Fear of Failure as a Barometer for Success

Fully loaded soda bottle truck in Kathmandu, Nepal

"Fear of failure is a ticket to mediocrity. If you're not failing from time to time, you're not pushing yourself. And if you're not pushing yourself, you're coasting." - Eric Zorn

That quote came across my screen after having spent almost twenty minutes aimlessly passing time on Facebook. I suddenly realized that for the past few weeks I haven't been pushing myself or risking failure. I've been coasting.

Case in point: I wasn't going to publish anything on this blog today. I had already decided that my next post would be on Friday. It was easier that way. I had no idea what to write and I was relying on inspiration to strike at some point between now and then to write a great post.

The truth is that ever since releasing my first ebook and visiting the schools in Nepal, I've felt the pressure from my inner perfectionist to continue outdoing myself.

Every blog post I wrote had to be better than the previous (my first post after releasing the ebook was the most difficult). I was afraid of publishing something that was off-topic, uninteresting, or not up to par with my previous posts.

I talked with my friend Ali Dark about how I was feeling and what did he do? He turned around and wrote a love letter to bloggers who might be feeling the same way. He turned my fear of failure into a success!

What was wrong with me? I knew that I had so much to offer and that my readers weren't going to disappear if I wrote even the most off-topic post, so why was I experiencing this fear of failure?

As I contemplated that question, I realized that fear of failure is not natural. We're only afraid of failure because we're afraid of what others might think. This fear is a direct result of our being taught by society that success is good and failure is bad.

However, despite this social conditioning few people other than ourselves even recognize failure, let alone take it into consideration.

Think about somebody famous. How many of their failures can you think of? Now think about a friend. How many of their failures can you think of? Now quickly think about your own life. Do your failures or your successes stand out first?

When we meet someone and ask them "What do you do?", we're not asking them "What are your failures?". We want to know about their successes and their accomplishments. We want to hear the reasons we should get to know them better.

Everybody can fail, but not everybody succeeds. It only makes sense then that we would be more interested in successes than failures. If nobody is really interested in failures, why should we be so afraid of them?

There are only two reasons we fail: Success wasn't possible or we didn't have everything we needed to succeed. Either way, every failure becomes a chance for success because it's an opportunity not to fail again. This is why failure is so important.

The only time failure is bad is when we don't use it to adjust our approach or change direction. If we're not adjusting our approach or changing direction, we're just coasting. We're not making progress and we're not improving.

Without failure, we have no power to adjust course. Without failure, we have no feedback mechanism to tell us when we need to change direction or how we can move towards success.

Remember that nobody wants to remember failures, but everybody wants to remember successes. Because of that fact, success tends to accumulate while failure decays and falls by the wayside.

As long as we're prepared to learn and take action, we should never be afraid of failing too often.

So ask yourself, what have you failed at recently? If the answer is nothing, then you're probably not pushing yourself hard enough. If you haven't made any mistakes or learned any big lessons lately, then you're probably playing it too safe.

Succumbing to fear of failure is dumping your fuel for success down the drain.

If you want to succeed, stop being afraid to fail.

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  1. Every failure (I like to think of them as challenges!) offers up a gift, if only we take the time to look. I fear the failure every time I write something, every time I go to hit “publish” on my blog, every time I start something new.

    When I experience conscious incompetence (2nd level of learning) failure is like a red flag in front of my face and it takes everything in me to keep going. It’s also when the lizard brain speaks up the loudest and I’ve come to the conclusion that’s when it shifts into a gift.

    Since starting the blog, taking on a public challenge, launching a new project this fall I feel like I’ve been failing a lot. It’s pretty in my face right now, so I understand your experience!

    β€œFind out what you’re afraid of and go live there.” – Chuck Palahniuk

    • Your point about taking the time to find the gift in failure is so dead on! Whenever something has happened in my life that I would’ve looked at as a failure (big or small), time always proves that no matter how bad it was, it was always exactly what I needed. I think coming to terms with that reality is actually easier for big failures than small failures (at least that’s been my experience!).

      By the way, I love that quote! Thank you, Sandi!

  2. Hey Raam. I don’t believe in success or failure – both are false concepts, probably so prevalent because of the social conditioning that makes up a good part of our minds.

