Facing the Fear of Failure
In her TED talk on Six Keys to Leading Positive Change, Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter says, “Everything looks like a failure in the middle.” According to Kanter, there’s almost nothing we start that doesn’t hit an obstacle that requires us to go back to the drawing board.
On the one hand, this is discouraging; who wants to deal with obstacles? On the other hand, it’s reassuring to be able to anticipate that in any important undertaking, there’s likely to be a bump in the road.
Of course, it’s easy to view that bump in the road as failure. But it’s impossible to live a life without making mistakes, doing things wrong, and just plain screwing up. Some people view the very prospect of screwing up with dread, but if we’re going to grow and improve, we have to go beyond our comfort zones. When we focus on being perfect, we avoid taking chances and trying new things.
The reality is that failure is inevitable. So if you fear it, try to shift your mindset and give yourself permission to screw up. When you try something new or different, accept that you will likely make mistakes. Compare your performance not to anyone else’s, but only to your own past performance. And when you get stuck, seek help from others.
Of course, some realms, such as nonprofits and social enterprises, experience failure on a regular basis. It was these very failures that led to a conference called FailFaire to enable people in the field of social change to talk about their setbacks and learn from each other.
Of course, IT is not without its failures (alas, lots of them!), and the Standish Group report is replete with statistics on software project failures. Fortunately, the software industry has its own plethora of conferences—including those put on by SQE, the sponsor of these articles—at which people can learn from each other.
On a personal level, our best bet in coping with the fear of failure is to stop being our own worst enemies. We have to avoid overwhelming ourselves with so many details that we get bogged down in “analysis paralysis.”
To avoid the fear of failure, know the warning signs, such as procrastination and negative self-talk. Ignore the little voice in your head that rants about how others will see your failure. Focus on key milestones—not the end point, just the next series of steps!
And if you’re going to fail, fail well. Indeed, among leadership guru Dan Rockwell’s ten tips for failing well are to respond with optimism rather than anger, share lessons learned from failure, and find ways that failure made you better.