Let’s Talk about the F word(s)

by Braden

Failure. Objectively it means that the outcome didn’t match the goal. Emotionally it creates a cocktail of feelings such as dread, regret and shame. There’s a gap there that has profound effects on our lives. Fear of failure can stop one from talking to that guy/girl who might become our partner. Or taking that awesome but terrifying job. What’s with that gap? Where does it come from? How can we close it?

Fear. Objectively it’s a signal warning us of danger. Emotionally it’s overwhelming, disorienting, and powerful. Conceptually, I think there are two basic types of fear that all manifestations correspond to:

  1. Fear of not getting what you want
  2. Fear of losing what you have

In my opinion we are all driven by one of these root fears. The fear of failure, a manifestation of #1, being the most frequent one. It’s no surprise so many of us experience “impostor syndrome“. And we all have an ego to help us deal with that fear. It’s a psychological mechanism we as humans have to assess ourselves relative to others. Ego in and of itself is not bad. It’s a feature, not a bug. Healthy degrees of ego help us stay humble and leads us to strive for progress. Perverse degrees of ego lead us to behave in damaging ways towards others. I think the gap between the objective and emotional parts of failure stem from our ego’s desire to protect us from the pain of that root fear. The problem is that decreases the odds we will put forth the effort to practice doing the things that lead to living a happy (i.e. productive and fulfilling) life.

The solution is to reframe our definition of failure as an outcome as part of practicing and remove/overcome the negative emotions associated to failure. For example, the scientific method is rooted in trial and error. Coach/parents tell us “practice makes perfect”. And software developers use the “agile” methodology. Our goal should be to view failure as part of the learning process — to view it as practice.

I’ve done this. My root fear is a fear of failure. It wont likely ever go away, but that’s OK. How I deal with its existence has changed and now fear of failure isn’t an obstacle for me. Hearing “that didn’t work” or “you failed” doesn’t inflict that painful gut feeling in me. And because of it I’m able to live a happier (i.e. productive and fulfilling) life. Below is my simple motto and framework for how to think and deal with the fear of failure effectively.

Motto & Framework for dealing with Failure

In the journey of life the absolute odds are probably not in your favor, only relative to others might they appear good. Hence, the odds are you will experience failure. Full stop!

  1. Get over the fear of failure
  2. Embrace it — feel it
  3. Reflect — learn from it
  4. Plan how to improve the odds of success
  5. Try again applying lessons learned

The So What: Failure is an objective measurement of whether outcomes meet goals, but we experience it emotionally due to our root fear (1. Fear of not getting what you want or 2. Fear of losing what you have), which holds us back from living our happiest life. The solution is to adjust our perspective to failure as being a signal part of the learning process (i.e. practice) and overcome the negative emotions associated with the word so we can get busy getting better at living a happy (i.e. productive & fulfilling) life.

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