We’ve all experienced the fear of failure whether in business, relationships or with personal goals, That doesn’t mean we all look at it the same way, though. Some of us associate it with the consequences of failing. We stress that we won’t get the job we want, or that we won’t measure up to someone’s expectations—and those may be our own.
But there’s another way to look at the fear of failure, and the stress and anxiety that inevitably come with it. We can remember that these feelings have been the source of some of the world’s most impressive achievements, as well as a fundamental factor in the ability of humans to thrive, both individually and collectively. We can choose to see the fear of failure, in other words, as an opportunity.
On April 13th of 1970, Jack Swigert uttered the now-famous words, “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” As if attempting to visit the moon wasn’t difficult enough, Swigert and the rest of the crew of Apollo 13 now had a serious mechanical failure on their hands. It’s safe to assume that everyone on the other end of that radio transmission, working from inside NASA’s command center on the ground, felt a knot rise up in their stomach.
This wasn’t just the fear of any failure, either, but the failure of years of hard work, millions of dollars, and most importantly, of bringing the three astronauts aboard home safely. Of course, we now know that no one involved let fear stop them. Instead of giving up or being paralyzed by doubt, they channeled their fear into the greatest creative problem-solving exercise to ever take place, devising and engineering solutions for a crisis happening over 200,000 miles above Earth’s surface.
One takeaway from the story is that overcoming fear is good, but leveraging it for our own benefit is even better. Fortunately, there are some actionable steps we can take in order to accomplish that.
1. Assess the entire situation
It’s a good idea to acknowledge your fear. Treat it as real and valid, and accept it as yours. There is some reason you feel this way, even if you don’t fully understand it, so you don’t need to try and hide it away.
The other major thing to include in your assessment is any kind of objective data you can get your hands on. Intuition is important, but it’s not always enough to counteract self-doubt. So instead, try to separate feelings from facts. Is what you’re scared of actually something worth worrying about, or is it part of a story you’re telling yourself?
2. Decide what you’re going to do about it
Does your fear of failure relate to something imminent? Is it possible to face up to it today, or at least in the near future? If so, consider bumping it up to the top of your to-do list. Either way—even if it’s something farther out—you’re going to need a plan of action.
Plans can be overwhelming and anxiety-inducing on their own, so it’s usually helpful to be very detailed with them. If building motivation is your goal, then you want to remove as many barriers as you can. Vague plans like: “I’m going to get a job,” will often leave you stranded. Detailed ones such as: “I’m going to build my resume tomorrow, then apply to one job every single day,” leave little question about what your next step should be.
Committing to something can be a powerful action on its own. If you’ve always wanted to run a marathon but are scared you can’t finish it, for example, then you can make the switch from fear to motivation by signing up and paying your entry fee in advance. Taking that action equates to putting fear in its place and focusing on your goal instead.
At this point, you’ve already countered your fear with rationality and you’ve already come up with a strategy for achieving what you want. Much of the hard work is done. If you just stick to that plan by following through with action—feel free to incentivize the step-by-step process if it helps—then your motivation will take care of itself.
It’s been said (and written) many times before, but there is also immense benefit in having the right attitude toward failures when they do come and respecting the process even when it doesn’t net the outcome you were hoping for. It’s no accident that hugely successful companies like Pixar emphasize the value of being wrong within the larger process of getting things right. It’s a matter of “getting on the right side of failure.” In other words, stop looking at the negative side of failing and start looking at the positive.
The more you focus on what’s wrong, the more that will become your reality. And, the same goes for focusing on what’s right. Instead of letting past failures feed your fears, practice changing your mindset to a positive one. Use these two questions to help make any failure into a learning experience:
- Did I do everything in my power not to fail?
- How could I have been better prepared to handle this situation?
The bottom line is that fear can hurt us or help us. In a way, it’s designed to do both. How we look at it, respond to it, and incorporate it in our journey is largely a personal choice, however. When we take a logical and proactive approach to fear and failure, it can empower us to reach the stars—or at the very least the moon.
Brendan Keegan is the CEO of Merchants Fleet.