You’ve Got This! How to Put Fear of Failure in Its Place


I recently accepted a new work assignment and there I was, having a junior prom moment.

Let me explain. I attended my high school junior prom with a nice young man who lived down the street. I could see his house from my parents’ upstairs bedroom window. I watched him pull out of the driveway, sat down in my long paisley gown (it was the 1970s), gripped the arms of the chair tightly, and said to my father, “I can’t do this.” I was that nervous.

I don’t remember exactly what my father said that night. I know it wasn’t one of those popular self-help slogans that somehow make you end up feeling worse: “just do it,” “feel the fear and do it anyway,” “no pain, no gain.” It was likely something very fatherly, and it did the trick. I walked downstairs, met my date, and had a nice evening. So did he. The butterflies in my stomach depressed my appetite, so when he leaned over and asked, “Are you going to eat that?” I was only too happy to share.

Back to my new assignment. The basics are things I’ve done all my professional life. Interview a subject matter expert. Check. Edit a transcript. Check. Make revisions based on client feedback. Check. The client is new and the subject matter is new, but even that didn’t seem to explain my gripping-the-armchair terror.

My father passed away a decade ago, so I turned to the 21st century expert, Google. My search on “fear of failure” returned about 57 million results in .42 seconds. I learned it has a name—atychiphobia (a-tick-e-phobia). It is closely tied to the fear of success, which also has a name—the Jonah complex—so called for the Biblical story of the Prophet Jonah, who tried to escape his destiny. Both fear of failure and fear of success can engender the “fight or flight response” that sends our pulse racing and shuts down some pretty basic functions, like digestion (hence my loss of appetite at the prom). So how do we let go of the chair and go dancing? I’m not certain if the accumulated wisdom of the internet equals that of my father’s, but here are some suggestions I hope will help.

  1. Identify your fear. Psychologists will tell us to first get to the root of our fear. It’s likely less about the specific task and more about how we feel about ourselves. Psychotherapist Tina Gilbertson suggests asking this question: “If I try and don’t succeed, everyone will know I’m­_____.” For many of us, I suspect we might answer, “an imposter.” Yes, imposter syndrome is a thing, too, and it’s especially common among high-achieving women. Maybe we’re afraid of starting something new or worried we won’t make money. When we analyze our fear, we can begin to address it.
  1. Start small. Remember that old saying, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Start by breaking a large project down into smaller, more manageable chunks. I especially like this advice from blogger Ellen Jackson. “Don’t set your sights on producing the most popular blog that ever there was. Just write a blog post and share it. Then plan the next one.” 
  1. Own your past successes. This is really important. You didn’t get where you are by being a failure. When you add up the balance sheet of your life, there are likely many more checks in the success column. Some of the best advice I’ve read about this was in a weekly newsletter from Rob Hatch, president and co-founder of Owner Media Group, Inc. He wrote about selling his house and his business, moving to a new state, and welcoming a new child into the family, all in a matter of months. If someone told him he would have to do that, he said he would have considered it his “worse nightmare.” And yet, that’s exactly what he did. And lived to tell about it. His conclusion? “You’ve been there before. You’ve made it to this point. You’ve got this.” I keep his article on my desk and refer to it often. I’ve been here before. I’ve made it to this point. I’ve got this.
  1. Find a mentor. This was advice I didn’t expect, but one that makes sense. Whether we’ve taken on a new assignment at work or decided to run our first marathon, it helps to find someone who’s been there or someone whose advice we value. There was probably never a time in my life when I felt more like an imposter than when I was a new mother! But I found a supportive ear in a nurse practitioner who manned my pediatrician’s morning call-in line, and my son is my proudest accomplishment. Find someone who is where you want to be and “pick their brain,” as the saying goes. Consider becoming a mentor yourself, perhaps to a younger or less experienced colleague. You may find yourself saying exactly what you need to hear.
  1. Give yourself permission to fail. If this sounds counterintuitive, I encourage you to listen to a wonderful TED talk on The unexpected benefit of celebrating failure by Astro Teller, the head of X (formerly Google X). At X, they reward failure. Staff are applauded. They get bonuses. They are rewarded for failing because that means they have been willing to try big ideas. When we give ourselves permission to fail, we are thinking like a scientist. We are testing hypotheses, some of which will prove true and others not. But even failed science has benefits—you likely know that the ubiquitous Post-it® brand adhesive note was invented when scientists created a glue that no one could find a use for. You may not create the next indispensable office product if your latest venture fails, but you will learn much about yourself, about what works and what doesn’t, and about what you will do differently the next time.

Just as I was preparing to submit this blog post, a quote from author Tracee Ellis Ross came across my desk. She said, “I am learning every day to allow the space between where I am and where I want to be to inspire me and not terrify me.” May we be less terrified and more inspired as we dance into our future.

Susan Milstrey Wells is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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A shift in mindset helps a lot. I was already thinking similar by the time I stumbled upon the Louder than Words podcast with Seth Godin as guest, but the guy can summarize everything neatly. We often think that people who put themselves out there by writing books, public speaking, blogging don’t have a fear of failure, but that is just not true. They treat it differently. They kind of embrace it, they do their best and don’t mind failing fast and often in order to improve. As Seth put it: the goal should not be to not write a book with a 1 star review on Amazon, it should be figuring out what to do with those reviews. So the give yourself permission to fail part is the most important one I think.