In high school, our hockey coach was a demigod. Hockey at the school was so important it nearly transcended the concept of sports. Our coach was a natural teacher and dexterously wove in life lessons into nearly every hockey lesson. And there were a lot of hockey lessons.
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One day, he introduced a new drill which involved skating backwards from one end of the rink to the other while simultaneously covering as much lateral ground as possible (it looked like carving the letter S back and forth). Skating backwards quickly while covering lateral ground is a very difficult thing skill to execute even for top players.
Eager to impress, we all did the drill as best we could-but carefully. When we gathered at the other end, our coach berated us because we did it wrong, despite the fact that no one fell. We did it wrong because we tried to do it perfectly. He ordered us to do it again, and if we didn’t fall, then it was because we weren’t trying hard enough.
No one survived the next round unscathed. The point of the drill was to push us beyond our abilities, and we did so and went sprawling, flying, and crashing across the ice. As we did the drill each week, we could all see and feel ourselves improving and getting better. We kept falling, but we got faster and covered more ground. The failure we had feared was not impressing our coach, where the true failure was not improving.
The fear of failure is a very real defense and reaction by your mind. The reaction serves, for the most part, to try to protect you from perceived threats. The key word here is “perceived” threats. This part of our brain developed to protect us from the very real physical threats like predators. So what developed to protect from lions activates now when we want to take risk or do something outside of our comfort zone, and it ultimately holds us back and limits us. The problem now is that our threat system is not very good at distinguishing real physical threats and perceived risks.
Your comfort zone is more than just a concept; pushing these boundaries trigger very real neuro-physiological reactions of the mind’s threat system. What defines your comfort zone inherently sets the boundaries that trigger this system. Stay within these boundaries and you’re safe, venture outside of them and the system warns us by surfacing fear. Your mind is doing what it’s evolved to do: to protect yourself by signaling fear at perceived risk, unfamiliarity and the unknown.
This system served us well in an evolutionary sense when our comfort zone was the safety of our tribe. The risky, unfamiliar, and unknown represented very real threats to our safety. Now, the risk isn’t physical safety, but emotional safety and security. Yet the risky, unfamiliar, and unknown still set off our reactive fear system with a flood of fear, paralyzing and preventative thoughts.
When you push and stretch your comfort zone even in little ways, you start to reset those boundaries and trigger points and get comfortable with incrementally more and more discomfort.
Skating backwards down the rink while being careful not to fall was our comfort zone, and our coach knew we’d never improve within that. But when we were encouraged to fail, we stretched our boundaries. Failure became the goal. Falling was success. And we fell until we improved, until we started to see that we could exceed our perceived boundaries.
Here’s where you can start to overcome your fear of failure.
What is failure? The only true failure is the one you don’t learn from. Facebook has failed repeatedly and publicly with huge initiatives like Beacon and Poke. It’s because they fail that they succeed. A common motto among Silicon Valley startups is ‘Fail fast, fail forward.’ Facebook knows the biggest failure would be not evolving and not pushing boundaries. If Facebook isn’t evolving, building, and taking risks, then they’re slowly dying. In sales, there’s the aphorism, “every ‘no’ is one step closer to a yes.” Failure often isn’t what you think it is. So embrace hearing the no’s and just keep trying during your ‘drills’. The no’s will come, and so will the yes’s, and you’ll move forward incrementally and inexorably.
Understand Your Fear
What is it exactly that you fear? We don’t all fear new things, taking risks, changing, and growing for the same reasons. Fear of failure is often spawned because we imagine the worst outcome, or we strive for unreasonable perfection, or we desperately fear rejection. But really, what’s the worst that can happen? If we go out and start a business, we imagine that we’ll lose everything if we fail. Then what? Would you also lose your friends and loved ones? Would you not have your family? Would you lose the gumption and drive that compelled you to start a business in the first place?
Personally, after setting out to start my own business, I lost everything in the 2008 financial crisis. I ended up $250k in debt and on unemployment looking for work in the worst job market since the Great Depression. Despite my previous failure I choose to push forward, and eventually was hired as head of sales at a top firm. The truth is that nothing close to your worst case scenario will ever be realized.
Counter Fear With Confidence
The world responds and supports those who act and lead with confidence. No one is conspiring for your failure. If anything, when you take action with confidence and surety, the world will often conspire to support you. The right things will happen, the right circumstances and opportunities will present themselves. Different cultures sometimes have a different perspective on this; a friend who immigrated to the U.S. explained the difference in attitude towards entrepreneurship between the U.S. and where he was from. When someone would share an idea for a business with others in his native country, they’d often tell them how it’s not possible and why it’s out of reach. In the U.S., many people respond by supporting the idea, acknowledging the individual’s courage and offering help with introductions to friends and other forms of support.
Take Incremental Action
Another cause of the fear of failure is focusing on the enormity of the challenge. Look at a picture of Mt. Everest from base camp. It’s magnificent and imposing, and doesn’t look the least bit climbable. Add to that, the summit is racked by storms, -50 degree weather, and is utterly inhospitable. Yet hundreds of climbers summit every year. Many of these climbers are not professional climbers or elite athletes, but ordinary hobbyists with a dream and a goal. And they all start the climb the same way, with a single step toward the summit. It’s sounds like cliche, but action becomes a habit. Small steps add up and soon you gather momentum, and not long after that, you’re nearing your goal.
Simply Ignore the Fear
In big wave surfing, surfer paddle into waves the size of five story buildings, violent behemoths that impart terrifying and catastrophic forces. It’s impossible for any human not to fear these waves. To counter what can be a paralyzing fear, many of the most elite big wave surfers avoid looking at the impact zone where the wave crashes because it wouldn’t instantly cripple them with fear, and they would never paddle for one of the waves. You’ll have many fears in life; some you can stare down and charge and others who’s lair you should tip top around.
Challenge Yourself in Other Areas
Take on challenges in other areas of life outside of where you seek to grow. Ever wonder why triathlons, mud runs, and marathons are so popular? People want to push their boundaries and see what they’re capable of. You build will power and drive. When you succeed at large goals in one area, you start to see that you can apply the same skills and determination to accomplish goals in other areas. When you realize you can run a marathon with the right preparation, mindset, and training, you realize you can do a plethora of other things you set your mind to. “Don’t fear failure. Fear being in the exact same place next year as you are today.”
Debunk the Myth of Fearlessness
Successful people seem fearless and extraordinary, but that’s just how they’re perceived. Successful people started out very ordinary and through a combination of practice, hard work, effort, and action achieve their success. That myth of fearlessness, however, can act as a barrier to many, causing us to believe that being successful is predicated on being fearless and inherently extraordinary. But being brave isn’t living without fear; it’s living with fear, confronting it, and taking action in spite of it. It’s challenging yourself and putting yourself in places where you encounter fear and facing that fear. Fear is a very normal and inevitable part of being human; it’s one of the characteristic that define us. It’s a part of all of us. No one is truly fearless; they’ve just learned to embrace fear.
This answer has been edited for clarity and brevity. Image by Alashi via Getty.