Breaking through the Fear of Failure


In the Annual Review outline, I wrote about a couple of the objections I hear from people who don’t like goal-setting:

Won’t something else come along and change my plan? and What if I end up hating the plan I’ve made?

The short answer to those questions is that neither possibility is likely to occur, but if it does, that’s OK – you simply adapt the plan to something else due to the changing circumstances. No problem.

Because it was getting long (2,500+ words), I left out one of the other main reasons why some people don’t like to set goals. That reason is fear, and more specifically, the fear of failure.

What if I try and fail?

What if it doesn’t work out?

I’d rather see what happens that be disappointed if I aim for something.

This fear is innate to every creative person I’ve ever known, but most of us tend to think we are the only ones who have it. We carry around the sneaking suspicion that we aren’t actually that good at anything, and if we try to improve ourselves through goal-setting, we’ll be exposed to the world as the frauds we secretly are.

Short-term Security vs. Long-term Achievement

At the most basic level, we face a choice whether to accept or defy the fear of failure. If we accept it, we’ll immediately receive the short-term gain of safety. No pressure, no worries.

Of course, by effectively giving up, we’ll waive our right to the long-term benefit of achieving significant goals. Thus, let’s assume you’re a fighter. You don’t want to give up. You want to defy the fear – but how so?

We have to get over this one way or the other. You can choose your antidote, but not the need to move on. The fear of failure does not go away through the athlete’s treatment of rest, ice, and elevation.

Speaking of athletics, I’ve had a leg injury for four months that has just started getting better, slowly. From August to November, I went to three doctors and one physical therapist without getting better. I was assigned cortisone shots, an MRI analysis, and lots of different exercises that I faithfully completed. For reasons I don’t understand, none of the treatments worked – or at least, if one of them worked, it required four months to take effect.

For someone who runs several times a week for fitness, de-stressing, and fun, this could not be more frustrating. Months later, I can finally run 2-4 miles every day again with no pain… but I’m scared to start adding any longer runs in. What if I start running again and my injury comes back?

In other words, what if I fail?

To counter the worry, I got out a good marathon training schedule and wrote in the mileage I’ll need to cover over the next 4-6 months to be in good enough shape to run 26.2 miles in one morning again. I’ll take it slowly and won’t overtrain, but I also won’t give in to the fear. In 2009, I hope to run at least one marathon in the summer or early fall.

I experience this kind of fear with most of the “big goals” I set, and I know I’m not alone. Jolie first started doing her own Annual Review a couple years ago (at the same time as mine), and each time she experiences the same fear of failure. “I expect it to get easier over time,” she said this year, “but it’s always a challenge to push past it.”

The key is to push past it by any means necessary. If you need someone else to be your scribe, hand them a pen. If you want to give yourself a big reward for setting and achieving goals, do it. If you have to give yourself an “out” if it doesn’t go the way you hope, that’s fine too. Giving in to the fear is really the only thing to worry about at this point.

The 20-Year View

I often think of this old adage from Mark Twain:

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

You’ve probably heard that before, but if you’re hesitating on your 2009 plan because of fear, it’s worth having it in your head.

It’s too easy to say, “Don’t be afraid.” What I would say instead, to myself and anyone who is listening, is “Don’t let the fear hold you back from greatness over the next year.”

The New Year begins tomorrow. Are you planning something amazing for 2009?


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  • kid says:

    I’m about something else: the more I read your blog, the more I like your writing. It’s so unpretentious. You are giving advice but in such a clear, factual, non-moralizing manner. When it’s so easy to get into preacher-like over-excitement in the area. Great example of simplicity in writing. And very supportive one.

  • Ketch Rudder says:

    “I’m going to do [ … ] and it’s going to be easy.”

    Say that enough times about any planned act and your mind shall make it so. Be sure to follow through and when doing so say, “Yes, I am doing [ … ] and yes, it is easy.”

  • Joann Loos says:

    I’ve had this discussion with many of my friends, especially ones who are thinking about going back to school later in life. “what happens if I don’t like it?” Quit! Do something else you like. Most choices are not set in stone. If anyone judges you about it, it’s their problem. Try anything that looks interesting to you. You’ll never know where it may lead!


  • Chris says:

    Happy New Year’s, everyone. Thank you for your comments.


