Thursday, May 17, 2012

How to Overcome Fear of Failure

Have you a large number of ideas in the attic of your mind, but which you have never tried to implement? Have you the seeds of a novel in your mind, but are too anxious to try it out? Have you wanted to perform on stage, but are too apprehensive of how it will be received? These are examples of the fear of failure paralyzing potential creativity.

It has often been said that the average person uses hardly 10% of the potential of his or her brain. What prevents them from exploring the unused 90%? It is the fear of failure, also the fear of ridicule, of falling short of expectations. Isn't it a pity that so much of human talent goes to waste, just because of an irrational fear? If you overcome fear of failure, you can scale unimaginable heights in your career and your personal life.

How to know if I have a fear of failure?

Despite the facts above, the astonishing fact is that few people are even aware that they may be suffering from this fear in their psyche. This is an even more tragic situation: we don't even realize we have a hidden adversary, sabotaging our every attempt at self-actualization, of attaining our chosen goals. I'll tell you how I suffered below, but here is a quick method to find out if you have a fear of failure. If you find yourself tending to avoid certain tasks or situations, then it is likely that you are experiencing anxiety about the results of the situation. Anxiety is a visible form of latent fear.The fear itself could be rooted in traumatic experiences associated with similar situations in our past (childhood).

At school, I was a student with a good level of comprehension and curiosity and earned top grades till entering University. The fact was that I was egged on in studies by my parents. However, when I entered a professional engineering course, my grades plummeted. Eventhough I stood third (in that college) in the entrance exam for the course, at the end of the four-year course I was in the ignominious list of the non-performers, with a long backlog of failed subjects. It was a huge fall from grace for one who had scored cent percent in Mathematics during Pre-University.

Whenever I sat down to study or write a paper, I would become uncomfortable and get up. I would sit for hours staring at a page on Civil Engineering Structural Analysis, going over the sentences again and again, trying to grasp their meaning. This stemmed from the mistaken notion that one should always understand 100% of what one was reading. This is a recipe for failure because it is a perfectionist belief. The level of comprehension varies, depending on individuals, their mental and emotional states, health, and other factors. Most students gain an understanding of their subjects by repeated attempts. The first reading may yield apparently zero understanding, but it will improve with each repetition. When you are familiar with the basic concepts of a subject, this process will automatically speed up.

After ten minutes or so of attempting to comprehend a subject, I used to feel very uncomfortable. I had to  get up and dash off to watch a movie or binge on food. There was only one theater that showed English movies in the town nearby. I forgot my worries and phobias in the hot, stuffy hall, in the din of whizzing bullets and Jackie Chan's Kung fu stunts. It took many years for me to realise that I was experiencing deep anxiety, and was just running away from it.


The cause of  this anxiety dated back to my childhood days when I was forced to study at the threat of the rod. Added to it were the trauma of abuses and threats for studying, the tragedy of not being able to join my friends while they played, and the beatings on the exam eve. Sometimes my knuckles would have swollen to the size of cricket balls from beatings. All this stemmed from my mother's desire to make me into an engineer or a doctor. These were the only 'worthwhile' professions, in her point of view.

Fear of failure leads to stagnation
Granted, a major part of this fear of failure is contributed by factors beyond our control-child hood situations, circumstances at school and college, and ridicule from peers. Society seems hard wired to say 'No' to every new idea or concept. Ask thought leaders in a company and they will tell you of the tremendous resistance to change they face from the workforce, each time they try to bring in some innovation. Well, here it is fear of failure combined with the fear of change.

Sometimes, abundantly skilled artists and inventors fail miserably because they wouldn't, couldn't try out new ideas for fear of failure. Even when they had the confidence to try out new concepts, society adopted the most critical approach. Consider the case of Charles Franklin Kettering when he presented the electric self-starter for automobiles in 1911. This device made driving safer and much more convenient. But a prominent member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers reacted in this way: This man has profaned every fundamental law of Electrical Engineering...

No wonder we are so apprehensive of trying out creative, unconventional concepts. This fear of failure, of change seems ingrained in human society.

Overcoming the fear

So how do we break free of its strangle hold and venture out into the unexplored frontiers of our true potential?

There are several approaches:
  • Short-circuit the 'fear' response-control the Amygdala-the portion of the brain that triggers the flight response. Take things a ridiculously small bit at a time. Dr.Robert Maurer describes this process in his book  One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way One small step can change your life.  He has effectively used this to bring transformation in people apprehensive of change.
  • Techniques for silencing the chattering critic inside the brain. This includes techniques like:
  • Positive self-talk by hammering positive statements about yourself into your mind, so that it finally overrides the negative self-talk.
  • Writing daily affirmations that state an ideal image of you, with all positive qualities. You can also write affirmations stating an ideal outcome of a situation.

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