Overcoming my fear of failure

As part of my MBA at Carnegie Mellon University, I enrolled in a Leadership development certificate program. I got to work with an amazing Leadership Coach (Laura Maxwell) who helped me on my journey of “overcoming my fear of failure”. As part of the program, I had to share my story with the dean, professors and the leadership development center at CMU. I wanted to share that story with all of you!

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Photo by Estée Janssens on Unsplash

My story starts in my childhood. Growing up in India there has always been the expectations that everyone gets good scores in tests and succeeds in any initiative they take part in. This is very common in India and a lot of the Asian countries. For a lot of people growing up in India this gets ingrained in your brains from a very young age. As I grew up this had become natural for me to navigate towards opportunities where I had a higher chance of success and ignore opportunities where I might fail.

During my first conversation with Laura as part of my leadership journey, Laura wanted to know what I want to work on. One thing I had started noticing was “I had started losing interest in a lot of things I start to work on after a while”. As we talked more, it was becoming obvious that it was because at some point in all these projects I started realizing that all of these were similar and I was not pushing me outside my comfort zone where I could fail. As we kept pealing more and more layers of this, we were able to tie it to the environment and the impact the culture had on me. Now, we had identified the problem and ready to jump into the analysis phase.

My first exercise was to introspect and look back at the past few months and analyze all the projects that I could have picked up and what I ended up picking. For the ones I didn’t pick, I analyzed why I made that choice. There was a common pattern — all of them had some element that would push me outside my comfort zone and I was afraid that I would fail. Here is an example of an amazing opportunity that I missed. A good friend of mine in a different department that recently opened in their team and she was really confident that I will be really successful in that role and it would allow both of us to work together again. My subconscious kicked in immediately and I joked off that opportunity and didn’t give it a second thought. Doing this analysis helped me identify a blind spot and provided me an opportunity to work on to improve myself. I shared this with Laura who was really supportive and encouraged me for sharing this. She was aware that this was not easy for me and her constant encouragement encouraged me to push further.

Having done this analysis ensured that I keep my eyes open for opportunities in the future. My most recent change is a testament to this change in behavior. My mentor had recently switched teams and I reached out to him to see if there were any openings in his new team that I can apply. He was really happy that I reached out to him and mentioned that there was indeed a role which he thought I would be a good fit for. He and I started talking about this role and my mind started formulating all the possible reasons in which I will fail in this new role and was trying to push me away from applying for this role. My mind was warning me that taking on this role meant I will fail.

Instead of ignoring those feelings, I acknowledged them and started making a note of all the topics that triggered this fear and was causing me anxiety about this new role. After the meeting, I spent sometime introspecting and started identifying steps that I can take to reduce my chances of failure in this new team. Doing this exercise reduced my stress level dramatically and mind started calming down. I was now able to see — for the first time — that I had a shot at this new role and I decided to pursue it. As part of the interview process, I even shared some of the things that were causing me anxiety and my ideas on how to mitigate this and asked him for his feedback. He was impressed with the preparation. The interviews went great and I started on this team last October and it had been an amazing ride so far!

I have learned so many new things and there is always something new that I discover every single day. I would often find myself in situations where I had no idea what I was doing. My heart rate would increase and my mind will start worrying. I would then pause and tell myself that I am operating outside my comfort zone here and start looking at the problem as a learning opportunity. After having run into quiet a few different types of problems, I am starting to feel confident when presented with an unique problem.

Another thing I have started doing now is reaching out to friends and colleagues who had presented me with opportunities in the past. I usually start off with apologizing for not pursuing the opportunity they presented or at a minimum give it a second thought and also share with them this amazing journey I have been on. I also thank them for keeping me in their thoughts when they come across these opportunities and for going out of their way in bringing me these opportunities.

What I gained from this

  1. Understanding the root cause for my fear of failure.
  2. A framework that I can use when I encounter an opportunity that is outside my comfort zone.
  3. Working on interesting problems.
  4. Constantly learning.
  5. Reengaging with friends and strengthening my network.

Written by

Software Engineering Manager at Salesforce, MBA graduate from Carnegie Mellon University

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