I recently read an article posted at the Engineering Leadership LinkedIn Group.
In the article, the author stated fear of failure “is something like a bad heritage from our ancestors”.
I shared the following thoughts...
What an interesting viewpoint…genetic predisposition to fear failure…
Certainly we are born with the ‘ability to fear’. [We see evidence of that when newborns respond to loud noises.]
But, are we born with a predisposition to ‘fear failure’?
I mean, are we genetically wired to fear failure?
Or, do we learn to fear failure?
To the extent we accept we learn to fear failure we can be confident we can reverse that learning and learn to not fear failure.
To the extent we accept we are hard-wired to fear failure we are less confident about our ability to overcome the fear of failure.
I prefer to believe we are born with the ability to fear and our reactions to life experiences determine the role fear plays in our lives.
I believe about 25% of people are predisposed to be natural-born optimists, 25% of people are predisposed to be natural-born pessimists, and the remaining 50% are predisposed to be middle-of-the-road optimist-pessimists. I also believe those who are not natural-born optimists can increase their level of optimism if they choose to work at it.
If our experiences have caused us to fear failure then we can remedy that if we want to and are prepared to work at it. To remove fear of failure we must first take steps to understand the specifics about our fears of failure, which may be quite different than the fears of failure experienced by others. We cannot fix our overall fear of failure so we must isolate each specific fear of failure and work on one at a time. When we work on a single fear of failure, we need to take baby steps of action aimed in the direction of the failure we fear.
As an example, consider the fear of failing at Public Speaking.
Many people fear public speaking because they, for one reason or another, believe they will fail when they 'public speak'. They believe their public-speaking failure will be accompanied by negatives such as criticism or ridicule and those negatives will lead to embarrassment or loss of stature or some other form of pain. To overcome this fear of failure, the person needs to experience a small success tied to performing a small act of speaking in public. This first step can be done very easily. Here's how: take the person to lunch and ask a simple question...any simple question will do...for example, you can ask "What do you think of the weather?" When the person answers the question, bring it to his or her attention that he or she just public spoke without experiencing any fear or any failure. Compliment the person on his or her public speaking success. Then progress the public-speaking activity slowly...building on that first, small, positive, successful step.
NOTE: There is no need to send the fearful person to a public-speaking course. In fact, that would be a mistake, a particularly damaging mistake if it is done early in the process of overcoming the fear. To overcome fear of failure, people need to experience small doses of exposure to the feared task and experience small successful actions. This is especially important during the early steps of change...when sensitivities will be running high. And, to maximize your ability to help - lighten it up...use your positive personality...and a little properly placed humour will guide attention in constructive directions and help reduce negative feelings such as anxiety.