The Fear of Failure

2/10/11

I was lucky enough to make the varsity basketball team my freshman year in high school. It was a dream come true. Overnight, I got all the attention and popularity a young 15-year old can handle before the head explodes.

The Senior

I knew I wouldn’t get much playing time in the varsity games but I wasn’t afraid to be aggressive in practice. I wanted to help the team the best I could.

There was a Senior on the team who was a really good player. He played college ball and went on to play professionally overseas. Unfortunately, he was also a major jerk.

This Senior made basketball practice a living nightmare for me.

If I turned the ball over — he’d yell at me. If I missed a jumper — he’d yell at me. If I got stuffed taking the ball to the rack — he’d yell at me. He got on my case for every little mistake I made.

I quickly became just a warm body out on the court — just taking up space. I’d get the ball and look to pass immediately. I was afraid to even just dribble. I didn’t wanna get yelled at. My nickname became “not-a-factor.” Everyone knew I wasn’t gonna try anything.

I was terrified of doing anything wrong. I was afraid to fail.

The Pattern

I hear of this type of thing happening far too often. Teams. Groups. Organizations. Companies. Whatever. Doesn’t matter what the setting or industry or profession — it happens all the time.

You aggressively go out on a limb to create something remarkable. You take a risk. You attempt the impossible or unproven.

There’s just one small problem… it doesn’t pan out. It doesn’t work. It fails.

The Senior (maybe a manager, a coworker, a teammate, a boss) isn’t pleased. He gets on your case. He says things like, “How bout we just stick to what we know works” or “Let’s get more data or do more research before we try something like that again.”

You keep trying new things but the resistance grows stronger with each failed attempt. You become discouraged, disappointed, disheartened. Though not always explicit, the message becomes loud and clear: stop trying new things.

So you do. You stop attempting. You stop pushing the envelope. Boo. Boo. Boo. Triple boo.

The Environment

Any environment where creativity, innovation and calculated “risk taking” isn’t embraced is an environment from which you should run far, far away. There won’t be progress. There won’t be happiness. Just static nothingness. Paper pushing all day. Bleh.

Everyone gives lip service to letting their team try new things. The true test isn’t in how the organization responds to the idea of innovation and creativity. Rather, it’s how the organization responds to failure. Does your organization embrace failure like it does victory? Does the team feel encouraged to try, try and try again — even when previous attempts failed?

The Solution

There’s no easy solution if you’re caught in this rut of an environment. You can either quit and find a better environment or you can keep persisting. Keep going. Keep trying. Keep believing.

You may not be the oldest. You may not be the most experienced. You may not be the smartest. The one thing that you do have that most don’t: guts to try. Most people are content watching from the sidelines or bleachers. You be the Man in the Arena.

I’m reminded of this with a special bookmark I have. My father gave it to me while in high school. It’s a simple index card etched with the handwritten words, “Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t be afraid of being special.”

Embrace your failures. Let them pepper your path to greatness.

“Ships are safe at harbor, but that’s not what ships are built for.”

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