Over the years as a coach, I’ve heard hundreds of people’s deepest desires for their career and their life.
I’ve listened to stories of people not pursuing career changes, business ideas, cross-country moves, higher education, artistic pursuits, and so many other possibilities for years, sometimes decades of their lives.
Sometimes when I’m out at the grocery store, or at the gym, or out to dinner, I’ll look around and wonder, “How many of these people also have secret dreams and desires that they’re not acting on?”
I think it might break my heart to know the answer.
If you ask these people why they’re not going after something they deeply want, they’ll likely have quick answers ready for you:
“I need to save up more money before I do that,” or “I want to hit this milestone before I get started,” or “I’ve got to do more research first,” or “I tried it once before and it didn’t work out, so I guess it’s not meant to be.”
Or (the most heartbreaking of all) “That’s not realistic, so why bother trying?”
While these responses might help you rationalize to yourself why you’re not going after something you want … 99% of the time they’re simply the surface-level excuses covering up the real reason you’re not taking action:
FEAR OF FAILURE
It’s scary to go after something you deeply want — anything from asking someone on a date, to starting your own business, to trying a new creative project — with no guarantee that it’ll turn out well.
You might get rejected, lose money, feel embarrassed, let someone down (including yourself), or regret a decision — in essence, you may epically fail. And that’s terrifying!
It’s no wonder so many of us choose to live out our dreams in the safety of our minds (or try to ignore them completely), instead of going after them in the real world where they may come crashing down around us.
The problem is, while you may feel more comfortable in the short-term by indefinitely postponing your dreams, you’re setting yourself up for exponentially more discomfort and regret in the long-term.
THINK OF YOURSELF AS A TODDLER
Author and blogger Mark Manson has the perfect analogy to give us all a much-needed reality check about our fear of failure.
He reminds us that, when toddlers are first learning to walk, they fall down constantly. But they don’t think, “Man, I keep falling, so I guess this whole walking thing just isn’t for me. I’ll just give up and crawl everywhere for the rest of my life.”
Nope, they just get up and try taking a few more steps. And eventually, they fall less and less often until they’re racing around the house as fast as their little legs can carry them.
Not to compare myself to a one-year-old, but … when Rachel and I were first starting Clarity on Fire, I felt a lot like that stubborn toddler determined to walk, despite hardly being able to stand up on unsteady legs.
In that first year of business, I can’t count the number of times I got asked different versions of the same question: “What will you do if this business doesn’t work out?”
My answer? Well, I didn’t really have an answer. For better or for worse, I didn’t have a Plan B. I simply told them, “I’m just going to keep doing this until it does work.”
That didn’t mean I wasn’t afraid we would fail. In fact, we’d already failed at all kinds of things we’d tried in business, and I had no doubt that we would fail many more times.
It’s just that I had the same stubborn mentality as that toddler. I knew that, if I stumbled and failed enough, eventually I’d learn to walk … or, in this case, build a business that actually made money and helped lots of people.
The real failure, in my mind, was to give up trying.
DON’T LET YOUR FEAR LEAD TO SOUL DEATH
If reading this is giving you that “oh crap, this is ringing a little too close to home” feeling, you’re definitely not alone. Everyone is afraid of failing. It’s part of being human.
It just means that the survival part of your brain — the part that’s constantly trying to protect you and would prefer that you live in a protective bubble and never do anything risky or scary — is a little too good at its job.
That fearful part of your brain isn’t remotely concerned with your soul’s agenda. It would much rather you stay small and safe than ever try something bold or creative, even if it might bring you deep satisfaction.
You’ll never get rid of that overprotective part of your brain that’s always in survival mode (and honestly, you wouldn’t want to — recklessness is not what we’re going for here), but you don’t have to let it dictate your life.
HOW TO GET OVER YOUR FEAR OF FAILING
1. Remember that failure is not the opposite of success.
In fact, failure is a guaranteed part of the process on the way to success. If you let your failures prompt you to learn and grow, instead of giving up at the first setback, they can actually help you wise up and succeed faster. Failure doesn’t mean you’re getting further away from success — it can actually mean you’re getting closer.
2. Disconnect your failures from your identity.
There’s one huge difference between people who quickly bounce back from failure and those who let it paralyze them from ever trying again. The people who recover quickly think, “I failed,” while those who completely shut down internalize the screw-up and think, “I’m a failure.”
“I failed” stings, but “I’m a failure” is debilitating.
Let me be extraordinarily clear: Failing does NOT make you a failure. It simply makes you human. When you disconnect your failures from your identity and your sense of self-worth, you can finally see them for what they are — things that simply didn’t go according to plan. Only then can you let them go and try again.
3. Redefine what it means to fail.
Most people define failure as trying something that didn’t work out. But what if we completely redefined what it means to fail? What if, instead of failure meaning “this didn’t work out exactly as I envisioned,” you defined failure as never trying in the first place? That would mean that the only way you could possibly fail would be to never get started. Under that new definition, even if you try and it doesn’t work out, you still succeed.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite questions from Liz Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic):
So many self-help books ask the question, “What would you do if you knew that you could not fail?”
But the much more powerful, inspiring question to ask yourself is, “What would you do even if you knew that you might very well fail?”
Now I’d love to hear from you! What’s something you’d LOVE to try, but you’re afraid of failing? How will you redefine what it means to fail? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts with me!
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