with numerous reasons why One does not want that promotion.  The fear of failure may cause us to give up prematurely.

Therefore, another way to remove the fear of failure from our life is to consciously focus our mind towards the happy moments and things in our life. In his article ‘Is happiness the secret of success?’ Shawn Achor wrote, “Scientifically, happiness is a choice. It is a choice about where your single processor brain will devote its finite resources as you process the world. If you scan for the negative first, your brain literally has no resources left over to see the things you are grateful for or the meaning embedded in your work. But if you scan the world for the positive, you start to reap an amazing advantage”.

“A decade of research in the business world proves that happiness raises nearly every business and educational outcome: raising sales by 37%, productivity by 31%, and accuracy on tasks by 19%, as well as a myriad of health and quality-of-life improvements. Given the unprecedented level of unhappiness at companies and the direct link between happiness and business outcomes, the question is NOT whether happiness should matter to companies. Given this research, it clearly should. The first question is: What can I do in my own life to reap the advantage of happiness?”

Shawn Achor gave the following advice:

1. Write down three new things you are grateful for each day;

2. Write for two minutes a day describing one positive experience you had over the past 24 hours;

3. Exercise for 10 minutes a day (I am sure we can do better than that!);

4. Meditate for two minutes, focusing on your breath going in and out (I recommend at least 15 minutes each session);

5. Write one quick email first thing in the morning thanking or praising someone in your social support network (family member, friend, old teacher).

6. Be Giving. Anchor found that employees high on provision of social support are 10 times more engaged at work and have a 40% higher likelihood of promotion over the next four years. In other words, giving at the office gets you more than receiving.

Related Articles: Be your own Therapist, Developing the Habit of Gratitude, The Habit of Celebration

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