Blame your inner cavewoman
Why do we fear failure? Psychologically our primal brains are programmed to be risk averse. In order to keep ourselves safe, this part of the brain activates when things are scary or unknown to protect us from potential danger or loss and research shows that we usually gravitate towards the path of least harm in our decision-making. In addition to this neurological hardwiring, our formative experiences may make us even more risk-averse. From an early age we are warned to avoid things or experiences that may cause us harm and we are shown that there could be unfavourable outcomes to certain actions. We are primed to grow up wary, to avoid negative consequences and to fear failure.
That seemingly innate reluctance to fail sometimes prevents us from taking positive action. Many of us will have experienced at least one time in our lives or law careers when we have side-stepped an important issue in order to avoid making a decision (read more about the problems we have with decision-making here), or ‘accidentally on purpose’ left it too late to do something we are scared of doing. But by letting this fear of failure affect some of your decisions and actions in this way, you could be negatively impacting your potential for career success.
1. It makes you reluctant to take on new challenges.
Fear of failure makes you avoid getting involved in situations where your skills are untested or the outcome is uncertain. Perhaps you stay in a job because you know you could do it with your eyes shut, even if it is unfulfilling – or resist going for a promotion because you might not get it – and even if you do, you think you might not be any good in a new and more demanding role. Your fear of the unknown could be stifling your potential.
2. It makes you self-sabotage when you need to take action or make a decision.
Fear of failure can make you procrastinate or get distracted by unimportant tasks to prevent yourself from properly completing a more challenging project. Perhaps you even feel physically ill when faced with a demanding task so that sometimes you may not be able to continue with it. (Have a look at further research on the role of procrastination in the fear of failure here.)
3. It gives you poor self esteem and affects your confidence.
Fear of failure makes you approach new situations negatively and tentatively. You might tell people around you that you’ll ‘never get that promotion’ or maybe you don’t try your hardest at a task because you want to lower expectations and reduce the ‘painful’ impact of potential failure. Failing when you dared to hope that you might succeed or when you’ve put in maximum effort has got to hurt a lot more than failing when you and everyone else expects you to, right?
4. It prevents you from setting big goals.
Fear of failure makes you feel that giving yourself audacious targets is merely setting yourself up for disappointment on a lifetime scale. What is the likelihood of you becoming partner in a top male-dominated law firm? The way you see it, if you don’t make any challenging goals for yourself, you can’t fail. Simple!
If you recognise these behaviours in yourself, it’s likely that your fear of failure is currently stopping you from achieving your true potential. Don’t panic just yet though – acknowledging your fear is the first step on the road towards overcoming it. If you can look to the root causes of your feelings and start to understand how your brain’s instinctive protective responses to new situations or your childhood experiences might be impeding your ability to make positive decisions and move forward in life, you are well on the way to neutralising the ‘power’ that the fear of failure has over you. Your ‘thinking’ brain will win out against the primal brain if you give it half a chance and this will free your ‘inner’ self to pursue what it really wants and values instead of being a slave to knee-jerk reactions. Then, not only will you be able to vanquish the fear of failure, but you will also begin to see failures for what they really are – stepping stones on the way to success. You will begin to understand that failures can be learning experiences and that they can motivate you to try harder and to improve. You will see that failure can make you more resilient – and more human! Everyone fails at some point – failing is part of the human condition and connects you emotionally to other people.
“Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.”
– C. S. Lewis
It’s not failure per se that stops you from achieving your goals, it’s the fear of it. Experiencing failures, learning from them and continuing on your path is how you fulfil your potential. Listen to my new podcast on the subject here, and check out this article which lists 8 useful TED talks to help you start overcoming that fear. Don’t forget to let me know how you get on!
Are you ready to change the way you view failure? To find out how failure can be a source of strength, tune into Episode 4 of the Babyproof Your Career Podcast:
Caroline Flanagan is a Keynote Speaker, Babyproof Coach and Author of Babyproof Your Career, The Secret to Balancing Work and Family so you can Enjoy It All. Caroline believes passionately in the dream of having it all, and founded Babyproof Your Life to train and prepare ambitious career women for the marathon of working parenthood so they can find their own way to #enjoyitall and #makeitwork. You can reach Caroline at firstname.lastname@example.org