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Fear of failure

Image by Alvin Canpura

Learning how to walk wasn’t something that came naturally or easily to anyone, but when you were a toddler you didn't think twice about learning. It didn't matter what the outcome happened to be after a single attempt; you just kept on trying no matter what. You stood up, took a step, fell, hurt yourself, maybe cried for a minute or two, and then tried again. It was a repetitive process. Giving up never crossed your mind. At no point did you stop and think how it wasn’t for you. The only way you got to where you are now is by not accepting failure. However, at some point in your life, you learned to be afraid of failure. You learned failure is painful and can lead to feelings of shame or embarrassment.

There is one way to avoid all types of failure. If you don’t start what you set out to do, it’s impossible to fail because you aren’t giving yourself the chance to fail. Refraining from putting in any effort protects you from disappointment and humiliation. The problem with this line of thinking, of course, is that it's severely limiting. As soon as you buy into the idea that failing is something to be avoided, every unsuccessful attempt just gives you more of a reason to stop trying. While that reasoning maintains a feeling of security, it also robs you of the opportunity to realize your potential. The only way to become great at something is to be willing to fail at it, over and over again.

Image by The Writing Zone

Fixed vs Growth Mindset

Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, in one of her early endeavors, wanted to study how people cope with failures. She did it by watching how kids grapple with difficult problems. She gave school children a series of puzzles to solve. The puzzles progressively were more difficult to solve. Confronted with the more difficult puzzles, one ten year old boy yelled out loud, “I love a challenge.” Carol always believed that one either coped or didn’t with failure; it had never crossed her mind that anyone could love failure. Yet, these kids were not discouraged by failure. They didn’t even consider themselves failing; they thought they were learning. Carol always thought you were either smart or you weren’t, and failure meant you weren’t (failing = not smart). If you succeed and avoid failure, you would be considered smart. Struggling and making mistakes didn’t fit into the idea of the whole “being smart” picture.

Mindset can have a profound effect on your life. There are two mindsets: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. The fixed mindset believes that your qualities are set in stone and you only have a certain amount of intelligence, personality, etc. People with a fixed mindset shy away from challenges because they are scared their deficiencies will show through. On the other hand, the growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts and everyone can grow through hard work and perseverance.

Learning from Failure

Some of the most accomplished and successful people had to face some sort of adversity and failure before they became who they are now known for. However, unlike most people, they persevered.

Before inventing a functional light bulb, Thomas Edison failed several thousand times. He did not let his lack of success prevent him from reaching his goal; he learned from the failures and developed from them. He once said, “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

Pete Rose, former American baseball player, is the all-time Major League Baseball (MLB) leader in hits, but he is also the all-time leader in outs. In baseball, over the course of a season, the best hitters in the league fail 70 percent of their at-bats. This is why you so often see players falling into slumps. Mentally you have to be able to fail 70-plus percent of the time and go right back up to the plate and do it again.

At the age of ten or eleven, Kobe Bryant had a summer playing basketball when he didn’t score a single point. He didn’t make a single free throw, a lucky shot—nothing. He was upset and cried about it. In response, his father gave him a hug and said, “Listen, whether you score 0 or you score 60 I’m gonna love you no matter what.” Those words meant so much to him, giving him security, reassurance, and all the confidence in the world to fail.

Kobe said that he played to figure things out, to learn something. In an interview, he was once asked how he became one of those individuals who doesn’t fear failure. He stated, “It doesn’t exist, it’s nonexistent. What the hell does that mean? Seriously, what does failure mean? It’s a figment of your imagination. If you fail on Monday, the only way it is a failure on Monday is if you decide not to progress from that. That is why failure is nonexistent, because if I fail today I’m going to learn something from that and try it again on Tuesday. If I fail I’ll try again on Wednesday.”

Failure simply should not exist. The only way to fail is to stop, so if there is always progression there is no failure. If you prioritize growth over everything on the journey to reach your goal, a lot will change.

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