    There is so much more to life than what we assume. People who achieve their goals sometimes feel like failures. People hurt themselves and others and sometimes call that success because they don’t look at the big picture.

    I love the proverb that talks about a horse that runs away from a family. “That’s bad,” they said. It came back with 50 wild horses. “That’s good,” they said. The son rode one and it bucked, he broke his arm. “That’s bad,” the said. The country went to war and the boy was drafted, but he got out of it because of his arm. “That’s good,” the said.

    It’s all about being, doing, sharing, growing, loving – that’s what I gather.

    Life is destined, we’ll have what’s entitled to us, and achieve enough.

    So true that we recognize successes in others, not failures. I love movies. Love actors who become famous in their 50’s. How many years of ‘failure’ did they push through?

    Oh – and you’ll never top even one of your posts. When things are real, not contrived, they’re perfect and unbeatable. To someone.

    • Hey Ali,

      I tend to agree with you that success and failure don’t exist, that they’re largely relative terms defined by the observer. However, I think the terms are necessary for discussion (like this one).

      I’d say that success is anything positive that helps us grow (i.e., conducive to harmony) and failure is anything negative that causes stagnation (i.e., disruptive to harmony).

      Thank you for the kind words and support! πŸ™‚

      • I “tend” to agree with myself sometimes too, but not all the time… because it’s all words… I feel like we’re playing tennis while simultaneously climbing adjacent ladders πŸ˜›

        Yeah – there is such a thing as success but it’s not awarded by anything in this world – thought it is definitely achieved here.

    • So, so, SO love this conversation! It might sound a tad “coachy” but I really do focus on the challenge or the gift, and when I do that failure doesn’t exist.

      I love what you said Ali, about not being able to top an earlier post. Brilliant. Makes me think of how I feel when I focus on the stats versus when I focus on the feeling in my body when I’m writing. If I try to “top” a post that “did well” I’m screwed. When I just say what I want to say and share myself with others it feels so damn good, how can it possibly be a failure.

      I love you guys! See? I really can say whatever I want to say πŸ˜‰

      • Your comments always find a way to put a smile on my face, Sandi!

        I hadn’t thought about the relation of what Ali said about topping an earlier post to checking stats, but it makes a lot of sense!

        If we recognize that time moves in one direction, there really isn’t anything to “top” anyway. When we create something from the heart, or something that is authentic and genuine, regardless of how “good” or “bad” it is, it’s a success.

        Trying to top something in the past is a form of living in the past and will only lead to disrupting the present, which is where we should be when we’re creating!

  3. From the Bhagavad Gita: “He who is without attachment, free, his mind centered in wisdom, his actions, being done as a sacrifice, leave no trace behind.”

    Having a lack of outcome dependence is the way to do everything. Yes, we want to do our best, but we can’t really control the result. Seems like you’ve learned that!

    • Love that quote from the Bhagavad Gita, Brett! (My dad has been reading and quoting the Bhagavad Gita for most of my life!)

      In addition to not being attached to the outcome of something we’ve created, I think not being attached to that which we create is also vital. In a way, I was being attached to the successes of my previous posts and therefore I was having trouble creating something new!

  4. Most of the readers here offer so much. I on the other hand don’t offer to much except for a one liner here or there or non at all… but I’m always reading. Guess I might have a slight fear in commenting that my comment might not be as good or well written and everyone else.

    Then there’s the life of djt………. a success of failures πŸ˜€
    Who else in your life do you know that has failed more than I? I gave my wife’s sweaters away, ran into a washing machine on my bicycle in our basement, ran around the house with a broom chasing a bat, worked on a fence in the garage and had it fall on me several times (that’s a new one) and many others. πŸ˜€ life of djt………. is failure success stories πŸ˜€

    So… the photo above, did the pop fall off?

    • On my way back to work after submitting the last comment I remembered this:

      Thomas Edison and DJT have something in common…..

      I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
      – Thomas A. Edison

    • Failures often seem more frequent when you’re constantly staring at and remembering them. πŸ™‚

      About the photo: Nothing fell off. I’ve seen dozens and dozens of trucks carrying pop like that in both India and Nepal. It’s really incredible how loaded they are… I thought it was a fitting photo for “fear of failure” and overcoming it. πŸ™‚

  5. Well said, I don’t have much else to add but my own experience. Failure can either push you down or drive you to succeed. I strive for the motivation to push on even though I don’t always act on it.

