When it comes to business, fear of failure is a severely limiting characteristic that is unfortunately all too common, especially among those new to their industry or consultancy in general. Everyone experiences fear of failure but when you don’t get the better of it, it can dictate how you live your life and hold you back from making important career choices because you are afraid of things going terribly wrong.I often see young fresh-faced consultants, full of technical skills and enthusiasm, but so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they sometimes morph into part of the furniture. Even some of the more experienced are affected by anxiety and start sweating at the idea of speaking up in meetings, scared of upsetting someone, or just simply anxious at the thought of sticking their neck out in case it all goes wrong.
Saw a job offer for a better paying or more interesting job? Better not risk it, what if they laugh at you and you leave with your spirit broken and your tail between your legs. Think that you should be earning more and wish you had the guts to ask your boss for a raise? Better not rock the boat, what if he gets annoyed at the cheek of you even asking and thinks you are ungrateful?
Let me play devil’s advocate here for a second and ask: so… what?
Yes fear is a very real emotion and in evolutionary terms it has protected us for eons. It leads to a very quick decision in a life or death situation. The lizard part of your brain goes into hyperdrive and makes you go for the safest possible solution. Seen a big scary animal somewhere in the distance? Quickly go jump and hide behind that rock. Very useful in pre-historic times, not so useful when it leads to social anxiety and means you hide behind the water cooler every time a board member walks past just so we don’t have to awkwardly say “hi” and do that weird half-smile while not knowing what to do with our hands. We never lost that primal instinct when we left the African savannah and moved into the safe, boring modern suburbs yet we are still paralysed by fear and shy away from real growth. Fear of failure ties in with this fear of moving away from the safety of the status quo and sticking with what you know is safe.
But in the modern world, where we are surrounded by mostly non-hostile environments, how do you conquer this fear of failure? How do you stop imagining the worst that could possibly happen and remind yourself that there is no reason to fear for your life when in relatively harmless business situations?
A lot of our limiting beliefs stem from our childhoods and how secure and loved we felt in them. So colleagues who have grown up with very loving and supportive parents have an advantage over us here. However overcoming unhelpful and limiting fears is not insurmountable. Yes for some aspects of it you may need to consider therapy. But always imagining the worst case scenarios can be un-trained from your brain. You don’t need to let it hold you back. The best way of doing this is to jump over your shadow and just do what you are afraid of.
Admittedly that is easier said than done. So start small. Start with something that has very little chance of leading to life changing consequences whether it goes right or wrong. Speak up when you wish you could. Ignore that inner critic who says you should stick with what you know and not risk getting into scarily unfamiliar waters. Don’t let yourself dwell on it for too long and just go for it. Slowly but surely you will retrain your brain to be more accepting of risks and you will stop thinking of 10 different painful deaths from embarrassment that could (but won’t) occur if you did what you are about to do. What if it goes right? What if through some kind of miracle you don’t get hit by lighting, people listen to you, or that person says yes to what you are proposing?
People tend to not regret the things they did when they were younger. They only regret the things they wish they did but didn’t have the courage to do. Wasted chances, months or sometimes even years wasted on the wrong person, wrong job or in unhappy circumstances all because you were afraid to just say “fuck it” and go for it.
What’s the worst that could happen? Answer honestly. You ask your boss for a raise. He says no. You’re disappointed, you go home and open up a beer. You sit down and you think about how you can change his mind when you ask again in a few months. The end. Nobody died, you didn’t get fired and your “failure” is not a negative result. Instead it made you reflect inwards, think about why he said no, and how you can better yourself. This will ultimately result in you making positive changes to your life and your career, learning new skills or maybe putting in more effort in your day job or picking up a new hobby that will up-skill you in the right way.
You need to realise that you don’t get to the top by constantly imagining yourself failing miserably. Instead, you take a deep breath, steady your voice and you try. And when you fail, you dust yourself off and try again. Nothing disastrously bad is going to happen. Anxious neurotic people don’t instill confidence in their peers. Instead we admire those who – sometimes even foolishly – throw caution to the wind and just go for it. For the sake of it. Because they want to. Because: why not. They do their best, and even if it is not good enough that time, it means they now know their limit and can start making improvements.
Real growth is built on countless small mistakes. A famous saying goes, the master has failed more times than the student has even tried. Nobody achieves their dreams on the first try every single time they try something new across all of life’s aspects: career, marriage, hobbies, sports, gardening… Nobody is perfect at everything. Everyone, even that guru you have admired since you were little, is bad at something and that thing they are now great at had to be learnt slowly and painfully over a long, long time. You only grow and learn when you fail because it shows you how to better yourself.
So speak up in that meeting. Go ask that girl in that bar out for a date. Ask your boss for a promotion. Go for that job you have always wanted but thought you were not qualified enough for. Because the only thing that will happen if it doesn’t go to plan is that you will have learnt an important lesson on how to be better for your next try. For all you know, your wildest dreams might just come true. And sometimes that’s almost scarier than the thought of failure.