How to Keep Fear of Failure from Holding You Back (Including the Little Known Stories of Billionaires’ Biggest Failures)

Fear of Failure

(Guest post: Devon Campbell)

What’s the next step you want to take in your life? Do you want to start a business? Do you want to try freelancing? Do you want to learn a new skill?

Now, think about what’s keeping you from taking this next step. If you’re like many others in your shoes, the answer to that question is often fear. If not now, at some point in future, you’ll be your own worst enemy when it comes time to push forward. Your fear will stand in the way and hold you back.

Everyone fails, even the greatest artists, athletes, and entrepreneurs. Most of us realize this, even if we push it to the back of our conscious minds. So, why do we still fear failing so much?

Featured Download:  Download the little known stories of the 4 Billionaires’ biggest failures

Passing the Test

Much of the way we see the world as adults (particularly as young adults) is colored by our childhood education. We’re trained five days a week, nine months a year for 12 years or more to see things a certain way.

In this world, failure is a mark against you. Your grades are the measure of your academic worth, and every failure makes those numbers dip lower and lower. If you had the option to take fewer tests and do less scored work in school—assuming your grades are reasonably good to start with—it would be to your advantage to do so. Having no chance to succeed is preferable to having any chance to fail.

how to keep fear of failure from holding you back

I took my daughter to have her eyes examined. She’s been having trouble with her vision and comes from a long line of people with sub-optimal vision. My genes have doomed her to a life with glasses.

During the exam, she clammed up and wouldn’t say anything. As a result, the doctor couldn’t get her a very accurate prescription and we ended up back in the same office a month later to try again.

After the appointment, I reflected on why she didn’t want to talk. Why wouldn’t she want to improve her eyes? My mind landed on the word “test.” What does that word mean to a nine-year old girl?

In the adult world, a “test” is often a tool we use to determine someone’s progress along a process. I understand that a vision test doesn’t measure my worth against someone else who has taken the same test. It’s an acknowledgement that human sight gets slowly worse and a tool to figure out how to correct my vision based on how bad mine has gotten up to this point. Who cares how everyone else sees? I’m testing my eyes to understand how to improve my vision.

That’s much more difficult if you live in a world where each test has much different ramifications. A test affects your grade which is a handy number that can tell you which kids are smart and which kids aren’t. This will determine who gets top honors at the end of the year. Later, it will determine who is accepted to college or who gets scholarships. Once you get past post-secondary education, the importance of the grade immediately falls off when you go searching for jobs. It’s a very concrete example of the evolving role of tests in our lives.

How do we work through this idea of failure as something to be avoided at all costs that has been ingrained in us almost since we were able to talk?

Transcending Failure-phobia*

Have you ever wanted to write a business book? Here’s a formula you can use to write your own and sell 100,000 copies. I won’t even try to claim any royalties or anything like that. Consider this a freebie.

First of all, start running a business. Second, make tons of mistakes and write them down. When you hit upon the thing that works at the end of your series of mistakes, record that one too. Congratulations! Your book is done.

The advice you see in business books or self-help books comes from failure. Each thing the author tells you not to do is likely something the author tried that failed. Sometimes, that’s presented in a very concrete way with a supporting anecdote about exactly how the failure occurred, but, even when they don’t tell you outright, that’s almost always where the advice comes from.

Quote on failure Richard BransonFeatured Download: Download the little known stories of the 4 Billionaires’ biggest failures

These people we look up to, who have done amazing things and brought about important change in our world, are nothing more than long strands of failure with a success or two at the end. The reason for this is not simply that the failure is more likely so you’ll have to try more times for the success. The likelihood of the success hinges upon the learning that happens in the failures. Being willing to fail is the most important trait that contributes to having success.

In my consultancy, this is something I struggle with every single day as I price my services, submit proposals, and give prospective clients advice. What if they think I’m stupid? What if they think I’m too expensive? This is powerful motivation not to try because those doubts hurt.

I’ve found they’re mostly inside of me, though, and they’re not reflective of what my clients are thinking. Someone once told me that, in order to be an expert, you only need to be one lesson ahead. If you have even a modicum of skill at what you do, you’re many lessons ahead of at least a hundred thousand prospective clients who could benefit greatly from the insight you can offer them.

This means that you’re not stupid, particularly in your area of expertise and measured against the clients who are seeking your help. It also means you are valuable. By reasoning this out with myself, I’ve addressed both of my failure concerns.

This introspection is tough and it doesn’t come naturally. How can we condition ourselves to tolerate failure?

Practice Makes Perfect

Practice and failure

“Practice.” The word itself is a monument to failure. The concept is that, if you fail at something often enough, you’ll learn to succeed. I’ve established the importance of failure to future success, so my next ask shouldn’t surprise you: practice failing.

Life presents no shortage of opportunities for this, and they don’t stop at business. Travel to places that are much different from your home. Try to learn a new skill like guitar or mountain biking. Participate in a trivia night. Take an improv class. One idea underlies all these examples: get outside your comfort zone.

If failure is so important and people are not good at it, we all need to go out into the world and fail at failing until we learn to succeed at it. In doing so, both your failures and your unintentional successes will reveal new opportunities. Once you’re a practiced failure, once the sting of failure is not quite so sharp, your freelancing goals will finally be within your grasp.

* The word for fear of failure is actually “atychiphobia,” but I went with something simpler because who’s ever heard of “atychiphobia?”


Devon CampbellDevon Campbell is a freelancer, entrepreneur, and family man in Knoxville, Tennessee. He runs a web development consultancy, RadWorks, and recently started PowerUp Games to help independent game developers market their games.

2 comments… add one
  • Kelly Shipe August 23, 2015, 5:08 pm

    If you want the job done right… Devon Campbell is the man. Thank you for sharing this information.


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