In lieu of making New Year’s Resolutions in January, I challenged readers to focus on a fear they wanted to face and overcome. I decided there was more to say about failing and failure. In my work I encounter people who are unable to free themselves from one life problem or another. Specifically, their inaction is often tied to fear – the fear of failing.
The fear of failure
Why are these words so troubling?
What is it about failure that makes us so, well, fearful?
The roots of the fear of failure, I would suggest, run deep.
When we are very young, the message we are given is that failure is a part of attempting. When we stumble as we are learning to walk, the first words we often hear are “That’s ok!” The natural process of learning to walk simply includes some “oops moments.” Our first message about failure is that it’s a normal part of the learning process.
When we reach school age, we begin receiving a new and somewhat disturbing message. In school, we learn failure has a name, and its name is a grade called “F.” We never have to receive such a grade to know that it is not something desirable. People with bad grades have to stay in from recess. They are not allowed to go to parties or watch TV. Their parents have to come to school for special parent/teacher conferences. Clearly, this failure thing does not sound like it’s a lot of fun.
As we grow and model the words and attitudes of the adults around us, the messages about success and failure continue.
Winning is good.
Losing is bad.
Success is all that matters.
Failure is for losers. And quitters.
And the worst one – If you fail, you are a failure.
What a shame it is that we are given such an incomplete and distorted message about failure.
Lessons from success and failure
Every experience in life has a lesson to teach. The lessons from success are both positive and negative. Success certainly feels good. The downside, however, is the main lesson that most of us learn from a successful experience which is simply that we like it and want more of it. Tremendous success can bring us the recognition and opportunity we long for. Too much of it can take away our drive and make us complacent. I like succeeding as much as the next person. We just need to make sure our success does not make us so comfortable we stop striving.
While you can learn a lot and grow from success, you can sometimes learn more from failure. One of my most vivid experiences with failure happened 30 years ago, and I have learned more from that than I would have from any early success. I have had a career/management-consulting firm for twenty-seven years. CTS Consulting, however, was not my first business. In 1977, I launched Bryant Educational Services. I was short on money, long on ideas, and slightly full of myself. Bryant Educational Services lasted all of four months. It was, by all accounts, a magnificent flop.
It left me with financial debt, a bruised ego, and the determination to learn from my mistakes and get back into the consulting business. I studied and learned from my failure. I made the necessary adjustments and in 1981, I re-launched the business.
It was a success from day one and I never looked back.
Learning from and avoiding the failures of my first business were major factors in the success of my second business
Failure is often a wake up call. It’s like getting hit in the forehead with a two by four. It gets our attention. Failure is full of information. It gives us a chance to look again at something we may need to do over or do differently or try again or maybe stay away from.
Failure, while certainly not pleasant, is nothing to fear. Failure happens to be one of the best teachers we will ever have. Continually learning from your failures is one of the best ways to ensure success.