    Fear of failure is one thing that separates the good from the great.

  6. The fear of failure has a way of making us fail. Coasting is a failure under a different guise. The idea of failure can be scary, but failure breeds success. I have a friend who constantly fails because he’s trying new things. I have a feeling he’s going to be one of the most successful people I know one day. All we can do is try. If we’ve failed, we know we’ve at least tried.

    • Absolutely, Mark. The more we fail, the greater chance we have for success! However, I always like to add that simply failing isn’t enough… we have to learn from the failures to progress forward. Failure + adjusting course = greatest chance for success!

      It was your Facebook message where I saw the opening quote posted, so thank you for the inspiration! πŸ™‚

  7. I was thinking I haven’t been failing lately, but I’ve sure been trying! The blog thing was a total experiment and I had little idea what I was doing at first. Now I’m having someone redo another website of mine and add yet another blog. I don’t even know if it will come out well yet. πŸ™‚

    • Hi Jennifer,

      Don’t worry about things not coming out well! Just keep experimenting and you’ll become a pro before you know it!

      When we’re prepared to learn, an abundance of failure can only lead to an abundance of success.

  8. This post is spot on! How the fear of failure is really a result of social conditioning; I really agree with that statement.

    I started a blog recently about doing one thing everyday that scares me and I stumbled across this blog from Sandi’s (devacoaching.com). I love your honesty and I definitely relate to your crazy expectations on building a better and better blog post everytime, each after the next.

    I think the way we measure and approach failure is very similar to the way we measure and approach fear. If we are not afraid to go through either, we are more likely to meet success. I know I focus so much on NOT failing that I forgot to focus on Succeeding.

    Thank you for this post, am linking it to my next blog post πŸ™‚
    steph lee

    • Thank you, Steph!

      I love what you said about approaching fear and failure the same way… both are necessary evils that are key to success! I think we need to remember that fear, failure, success, and triumph are all part of the same journey and that we cannot reach any destination without all of them.

      I’m happy you connected with me through Sandi’s blog and I look forward to staying in touch!

  9. This is another terrific posts. I love the way you look inwardly and turn your life experiences into profound learning for yourself and us too! It’s really remarkable.

    I think it’s normal to go into a dip after a an important achievement. It’s part of the cycle or rhythm of life. We can’t always be out there being successful.

    I appreciate your honesty about your fears.

    • Thank you, Sandra! I think being honest about our fears is the best way to begin facing them. Until we acknowledge that the fears exist, we cannot begin facing them! πŸ™‚

  10. Some great pointers here Raam. I try to live Eric Zorn’s quote every today. Sometimes it’s easy to by complacent about what you have and when you loose it it’s devestating.

    I keep pushing everyday, just in case what I have is taken away from me.

    Great article.

    • Hi Matthew,

      Great advice about pushing everyday! I think remembering that everything we have can disappear in an instant is a great way to stay motivated and inspired to keep going! It’s sort of like reminding ourselves of our mortality and recognizing that one day we’ll be gone.

  11. This poem by Indian independence activist and Nobel laureate Rabindrinath Tagore from his collection “Gitanjali”

    “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
    Where knowledge is free
    Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
    By narrow domestic walls
    Where words come out from the depth of truth
    Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
    Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
    Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
    Where the mind is led forward by thee
    Into ever-widening thought and action
    Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”

  12. If I can stop one heart from breaking,
    I shall not live in vain;
    If I can ease one life the aching,
    Or cool one pain,
    Or help one fainting robin
    Unto his nest again,
    I shall not live in vain.
    -Emily Dickenson

    This is how I choose to succeed.
    One person cared for at a time when they believe there is nothing, no one…when all seems hopeless, I will be there to sprinkle fairy dust and revive their dream. πŸ™‚

    What is your dream for today?

    • Love that poem, Jeanie! One heart at a time… that’s a wonderful way of thinking about it. πŸ™‚ My dream for today is to do something that will serve those who need it.


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