What's holding you back? Overcoming fear of failure

Early in my career, I was hesitant to speak up in meetings. As the only woman in the room, I felt I couldn’t open my mouth unless I was 100% certain that what I said would be correct, valuable, and that no holes could be shot through anything I said.

After all, I was not only speaking for myself, but for all the other women who were not in the room. This meant there were several times when I did not open my mouth.

This was especially frustrating since I knew I was holding myself to a double standard. Many of the men around the table talked when they had nothing valuable to add. Some gave opinions instead of facts, and others repeated whatever the highest-level person in the room said.

It’s so important to get comfortable owning your opinion, having the confidence to speak up, and knowing you have valuable input. Not speaking in a meeting can also hold you back in your career, as can being afraid to take risks.

Outgrowing risk aversion

I have no regrets in my career, but I do have to laugh at my early aversion to risk.

While I was a young SE, a new young company, Microsoft, was growing rapidly and recruiting employees from HP. Several of my male colleagues interviewed there, accepted offers, and encouraged me to join them. My first question was about the salary to which they answered it was way lower than the HP salaries, but they were offering stock.

This was the mid 1980’s in the early days of the personal computer. Who knew where technology was going and if Microsoft would be a viable company? My doubts and low risk tolerance prevented me from applying for a job there. The joke was on me when all of my friends that left HP and went there retired just a few years later with a more-than-comfortable financial cushion!

In The Confidence Code, authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman propose that it’s confidence more than competence that generally leads to our results.

Their words echo my own observations that fear of failure is our biggest internal limiting factor: “If you choose not to act, you have little chance of success. What’s more, when you choose to act, you’re able to succeed more frequently than you think. How often in life do we avoid doing something because we think we’ll fail? Is failure really worse than doing nothing? And how often might we actually have triumphed if we had just decided to give it a try?”

Since we are human, we will make mistakes, face obstacles, and stumble. The goal is to learn from them, try not to repeat them, and to be stronger and more resilient as a result. The worst thing we can do is to be paralyzed so much by a fear of failure that we never try anything new. When we fail we can pull from a range of reactions from disbelief to acceptance, and from defeat to motivation.

Try to not get hung up on failures

While it is valuable to look introspectively to understand what you could have done differently or better, it is not helpful to ruminate ad nauseam. At some point, it’s time to move on and find the motivation to try again, and even to use that failure as motivation to grow and learn. Some people thrive in this environment of uncertainty while others try to avoid failure at all costs.

Sara Blakely, the founder and CEO of Spanx, talks about the culture of making failure something to strive for, not avoid. “Blakely says her father, a trial attorney, would consistently ask her and her brother a simple question at the family dinner table in Clearwater, Florida: “What have you failed this week?” “If I didn’t have something that I had failed at, he actually would be disappointed.””

When things do not turn out as hoped for, women tend to internalize the blame and fault themselves where men typically find fault in the system or place the blame on external forces.

In The Confidence Code, the authors cite Victoria Brescoll’s work about gender differences in how students react when seeking their first job: “When a young man applies for a position and doesn’t get it, she says, his reaction is to blame the process. The woman’s automatic reaction is personal.”

The authors go on to ask “In both these cases, who’s more likely to try again?” and point out that in blaming external factors confidence can remain intact.

This point is worth repeating. If you view a failure as a personal shortcoming, shame, embarrassment, and other negative connotations become associated with the event.  These powerful emotions make it less likely you’ll want to repeat that experience.

But, if you can set aside the personal judgement and reframe the failure as a learning opportunity, it becomes less a matter of avoiding it at all costs.

How do you handle failure?

I’ve watched many people respond to failure with grace, and some that have completely melted down. The meltdowns are the ones that stick with me even years after the fact. These are strong lessons in what not to do.

One example happened after a high performing woman colleague interviewed for a manager position that she didn’t get. She immediately started bad-mouthing the person that got it.

The whole office heard her complaints: “He was owed some favors.” “I was more qualified.” “It was decided before we even interviewed.”

It was sad to watch a top candidate for a management position fall into this blame trap.  She took herself out of the running for future promotions after exhibiting such immature behavior. And her actions and attitude only served to solidify the hiring decision since judgement is a foundational characteristic for management positions.

Of course it’s natural to be frustrated if you don’t get what you’ve just poured weeks of energy into striving for, just don’t show that negative side at work. Take a deep breath. Go for a walk or leave work. Talk to a friend, family, or another “safe” person who can remind you of all of your positive assets and listen to you vent.

You may want to ask a few members of the interview panel for candid feedback. Don’t respond to whatever they say in the moment, just take notes and thank them. Think about their specifics for a few days. Talking this over with a mentor can help you prioritize which items you want to address.  

There is also a peer aspect related to failure. I have talked to people who are hesitant to apply for opportunities because they feel they will be embarrassed in front of their colleagues if they do not get their desired goal. I have never found this to be the case. Rather, my experience is that peers are generally supportive, and everyone is typically wrapped up in their own universe, not yours.

You might be completely consumed by the fact that you did not get a job, but most likely you will be the only one. Odds are no one else will hold it against you, remember this as a massive failure, or think any less of you because of it.

When we think all eyes are on us, this behavior is called the Spotlight Effect. A good summary comes from Social Psychology Online:

“When you feel embarrassed, it consumes all of your attention, and you assume that everyone else is focused on what you are focused on. If it doesn’t concern you, though, you don’t leap to the conclusion that everyone else is paying attention to it.

So when you catch yourself thinking that everyone is paying attention to something you did, ask yourself: “is it just because I’m obsessing about it?” The reality is that all those other people who you think are paying attention to you are actually concerned with their own behavior and think you’re paying close attention to them.”

Rewire your brain to think positively

The authors in The Confidence Code suggest a more positive response to negative self-talk. They suggest a tactic to “rewire the brain and break the negative feedback loop” by consciously identifying positive accomplishments and deliberately naming achievements and accomplishments.

Whether not getting a promotion, losing a sale, or missing a deadline, there are always going to be bumps in the road. It is important to be aware that you are being observed by management, especially during such challenging times.

We all have to deal with setbacks whether we caused them or are simply reacting to them. Even on these challenging days, it’s critical to come to work each day with a positive attitude, committed to deliver the best results possible. Sometimes we need to ‘fake it until you make it’ or use other tricks to keep moving forward.

In fact, learning by doing is a millennia-long approach that espouses the best way to mastery is through experience and not by reading about it, watching someone else do it, or through instruction. The principle is that through experience, you can better absorb and apply what you are learning.

Developing a learning mindset becomes an even more important concept considering the speed of technological innovation. As new technologies are being developed, the need for people to design, build, sell, and support solutions will outpace formal education.

Additionally, we learn from our own errors. Janet Metcalfe of Columbia University stresses that we should be encouraging making errors vs. doing anything and everything to prevent them. Her studies demonstrate that “…making errors can greatly facilitate new learning. Errors enhance later memory for and generation of the correct responses, facilitate active learning, stimulate the learner to direct attention appropriately…”

Figure out what you can learn from each experience and what you can do to be a stronger contender when the next opportunity comes up. Keep your long-term career in mind, and do not take one setback personally. Actively work on replacing your internal talk track and identify a few things you are grateful for and that you were able to do that day or week– no matter how seemingly small of insignificant they may seem.

Imagine how many more opportunities would we have to consider and experiences would we be able to enjoy if we could reframe risk taking (responsibly!) and failure as positives to be explored and not as negatives to be avoided at all costs.

What would you try next if fear of failure wasn’t holding you back?