    I really appreciate that! I certainly make my share of mistakes (or more than my share), so I try to be candid about it. 🙂

  • Ayprel says:

    You really hit the nail on the head with this entry Chris. The second to last semester of graduate school, I had a class called “Empowerment”. I think you would have loved that course. I disgress. We had a “Personal Change” project. Why did we have it? Well, to do social work, it is important we are able to empathize with our clients on how difficult it is to change. My personal change project was on eating less fast food so I could save money. It turned out that the reason why I was eating fast food, was because I wasn’t cooking at home… that was due to me not getting enough sleep and being too tired to cook a healthy meal. By the end of the semester, after journaling, it took self-awareness to understand the complexity of personal change.

    Fear is a huge barrier, but so is lack of self-awareness. In order to change, and grow, it is important to become self-aware. Being that you are a writer, you have a lot of time to ponder on your thoughts and feelings. If more people found a way of self-discovery i.e. consciousness awareness, then change is likely more possible.

    Setting goals is a great step, but I believe change through self-awareness, is key to reaching goals in life. Writing it out as you have stated in your previous entry on the “Annual Review” is a great tool of self-discovery. Just my two cents. 🙂

  • Lee Ann / Living Introverted says:

    You’re spot-on with this post. The key is to look your fear(s) in the eye and say, “Yes, but I’m going to give this my best shot anyway”. And then get on with it.
    Time for me to do an annual review!

  • Kathy says:

    Fear of failure is very real for so many of us. It’s scary to try new things and oh so much easier to pop on the TV and slide into oblivion rather than risk exposure.

    One of the best ways I’ve found to break through that initial fear of failure is to practice beginner’s mind. By taking on a mindset of curiosity and discovery, the fear subsides as I learn and gain confidence.

  • Parag Shah says:

    Nice article. I agree fear is so debilitating. I have faced my share of fears. Some, I have been able to overcome, and yet some are still with me.

    I think this is the second time it has happened, but you just wrote something, about which I had been thinking a couple of hours back 🙂

    Thanks for the article.

  • Ken Gregg says:

    Good post. I really like what you have been writing lately.

    I have felt that it was not so much fear of failure but fear of success that has held me back. I think we need to remember that failure to follow through or act on a goal (or to even set the goal) is as much of a failure as not achieving the goal.

  • Daniel says:

    Hi Chris:
    I thought I’d recommend a book that my wife and I read that was extremely helpful for us in addressing things like the fear of failure: It’s called “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway” by Susan Jeffers. Short, simple and one of those books you find yourself re-reading.

    It’s been a real pleasure reading your blog this year, I’m glad I discovered it. Keep doing what you’re doing and sharing it with us.


  • jkg says:

    Thanks for being my scribe.

  • Do says:


    Bonjour Chris, I’m so happy to find your website few weeks ago, by luck in the new paper (La Presse – Montréal). For me, 2008 was terrible, I was hospitalize during few months. I’m suppose to return at work next week and I don’t want to return there. I decided to give my resignation but I hesited, did I take the good decision because it’s a very well paid job. It’s not easy the quit your comfort zone after 20 years. But after I read your article, it’s clear I will not return. When I was young my dream was to travel around the world, writing and drawing. I will enjoy live during 2 or 3 months in Québec and after I will leave for a long trip. Thank you very much to motivate me.

  • Troy Tunstall says:

    There is no such thing as failure. My Knuckles were just sore. Besides it’s no fun when you just lay there and groan.

  • Pavel says:

    Thank you Chris. This is an international post. Like many of yours are 🙂

  • Pamela says:

    I am 42 years old and I have just resigned from my job as Finance Manager to pursue my dream of becoming a psychotherapist. Yes, I am very scared of all the uncertainties associated with this choice and the stakes are high. But yes, I believe the feeling of being stuck in life due to not trying will definitely be more miserable and scary than the failure resulted from trying. Thank you. I will keep reading your posts to help remind me to trust what I am doing, especially when things might get tough along the way. All the Best to everyone who is reading this and who is also fighting for their dream.

  • آبگرمکن ایستاده الکترواستیل says:

    با وجود اینکه در سال‌های اخیر استفاده از پکیج و رادیاتور متدوال‌تر از آبگرم‌کن بوده است، اما هنوز عده‌ای تمایل به استفاده از آبگرم‌کن برای فراهم کردن آب گرم مورد نیاز خود دارند. البته با توجه ارتقاء امکانات و بهتر شدن عملکرد آبگرم‌کن‌ها این امری کاملا
    عادی است که شما ترجیح دهید خودتان بتوانید هرزمان دلتان خواست شبکه آب گرم‌تان را کنترل کنید و دیگر متصل به یک شبکه مرکزی نباشید.

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