How to Overcome the Fear of Failure
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What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?
If you, dear reader, will grant me a moment, I would like to be very blunt at the outset of this article:
I hate the above quote.
I understand that it is a commonly-uttered phrase intended to inspire and motivate people to dream big, take risks, shoot for the stars, and a whole host of additional clichés.
Reality check – everyone fails. All the time.
What if, instead of the above quote, people asked, “What would you do if you knew you could succeed?”
I prefer the turn of phrase above for two reasons. First, it is a question with an affirming, positive slant. Second, it does not erroneously assert that failure and success are somehow mutually-exclusive, as if failure may not be present on the path toward success; instead, it emphasizes that success is always a possibility, despite one’s past failures.
The difference between average people and high-achieving people is their perception of and response to failure.
If society better-prepared us to expect, even embrace failure, and keep pressing on, what fantastic successes might we experience?
A Modern Case Study
Last week, I read an incredible story about Taylor Rosenthal.
Rosenthal isn’t afraid to fail. The 14-year-old from Opelika, Alabama, is too young, optimistic, and busy to be afraid to fail.
A bright student and average baseball player, Rosenthal is the founder of the start-up company RecMed, which specializes in the deployment of medical supply vending machines.
His idea was basic, yet inspired. Explained Rosenthal,
“Every time I’d travel for a baseball tournament in Alabama, I’d notice that kids would get hurt and parents couldn’t find a band-aid,” he said. “I wanted to solve that.”
His initial thought was to set up a pop-up shop at the tournaments to sell first-aid kits. He tried it and quickly realized it wasn’t the best model.
“We noticed that it would cost too much to pay people minimum wage to sit at tournaments for six hours,” he said. Then the vending machine idea struck.
Rosenthal sketched a design and consulted with his parents, both of whom work in the medical industry.
By December, he had a working prototype and had acquired a patent.
Users pick from two options: prepackaged first-aid kits for dealing with issues like sun burns, cuts, blisters and bee stings (they run from $5.99 to $15.95). You can also buy individual supplies like band-aids, rubber gloves, hydrocortisone wipes and gauze pads, which cost $6 to $20.
Rosenthal hopes to start deploying the machines this fall. He said they make sense at “high-traffic areas for kids” like amusement parks, beaches and stadiums.
He already has an order from Six Flags for 100 machines.
RecMed will make money by selling the machines, which cost $5,500 apiece, and through restocking fees for the supplies. Rosenthal said he’s also open to putting advertising on the machines.
Needless to say, Rosenthal’s first business plan appears to be a wild success. Rest assured, he will probably fail majorly at some point in the future. But for now, he is seizing his opportunity, even turning down a $30 million buyout offer, because he isn’t afraid to fail.
Naturally, Rosenthal’s teacher, Clarida Jones, has taken notice of her star student’s fearlessness. Said Jones,
It has been amazing watching Taylor grow over the past year into this confident and amazing business man. Even with all of his success, he remains humble and ready to help others. He’s just 14. Bill Gates should be worried.
I doubt Mr. Gates is worried, but he undoubtedly should be impressed, as Rosenthal’s entrepreneurial pursuit is representative of the kind of educational outcomes that Gates hoped to procure through his educational reform efforts.
It is easy to criticize Rosenthal’s rejection of a $30 million buyout. After all, he could somewhat lavishly off a very modest one percent annual return on his spoils. I suspect the rejected offer was less about the money and more about the thrill of the chase and youthful naiveté.
On the other hand, it is hard to fault Rosenthal. He can afford to take a big risk at this stage in his life. He does not have mortgage, auto, credit card, and student loan bills. He has not yet been jaded by the financial obligations of adulthood.
Perhaps he does not fear failure because he hasn’t yet been programmed to expect it.
Four Roots of the Fear of Failure
Pause for a moment and compare several of your grandest endeavors with that of Rosenthal. If you are like me, your story is probably much different. Perhaps you were programmed to fear failure, and it held you back in the past. Or worse, fear of failure may be holding you back from new pursuits in the present.
I consider the following to be the Four Roots of the Fear of Failure:
1. We fear getting started
Mark Twain said, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.” It is a shame that Twain did not also share the secret of getting started!
As an entrepreneur, emulation of others is always an effective way to start.
For example, I followed other bloggers’ work extensively for months before beginning FinanceSuperhero. My goal was to observe the writing qualities that kept thousands of daily readers coming back to their websites on a weekly basis. I even studied the guides on how to start a blog written by FinancialSamurai and Mr. Money Mustache before launching my own blog.
Despite a reliable framework to follow, I felt a bit uneasy, at times, throughout the process. However, I was reminded of an important principle in the process: What we fear rarely, if ever, comes to pass; at the same time, if we do not start, we will never know what might have been.
2. We fear that failure is fatal.
It is normal to fear making a mistake, as mistakes will certainly happen. Yet despite that nagging inner dialogue, the repercussions of our mistakes are rarely fatal.
Billionaire Mark Cuban is a great illustration of this principle. In the early 1980s, the soon-to-be-billionaire was fired from his position as a salesperson for Your Business Software, a local Dallas retailer. Why? He was reportedly meeting with a client to develop new business instead of opening the store.
The road that followed was long and winding, but Cuban’s mistake would not define him.
3. We fear what others may think of us if we fail.
I must confess that I am very guilty of this from time to time. However, by simply being mindful of this trend in my own life, I am able to remain focused upon my own values and act on them rather than out of fear of what others may think. Besides, can any of us really purport to know what others think?
At every step of the way, someone will criticize your decisions and urge you to go in a different direction. Courage stems from the conviction to hold fast to your chosen path.
4. We fear the path of struggle and difficulty.
Just as assuredly as you will experience your share of failures, problems will arise. The key to overcoming them is learning to embrace challenges and view them as opportunities.
It is easy for me to say this. My natural personality leads me to chase challenges and run head on into difficulty. I feel most alive when toiling through adversity.
If you are naturally prone to fear difficulties, you’re not alone. But you can begin to ease your fear by taking a series of small steps.
How to Defeat Your Fears
In my experience, fear is like a boisterous middle school bully. It is threatening on the surface, yet it fades quickly when confronted by direct action.
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No article on overcoming the fear of failure – whether it be personal, career, or financial failure – could be complete without referencing perhaps the best-known quote on fear. In his inaugural address in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke the following immortal words:
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
If you fear failure, heed the timeless advice of FDR: advance!
Notes and Disclaimer: The links contained within this article are affiliate links. FinanceSuperhero only recommends quality protects which will serve to help you improve your financial position.
All investments feature risks. You should consult a qualified professional before entering into any investments that you may not understand.
Readers, how have you learned to overcome fear of failure? Have your past failures been the launching board for your greatest successes?