How to Embrace the Good Types of Fear

Today is the second Part of a two-part installment on Fear. In Part 1, I discussed the “bad types” of fear — the “fear of success” or “fear of acceptance.” Today is the second part: our need to embrace the “good types” of fear: Fear of failure and fear of self-destruction. Enjoy!

Let me begin today by first defining what fear of failure means. Actually, I’ll leave that to the folks at Mind Tools because I love their definition:

“Fear of failure (also called “atychiphobia”) is when we allow that fear to stop us doing the things that can move us forward to achieve our goals.”

Moving forward. Achieving goals. Powerful stuff. Moving forward is what life is all about. Achieving goals should be what we want for ourselves. So why do we let fear stop us in our tracks? In my personal experiences and in the research I’ve done throughout my life, I’ve found that oftentimes, it’s related to what others might think of us.

Surely, we can beat ourselves up — in our minds — but we’re social creatures who seek respect and validation for our actions. If we perceive that someone thinks less of us or doesn’t value who we are, because we made a mistake or failed, then this will hurt us. This is why I point to the correlation between fear and caring, at least on some level, what others think of us. It’s a balancing act that we try to master throughout our lives.

We should care what others think — up to a point. Because only we control our direction in life. The decisions we make, relationships we enter and activities we participate in are all within our power. That which we choose, we also have to live with. Failure will only ever define us negatively if we allow it.

We should aim to let it define us positively by embracing it once it occurs. Then, we can work on building toward something better — something transformational from there.

Fear of Failure as a Catalyst

Last week, I wrote: When we’re strong mentally and emotionally, and we feel capable and confident in our abilities, fear can be a catalyst that drives us to a potential that we may have previously thought was unachievable.

You’ve probably heard of Michael Jordan’s famous story of getting cut from his high school basketball team. His sophomore year, he played on the JV team. He wasn’t deemed good enough to hold a roster spot with the varsity. This is the man who became the greatest basketball player — and perhaps athlete — of all time.

So he kept getting better. He used this fear of failure to improve every part of his game. The idea of rejection, of failing, may be looked at as one of the greatest turning points in any human being’s life. When it comes to Michael Jordan, while at the time it likely seemed hard to believe, that moment of being told, “You’re not on the varsity team,” was perhaps the all-time impetus for any individual in sports history!

Because Jordan could have walked away. He could have worried what others thought of him. He dominated while in 10th grade on the JV team. Honestly, I know, at least slightly, what that must have felt like. Because (on an admittedly much lower-level!) the same exact thing happened to me. When I came up to the varsity team in 11th grade, I was more confident and ready to contribute.

I worked exponentially harder than if I had felt entitled to be there in 10th grade. It paid off because I became a better player. I later achieved my goal of playing college basketball.

In her late 20s, J.K. Rowling ended up destitute. She was on welfare benefits, heartbroken, divorced, beaten down and with her life falling apart. So, she decided to do what she does best to lift herself out of misfortune and failure. She began writing. She used the fear of ending up homeless and broke to motivate her to creative heights most of us could only imagine.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Fear of failure serves as a great motivator — we desire to improve our situation by refusing to accept the status quo. As someone wrote in the Comments section of my article last week, “What’s in the way, is the way.” The name of a book, yes, but also a great, short phrase to keep in mind.

Confronting Fear

“Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.” — Paulo Coehlo, from The Alchemist

The most valuable lessons that we teach ourselves come from when we honestly and courageously confront the fears that previously held us back. I look back at my 20s, and my abuse of alcohol as a “weekend warrior” and binge drinker. Alcohol nearly destroyed some of the most meaningful, awesome relationships in my life, because I thought I occasionally needed it to have a good time.

This fear of failure — of losing people that I loved and things that I cared about — forced me to re-evaluate what mattered most to me. The relationship I have with my brother, who is my closest friend, is one of the best things I have in my life. My wife is my rock, the mother of my son and the person who I love and will spend this lifetime with.

I couldn’t imagine a life without them. Yet I nearly hurt them badly enough that they gave up on me completely.

When I started to stare into the abyss of failure and destruction, I realized that fear is actually, as John Mayer once sang, “a friend who’s misunderstood.” When we’re down, when we’ve played our hand and all our chips are gone, we see what failure really looks like. It’s fight or flight. It’s give up or give all you got.

For those of us who refuse to give in or give up, we know there is the choice to embrace our situations or run from them. Running away is a telltale sign of succumbing to fear. Running away from our situation, problem or reality only prolongs the inevitable. It also hurts our prospects for future success when we’re confronted with adversity or fear again in life.

Because unless we correct our course, we’ll never know what it’s like to overcome adversity and failure.

Indecision or an unwillingness to respond favorably will always slow you down. Decisiveness and taking ownership of the circumstance at-hand is a sign of maturity and wisdom. It shows a willingness to rise up, to be confident by relying on our ability to overcome and find a way to get the job done. The best way to embrace the fear of failure is to tackle it head on.

