How to Overcome Your Fear of Failure

A story – from the HBR magazine – to reflect on the importance of making mistakes, trying, moving forward and learning from experience, regardless of the desired result.

A client (who I’ll call “Alex”) asked me to help him prepare to interview for a CEO role with a start-up. It was the first time he had interviewed for the C-level, and when we met, he was visibly agitated. I asked what was wrong, and he explained that he felt “paralyzed” by his fear of failing at the high-stakes meeting.

Digging deeper, I discovered that Alex’s concern about the quality of his performance stemmed from a “setback” he had experienced and internalized while working at his previous company. As I listened to him describe the situation, it became clear that the failure was related to his company and outside industry factors, rather than to any misstep on his part. Despite that fact, Alex could not shake the perception that he himself had not succeeded, even though there was nothing he could have logically done to anticipate or change this outcome.

People are quick to blame themselves for failure, and companies hedge against it even if they pay lip service to the noble concept of trial and error. What can you do if you, like Alex, want to face your fear of screwing up and push beyond it to success? Here are four steps you can take:

Redefine failure. Behind many fears is worry about doing something wrong, looking foolish, or not meeting expectations — in other words, fear of failure. By framing a situation you’re dreading differently before you attempt it, you may be able to avoid some stress and anxiety.

Let’s go back to Alex as an example of how to execute this. As he thought about his interview, he realized that his initial bar for failing the task — “not being hired for the position” — was perhaps too high given that he’d never been a CEO and had never previously tried for that top job. Even if his interview went flawlessly, other factors might influence the hiring committee’s decision — such as predetermined preferences on the part of board members.

In coaching Alex through this approach, I encouraged him to redefine how he would view his performance in the interview. Was there a way he might interpret it differently from the get-go and be more open to signs of success, even if they were small? Could he, for example, redefine failure as not being able to answer any of the questions posed or receiving specific negative feedback? Could he redefine success as being able to answer each question to the best of his ability and receiving no criticisms about how he interviewed?

As it turned out, Alex did advance to the second round and was complimented on his preparedness. Ultimately, he did not get the job. But because he had shifted his mindset and redefined what constituted failure and success, he was able to absorb the results of the experience more gracefully and with less angst than he had expected.

Set approach goals (not avoidance goals). Goals can be classified as approach goals or avoidance goals based on whether you are motivated by wanting to achieve a positive outcome or avoid an adverse one. Psychologists have found that creating approach goals, or positively reframing avoidance goals, is beneficial for well-being. When you’re dreading a tough task and expect it to be difficult and unpleasant, you may unconsciously set goals around what you don’t want to happen rather than what you do want.

Create a “fear list.” Author and investor Tim Ferriss recommends “fear-setting,” creating a checklist of what you are afraid to do and what you fear will happen if you do it. In his Ted Talk on the subject, he shares how doing this enabled him to tackle some of his hardest challenges, resulting in some of his biggest successes

Focus on learning. The chips aren’t always going to fall where you want them to — but if you understand that reality going in, you can be prepared to wring the most value out of the experience, no matter the outcome.

Remember: it’s when you feel comfortable that you should be fearful, because it’s a sign that you’re not stepping far enough out of your comfort zone to take steps that will help you rise and thrive. By rethinking your fears using the four steps above, you can come to see apprehension as a teacher and guide to help you achieve your most important goals.