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There’s a word for it: “atychiphobia”—the fear of failure.
Fear of failure keeps us from being exceptional.
It keeps us from doing the things we really want to do in the world. It keeps us stuck in mediocre.
It is the number one reason that many of our goals and dreams remain unachieved. It’s bad. And so many of us suffer from it.
If we take a good look, the fear of failure is really the fear of losing something. When we are making the decision to try something new, we are weighing that potential loss against the potential reward.
Perhaps we want to try a new business idea but we are afraid we are going to lose our investment. Or maybe we want to move to a new city but we are afraid we won’t make any new friends and we’ll lose our support system. Or it could be something small like wanting to try a new hairstyle and being afraid we are going to lose the approval of our peers.
We want to apply for a really amazing job but we are afraid that we will be rejected and lose some of our self-esteem. We are afraid of losing something that is important to us.
If the loss feels too great, we decide that the reward is just not that important. And we don’t take the risk. And we remain just where we are.
We choose safety and mediocrity over standing out—which is not what exceptional is about.
This fear of failure is learned at an early age. Our parents and schools condition us to believe that failure is bad. If we fail at something, we are rarely congratulated for all of our creativity and hard work and determination and outside-the-box thinking. We are, at best, guided to how we can do better next time, and, at worst, shamed and punished.
My own belief about failure developed on my first day of kindergarten. We had to color in a picture, and we were asked to write our initials on the back.
Well, I knew my middle name, and I used the initial. I wrote “E.C.H.” on the back of my paper with beautifully formed letters in green crayon. I guess we must have handed the pages in and then got them back at the end of the day. The teacher was able to figure out all of the children’s initials until she got to mine.
“Ech,” she said. “Who is Ech? I asked for your initials children, not your names or nicknames!”
I can still remember today how I wanted my chair to swallow me up. You can bet I didn’t raise my hand and claim my paper! I slunk out of the classroom with tears in my big brown eyes and never, ever again did I do anything in school without checking with the kids next to me! And while I created some pretty exceptional things in my years at school, they were all at the prodding of my parents. Every time I handed one of them in, my heart was in my throat for fear that I would stand out from my classmates and be filled with shame about how I had failed.
I didn’t care at all about standing out for creating something exceptional; I far preferred safe and mediocre. I just wanted to hand in what everyone else did.
When we develop this belief that failure is bad, we stop following our heart and we make decisions based not on our true desires but on what has been proven to work. We are so afraid of failing that we don’t take our own path; we follow the one that everyone else is taking. We look around and make sure that we are not standing out. Because that could be bad.
But you know what happens when we follow the path that everyone else is taking? The safe path? We get the same safe result that everyone else gets.
But what if we don’t want the same result? What if we want to create something exceptional? What if we want to live a life being true to our insights and opinions and creativity? What if we want to stand out—in a good way?
Then we need to be willing to fail. We need to let go of the expectation of a particular result; we need to be willing to experiment.
We need to stand out. Period.
And to do that, we have to embrace failure as a good thing.
I recently heard that in order to be an exceptional success, you can expect to be failing between 25 and 50 percent of the time! On inventing the light bulb, Thomas Edison wisely said, “I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”
We must look at failures as opportunities to learn instead of the sign to stop trying.
Being exceptional is not about getting things right the first time. It is about learning from our failures and figuring out what to do differently the next time. It is about being determined to keep making progress.
If you are not failing, you are not taking enough risks. Taking risks is how you will create something exceptional.
Yes, you will create some real disasters too.
Remember Thomas Edison? And not just Edison; Henry Ford went bankrupt five times before creating his successful auto company. Sigmund Freud was booed off the stage during his first speech but locked himself in his office and kept writing. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team but headed back in to the gym and trained harder.
These greats, and so many more, embraced the idea that failure is part of being exceptional. They did not view the losses of money or approval or time that may come with failure as anything other than steps on the journey to exceptional.
They did not have the expectation that everything they did needed to be a winner. They were excited to learn and experiment and grow. They were not afraid of anything—except perhaps never living up to their full potential.
I encourage you to question your beliefs about failure. Write down everything you believe about failure and then decide if it is really true. I think you will be surprised!
Use what you discover to create a new set of beliefs about failure.
Instead of looking at failure as the loss of something, look at it as gaining a step forward in your journey. Your journey to exceptional.
Elyse Hudacsko is the author of My Life, My Way: How to Make Exceptional Decisions About College, Career, and Life.