There’s a big difference between this and confronting someone who is putting your life in harm. Then, by all means, run for your life! But if your response to adversity or the fear of failing is talking about your fear of failure, saying you’re going to fail and thinking you’re going to fail, then you will have taken the surest step toward the actualization of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In personal and business relationships, projects at work or whether you fear failing an exam, when you run away and give up, you lose.

Planning and Precision

Successful leaders I’ve observed in business and through my personal relationships are very precise and knowledgeable on what they do well and what they don’t do well. No one is good at everything — not even Richard Branson. In fact, he’ll tell you as much! But he doesn’t worry about that stuff.

He leaves what he’s not good at to other people because he’s learned from making mistakes and through trial and error — failure — that it’s best to specialize in a few areas. He concentrates on the things that he does well. Like building billion-dollar businesses.

People who have achieved great things know that making mistakes — and failing — is absolutely a pivotal moment of adversity that catalyzes and helps them produce desire and belief in themselves. It serves as the driving cause to help them succeed next time. If you don’t embrace the fear of failure, you’ll continue to arrive at the mistakes and failures of life unprepared and ill-equipped to handle things mentally and emotionally.

The Hard is What Makes it Great

“I have accepted fear as part of life — specifically the fear of change… I have gone ahead despite the pounding in the heart that says: turn back….” — Erica Jong

Sounds funny but there are times — namely with this article — that I delay in producing something that is entirely aimed at adding value to the life of my readers, and also for myself. There is the perfectionist side of the pendulum, and the failure side. It’s easy to fear that our output will not be enough to get the outcome or the result that we want.

That could be for ourselves. It could be outwardly, for the admiration and recognition of others.

Psychologically, the causes of a fear of failure are often as simple as worrying what other people will think of you. This is not character. This is about our perceptions of what others think of our reputation — worldly worries manifested into fear.

Sure, a fear of failure can also lead to the actualization of doubting our abilities but I’ve found the greatest damage to our psyche is more the social perception rather than the internalized emotion.

This is why risk-taking is imperative. Bill Blankschaen writes, “Calculated risks fuel our growth when we step out from where we are to where we want to be. There is no sure thing in leadership — except the consequences of standing still.”

Sometimes, we run away from things when we sense they’re too hard. Not because we think we cannot achieve success. But because we fear failure. It requires too much effort. “Am I up to the task?” “Do I want to go through with all the steps and effort that will lead to a positive result or outcome?” Those thoughts run through our mind.

Then, we either rise up to the challenge or we walk away. As Tom Hanks’ character perfectly encapsulates in this clip from A League of Their Own, “the hard is what makes it great.”

A League of Their Own

Fear drove me to an energized state that powered me away from potential harm. Fear of failure helped me in passing critical exams in high school and college. Fear of losing the person I loved, forever, led me on a quest of winning back the girl of my dreams — my now wife — and asking her to marry me. This is why I’d never tell you fear is an inherently bad thing.

A Story to Tell

You might be familiar with the story of a young Ronald Reagan and the cobbler who sold him shoes. The story goes that the young, future President of the United States went to a cobbler to get fitted for a pair of shoes. Back then, it was not like it is today when you show up at a department store and have your pick of what you want. You had to be sized.

Reagan was asked by the cobbler what type of shoes he wanted. He replied, “I don’t know.” He was asked again about the color, the type of toes — flat or round — and again Reagan responded, “I don’t know.” So the cobbler went on to make the shoes and to prove a point, he made two completely different shoes. One was black, the other brown. Each shoe had different toes.

When Reagan came to collect his shoes and pay the cobbler, he asked why in the world he made such a mismatched set of shoes. The cobbler replied,

“If you do not make your own decisions, somebody else will make them for you.”

It’s a story of decision and indecision, being afraid to speak up out of not knowing what you want. Knowing what you want requires focus, skill and discipline. Because knowing what you want necessitates that you reflect on things — even the type of shoes you want. But in more meaningful terms, knowing what you want is about what really matters to you, what value you will get and how that will make you happy or fulfilled.

When we don’t know what we want, it’s easier to fear the unknown. It’s easier to fear failure. Indecision leads to uncertainty and a lack of understanding. Confidence breeds competence, as well as the desire to rise up, show fortitude and follow through on what you want. When you know what you want, even if you fear failing, you’re more likely to embrace it. Because you have a road map. You have a plan and the courage to pursue that plan. Otherwise, your plan is worthless.

Here’s the cold-hard truth: We’re all going to fail. We’re all going to make mistakes in our personal relationships, jobs, pursuit of our dreams, in things we say or do in public or private conversations. We’re all going to encounter the adversity that comes from failing. We’re going to get knocked down. Check that…

We’re all going to knocked on our asses. The question is, will we be ready to pick ourselves back up? To those who answer, “Yes!,” you know that this is the mindset of a champion. This is when you refuse to accept defeat. The fear of failure, when used to our advantage, steels our mind against losing. It’s in that moment that we commit to getting back up and trying again.

Over Time

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