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Fear of Failure

In my previous post I outlined how there has been a trend towards glorifying “the struggle.” Part of this, I think, has been driven by having taken the overcoming of something to a domain where it doesn’t belong. Moreover, we have decided that giving up should not really be an option. Giving up in this case would mean admitting to failure. And society in this day and age punishes nothing as much as it does signs of weakness, vulnerability and above all: failure. Is it that strange that we prefer to continue to struggle against all odds, rather than failing; the thing we have been taught to fear the most?

Centuries ago, failure meant imminent death. So yes, a fear of failing would be justified. For most of the current world, this no longer holds true. Failing to obtain a mortgage, a specific job, entrance into a specific university or getting a first on all your tests won’t result in your ending up in the streets, penniless, waiting to starve to death. But we have put such an emphasis on obtaining an ideal, that everything else that is not that ideal, has been dubbed failure. Failing has become equated to death again, but to what end?

It has become apparent that we have overextended this fear of failures into domains where it does more harm than good. Sure, getting high grades in high school would be great. But to have a pit in your stomach during every single exam, have sleepless nights before each assignment deadline and to experience continuous stress on a day to day basis, as the pressure to perform continues to grow is insane. This is a similar scenario as I have described in the dangers of continuously struggling. This level of stress, in this case driven by fear, cannot be sustained. The body and mind will try to eat themselves trying to sustain it. As such, we deteriorate and will end up struggling more and more. The likelihood of failing will increase, as our health decreases. This is the vicious cycle I have described before.

What is it that we really fear so much? In current society, we won’t face actual physical death when we fail. But we could lose face. We could die a slow and painful social death. All of our lives are interwoven. We are incredibly dependent on and interdependent with others. We compare ourselves, motivate ourselves and learn from others. We look to others to form opinions, even of ourselves. As such, what we fear is how our failing will change the opinion others have of us, and how this impacts how we (should) feel about ourselves.

Ironically, we tend to be our own worst critics. We judge ourselves much harder for our failures than anyone else would. When we are still embarrassed, red-faced and trying to hold down feelings of shame, anger or despair, others have already moved onto different thoughts. Thoughts that are very likely about them, not you.

Even more ironically, the more emphasize we put on failing and our fear of it, the likelier we are to fail. Try not to think of a blue elephant dancing around the room in a pink tutu. The image I have painted is so vivid, as you read it your mind structures it for you to see it. The fear of failing works the same way. You have pictured yourself failing a multitude of times already. If you haven’t, you are not experiencing this type of fear. The more often you see it, the better you can picture it, the more you are consumed by it… You get the picture. You become less and less confident in your own abilities. The pit in your stomach forms and continues to grow. You are psyching yourself out. And the more you do this, the likelier you are to fail. Because to succeed one needs to be in a physical and mental state that allows for high-energy, fast and positive thinking.

The best way to destroy fear is to apply logic. As exciting as that sounds, it’s quite an eye-opening process. Fear is not rational. It leads us to over-emphasize and solely think about the worst case scenarios for how we would fail, how that failure would impact us directly, and how it could impact us in the long run. These scenarios are never realistic. They are heavily dramatized, to the extent that obtaining a 60% rather than a 70% in a test would lead to your parents disowning you, your university to kick you out and for you need to beg for food for the rest of your life without ever having a place to call home. Seems a bit much, right?

So apply logic. Put fear into context. It doesn’t like that. What will actually happen is that you force yourself to shift your focus, consider all possible scenarios and create some perspective. Not getting immediately accepted in your first job interview at a consultancy firm will not be the end of your life. It will just be the end of that choice option for you. But guess what? You applied to more than one company and have been invited to their job interviews as well. So you have more opportunities lined up. Even if you didn’t, you can always apply to more or just different companies. You’re not dead yet, so there is hope.

And so what if you didn’t get into the same company as all your friends did? Or you did not get into Harvard? Or you did not get that promotion but that asshole two desks over did. See it as a failure, sure, if you must. And then move on. Don’t overthink it. It happened. Maybe, if you’re doing really well, you might even be able to learn from it…. Which is exactly what I will write about next!

Another great tip when you dread failure so much is to not talk about your achievements and prospects too much. If you are constantly boasting about things you have done and things you think you are likely to succeed at, the fall will hurt much more. Sometimes just stay humble. In that case people will hold failure much less against you, if at all. And no one likes a bragger anyway.

In my next post I will outline how to learn from failures, and how failing, through experience and reflection upon this experience, can help you learn and grow as a person. In short, I will teach you how to fail properly :)


Behavioural Science

Personal Finance



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