Fear Of Failure: 4 Steps To Tame It And Use It For Success

fear of failure

A guest post by James Johnson


After spiders and heights, it’s the most common fear in the world. It’s big, it’s scary, and it’s the elephant in the room with all of your new ventures and life challenges.

Truth be told? You’re not alone. Nobody enjoys failure. It’s a painful experience we resist with every fiber of our being, whether it’s for the first of the thousandth time.

Why? Because failure stinks. We don't want the feelings of shame, embarrassment, and disappointment that generally follow failure. Nor do we want criticism or judgment from others who witness our failure.

However, research has shown fear of failure is a predictor of procrastination and avoidance. It prevents us from growth, taking on new challenges, and reaching our potential in all areas of our lives.

In order to succeed, we must be willing to fail — in spite of our fears. As world-renowned author, speaker and activist Dr. Parker J. Palmer reminds, “I can have fear, but I need not be fear — if I am willing to stand someplace else in my inner landscape.” In other words, fear doesn't have to control you if you change your perspective about it.

And failure itself doesn't have to be the monster in the corner we keep at bay at all costs. In fact, without failure, we’d never learn anything. In spite of it's bad reputation, failure can be a friend to you — if you choose to see it in a different light.

So I want to teach you how to take failure in your stride. You can learn to make the most of it, recover more quickly when you do fail, and tackle the next challenge with new and valuable information your failure has provided.

Here are four steps that will help you overcome fear of failure:

Step 1: Listen To Feedback (But Don’t Take It To Heart)

First, be thankful for your critics, as they have taken their time to share their thoughts with you, and hopefully they’ve done it with your interests at heart — even, if it doesn’t feel that way when you’re first hearing it.

I once received an e-mail from a reader in Holland who pointed out to me what was wrong with my first ever blog.

“There are semantic errors everywhere.”

“You’ve made an abundance of spelling mistakes.”

“The design could use re-doing.”

“You’ll never be a top blogger with this approach.”


It stung to hear it – but it was true. I had been lazy in my editing and caught up in the rush of getting a fresh new article online as quickly as possible. This meant sometimes words were in the wrong place, or sentences just didn’t make sense. That’s not exactly a pro blogger standard to read. So, I went ahead and made the changes.

I started to do a minimum of four edits of my work.

I found a friend to proofread my blog.

I got opinions on my design, and edited it to improve the look.

It wasn’t a personal attack, it wasn’t a shouting match, and it wasn’t intended to put me off. His comments, even though they hurt to hear, were the truth I needed to confront. 

I was failing at blogging.

When it comes to your own failures, listen to the feedback you get. It might not come directly from other people — it could come from data or any other source. Pay attention to it, and try not to take it personally. Think of it as a reflection on what you need to do differently, as opposed to what you did wrong. View it as a gift, an unexpected opportunity for positive change and improvement.

Step 2: Sweat The Small Stuff

Once you’ve got your feedback, pour over the details — every last one of them. Sweat all of the small stuff you can think of that ties in to it. All the little nuts and bolts that could have been in the wrong place or not tightened up as tightly as they should have. Research has shown that one of the best ways to minimize fear of failure is through competence and positive daily habits.

A lot of the advice we get tells us not to sweat the small stuff. That's good advice when it comes to finding balance in life. But in this context, the small stuff is usually where we fall down and miss the mark. It adds up and contributes to mistakes and oversights.

My high school Rugby coach used to make us pull our socks straight and unfold the bits behind our ankles until the sock was flat against our feet. Why? Because his team couldn’t play as well if their feet were covered in blisters from folded socks.

It seems miniscule and inane but it can make a big difference to the overall outcome.

Don’t just pay attention to the big elements that went wrong. Be sure you the small things as well. Become highly competent, detail-oriented, and laser focused on improving. It's there you’ll find the most success.

Step 3: Make A Log Of Your Mistakes

When you’ve failed, keep track of what went wrong. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Why did I fail?
  • Where did I go wrong?
  • What could I do better next time?
  • Who could I ask for help?

Keep a journal or a log of the times you’ve failed, the rejection letters you’ve received, or the times your idea completely folds in on itself. It may feel depressing to write another failure in a notebook. However, putting it in writing allows you to break down your failure, understand what happened, and prevent it from happening next time. It's the beginning of a solid plan for improvement.

Never fault yourself for making mistakes. It’s an essential part of your progression and development. But you can avoid making the same mistake twice if you deal with your mistakes head-on and take quick action for improvement.

Understand it. Log it. Don’t do it again.

Step 4: Go Out and Try Again

The measure of your success is not how many times you fall off the horse, but in how many times you get back on and ride again.

When you fail more effectively and learn something new, you are compelled to try again. Don't allow your failure to go to waste or to hold you down. Apply it, try it, and change it. Then go out and challenge yourself again, armed with the knowledge you’re better than last time.

As bestselling author and motivational speaker Denis Waitley says, “Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”

You will fail at times — that is unavoidable. It happens to everyone. And more than likely, you will continue to feel fear as you attempt new challenges and opportunities in life and work. However, you can decide how you choose to respond to the fear and to any past or current failures.

You can allow fear to hold you down, to tether you to the status quo. Or you can acknowledge fear, but not become it. You can stare it down and take action in spite of fear.

You can also look your failures in the face. See what they have to offer you and teach you. Make necessary changes and adjustments and accept the gifts failure has to offer. As you become more skilled at learning from your failures and moving past them, you'll find your fear of failure becomes less and less daunting.

James is a writer, speaker and incredibly bad dancer from England. He wants to teach you how to become fearless and create your own success over on his blog. You can also find him on Twitter, or in the dark corner of a coffee shop.

photo credit: bruckerrlb via photopin

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  1. Thank you for this excellent information! I learn more and more each day that failure is not a bad thing..unless we let it take us down and prevent us from moving ahead. The tips you have here are very helpful in using failure to take the next steps productively.