It is very natural to have a fear of failure. As humans we don’t want to feel less significant than others. We don’t want to be separated from our community, even if that separation is in our own minds. It is understandable to intensely fear feeling inadequate because it strikes directly at our feelings of self worth. When we feel inadequate, or less significant, we will often feel that “we are not enough”.
It can also be very undesirable to feel alone, especially when the isolation isn’t self-prescribed as an escape from life and its troubles. Failure, when interpreted in a disempowering way, can leave us with a feeling of being alone.
All of the negative feelings we associate with failure are made up in our minds. We convince ourselves of the reality of these feelings because of our socialization, but we don’t need to be terrified of failure. We can condition ourselves to see failure in a different light.
We can begin to believe that failure is a process, failure is good, and failure takes us closer and closer to our greatness. Without failure, we never tap into what makes us unique and great as individuals.
If you view life as a series of experiments, all leading to the identification and cultivation of your unique purpose, then failure is not only instructive but also necessary. If I take a scientific method to my life, failure is not only helpful, it is critical. In the scientific method, I start with the premise that I want to accomplish objective X; however, I don’t know the exact path to accomplish objective X, especially if objective X is unique and hasn’t exactly been duplicated before.
Therefore, I will seek input from others who I believe have knowledge of how to obtain objective X. I soon find out though, that despite their input and knowledge, the path is one that ultimately I must discover on my own. In order to discover the path I must gain knowledge and experience, and in many cases I need to try things, not knowing if they will work out.
I must fail and learn, fail and grow, learn from my mistakes, gain good judgment from making incorrect decisions.
Under this model there is really no such thing as failure. There are only results. This is a scientific process. If I don’t get the result that I want, by an action that I take, then I just change my approach. I continue to change my approach until I get the result that I want.
Why are we so scared of this process? Why do we have no problem applying this model under certain controlled settings (scientific experimentation for one) but resist it in others (like in the planning of our careers and the way that students are taught in schools)? Concerning our societal approach to failure, Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, says,
Of all the things we are wrong about, this idea of error might well top the list. It is our meta-mistake: We are wrong about what it means to be wrong. Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition.
Ralph Heath, author of Celebrating Failure: The Power of Taking Risks, Making Mistakes and Thinking Big says in his book:
Instead they choose to play it safe, to fly below the radar, repeating the same safe choices over and over again. They operate under the belief that if they make no waves, they attract no attention; no one will yell at them for failing because they generally never attempt anything great at which they could possibly fail (or succeed).
In many cases, the biggest reason that people are terrified of failure is that they haven’t engaged the first step in the scientific method – they have no idea what they actually want. They don’t even know what they are looking for. They don’t have a clear, concise and compelling objective that we are seeking. They see the objective in general terms and it usually deals with an general level of material comforts, social position, and community significance. So people cling to the institutions that they think will best provide these. The problem is that these institutions rarely provide them with fulfillment.
Failure is valuable and necessary when you evoke the scientific method. You determine exactly what you want with clarity and then pursue it using trial and error. Failure is a necessary and valuable part of the process, until your desire is obtained.