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What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?
If you 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 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 this:
What would you do if you knew you could succeed?
I prefer this question instead for two reasons. First, it is a question with an affirming, positive slant. Second, it does not assert that failure and success are somehow mutually-exclusive, as if failure may not be happen on the path toward success; instead, it emphasizes that success is always a possibility, even if we fail along the way.
There is a reason the notion of “failing forward” has stuck around in the past decade since John Maxwell wrote Failing Forward: Turning Stepping Mistakes Into Stepping Stones For Success:
The difference between average people and high-achieving people is response to failure.
If society better-prepared you to expect (even embrace failure) and keep pressing on, what fantastic successes might you achieve?
How One Boy Rejected the Fear of Failure
Years ago, I read an incredible story about Taylor Rosenthal. 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 business 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 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 live lavishly off a very modest one percent annual return on his profits. 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 a mortgage, car payments, credit card debt, and student loan bills. He has not yet been jaded by the financial obligations of adulthood that hold many people back.
Perhaps he does not fear failure because he hasn’t yet been programmed to expect it.
Four Causes 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 Causes of the Fear of Failure:
- Fear of Getting Started
- Fear of Fatal Mistakes
- Fear of Ridicule and Embarassment
- Fear of Difficult Challenges
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!)
That said, getting started is one of the most effective ways to overcome the fear of failure. Starting a new endeavor -whether it is getting on a budget, investing for retirement, or starting a business -requires daily focus and commitment. That has to start somewhere.
In my own experience as an entrepreneur, I have learned that emulation of others is always an effective way to start. I am naturally an independent thinker, so I initially rejected the idea of following others’ paths in my businesses. But I’ve since learned there is no shame in following someone else’s path toward success as long as you make it your own.
For example, I read other bloggers’ work extensively for months before beginning FinanceSuperhero. My plan was to learn the writing qualities that kept thousands of daily readers coming back to their websites on a weekly basis. I carefully studied their website structures, social media strategies, and affiliate marketing strategies so I could apply them in my own business.
Despite a reliable framework to follow, I felt a bit fearful at times throughout the process. Each time I was reminded of an important principle:
What you fear rarely, if ever, comes to pass; at the same time, if you do not start, you 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. But in spite of what we tell ourselves, the consequences of our mistakes are rarely as bad as we expect.
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. He went on to become a successful entrepreneur, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, and one of the stars of the hit TV show Shark Tank.
He failed as a salesperson, but it didn’t define him or hold him back from becoming successful.
3. We fear what others may think of us if we fail.
I must confess that I am very guilty of this mentality. It’s easy to tell myself and others that I don’t care what people think of me, and that’s true to a degree. When everything is going well in my businesses, I’m very confident – even in the face of criticism.
Whenever one of my businesses has a rough month or otherwise has me feeling discouraged, this confidence practically disappears. Doubt starts to creep in, and I openly start to wonder what my friends, family, and peers might think if I fail and have to turn in my real estate license and shut down my website.
However, by simply being aware of this thought trend in my own life, I am able to remain focused upon my own values and act on them rather than allow the fear of what others may think to cloud my mind. Sure, it could be embarrassing if I stumble along the way, but I can learn from it without resorting to a fear-based mentality.
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 goals and convictions.
Besides, can any of us really pretend to know what others think?
4. We fear the path of struggle and difficulty.
Just as surely as you will experience your share of failures, problems will also arise from to time time. The key to overcoming them and the fear of failure is learning to embrace challenges and view them as opportunities.
It is easy for me to say this because my natural personality leads me to chase challenges and run head on into difficulty. I feel most alive when e pushing through adverse circumstances. The other day I called my dad to vent about a problem I was dealing with, and he responded, “This is a good thing. You always have liked a good challenge.”
On the other hand, ff you are naturally prone to fear difficulties, you’re not alone. But you can begin to ease your fears by taking a series of small steps.
How to Defeat Your Fear of Failure
In my experience, fear is like a mean middle school bully. It is threatening on the surface, but it hates confrontation. Every time you stand up to fear, just like a bully, it starts to lose power over you.
Sure, you might take some lumps along the way, but in the long run, you’ll win.
Here is our best advice for overcoming fear of the biggest types of failure that may affect anyone.
Overcome Your Fear of Failure in Your Finances
If you’re in control of your personal and business finances, one thing is for sure: you’ll sleep a lot better at night.
These money management tips will help reduce or remove fear from the equation:
- Be sure you are on a budget.
- Monitor all of your financial accounts and spending easily, in one place. I do this with Personal Capital.
- Review all of your insurance policies at least once per year. This will help you make sure that they don’t lapse and also keep your family protected if something should happen to your business.
- Be sure you have adequate life insurance protection in place. I was horribly afraid that my death would leave my wife and son poor and on the street until I got term life insurance in place. It's more affordable than you may think.
- If you are struggling with student loan debt, consider refinancing them as soon as possible. If you qualify, it is an easy way to reduce your financial obligations each month and reduce any stress you may be feeling.
Overcoming your fear of failure isn’t a simple task, and it may not happen quickly. At times, it may seem like there is little glory in yesterday’s victories, but keep pressing on. It will get easier with time.
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, remember the timeless advice of FDR: don’t retreat, advance!
Readers, how have you learned to overcome fear of failure? Have your past failures been the launching board for your greatest successes?