Fearing Failure

by  Sharon Reed  |  Self Leadership
Fearing Failure

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard people confess to their fear of failure as the reason for abandoning their dreams, I’d be a wealthy woman today.

Yet failure, however much we might fear it, is often how we learn best, if we’ll open ourselves to the learning along the way.

Unfortunately, fear rarely travels alone.

“Failure is often how we learn best. Fear and pride are what keep us from the lessons.”

In my experience, one of fear’s favorite companions is pride — and not the kind of pride that leaves us feeling good about ourselves and our accomplishments, either. Sometimes it shows up as “I’m too good for” or “not good enough.” When we think we’re too good for, we avoid taking risks; we avoid the inevitable vulnerability that comes from stepping out of our comfort zone, choosing instead to maintain the false mask of control and perfection.

Conversely, when we think we’re not good enough, there is the temptation to internalize failure, allowing it to defeat us instead of failing forward — limiting us from learning the lessons needed to ensure our success in the future. But perhaps there’s a better way.

“Fear of failure and pride lures us into false thinking about ourselves and others.”

This past spring I attended the McColl Center for Art & Innovation’s Innovation Institute, a Charlotte, NC-based program that uses artists-in-residence to facilitate and teach the creative process, with both a business innovation and personal leadership development perspective in mind. On day one we met Shaun, a talented sculptor with a passion for public art.

“Do you ever struggle with fear of failure or of being criticized by others?” one participant asked.

I honestly don’t recall whether there was a time in his distant past when he feared failure, though one part of his answer has remained with me since. He shared that instead of fearing failure, criticism or condemnation, he instead approaches his work with an open mindset of curiosity, exploration and continual learning, actually inviting critique and disruption as a way of learning more about himself, about others, and the infinite possibilities for his work – an approach I have since adopted in my own pursuits that has in turn helped minimize my fears, while expanding my own sense of possibility.

Do you struggle with a fear of failure? Has a fear of failure ever kept you from pursuing your dreams? What might happen if you replaced pride and a fear of failure with a mindset of curiosity, experimentation and learning? Can you view failure as an invitation to grow rather than a condemnation of your own value and self-worth?

What role has fear of failure played for you?
Photo Credit: Fotolia iQoncept

About The Author

Articles By sharon-reed
Sharon Reed’s love for the world and its diversity is reflected in her work. In 2013 she and her 10 year old daughter co-founded the Global Girls Project, a collaborative women and girls writing project focused on personal empowerment and heart-aligned leadership. Sharon serves as one of 44 UN Women Global Community Champions — working to elevate, educate and advance opportunities for women’s economic empowerment worldwide.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

John E. Smith  |  21 Aug 2015  |  Reply

Hi, Sharon:)

First, let me say I am very impressed with both you and your daughter.

Second, this is a well-written and valuable post on an important aspect of leadership.

Your story about the artist who invites criticism (in the useful sense) of his work really struck a chord with me. I think that a person’s perspective on criticism is very critical to understanding how confidence comes to one.

I know from teaching critical thinking that many folks seem to have a certain perception of criticism – one linked closely to negative fault-finding and confrontational conversations.

Good teachers, coaches, trainers, and managers who seek to help others have probably developed a view of criticism as fact-based, objective, and comprehensive – in other words, focused on helping a person understand wholly without invoking the negative emotions that we generically associate with criticism.

Articulate voices like yours help us move toward the more positive and inclusive understanding of what is a very important part of anyone’s leadership development journey.

About “fear of failure”, I think our society overemphasizes “winning” as the goal and only acceptable outcome. We praise that single-minded focus on “being the best by beating the rest”, which leaves no room for collaboration and sharing. Everyone is everyone else’s enemy and to be viewed with distrust. This is an environment in which it is harder to fail, because society does not reward failure.

I have worked in organizations where the CEO says “We learn from our failures”, but then continues to manage people based on rewards for victories and punishment for failures. I question what is being learned in such environments.

Thanks for sparking my thinking (and a quick trip down memory lane) this morning:).


Sharon Reed  |  21 Aug 2015  |  Reply

John, thank you so much for your thoughtful and thought-filled reply!

I agree whole-heartedly that we live in a society where ‘success’ is measured by external achievement, often defined as winning at all costs, with no margin for error or failure along the way. Yet paradoxically, from both an individual and organizational point of view, we are at a time in our economy when innovation is essential to remaining competitive — and innovation not only requires a willingness to take risks and collaborate with others, but is often the result of constraint, failure and disruption along the way.

Therein lies the paradox and challenge for all of us as leaders.

Thanks for elevating and expanding the dialogue, John. Much appreciated!

Jane Anderson  |  21 Aug 2015  |  Reply

This post resonated with me, Sharon. I could relate to Shaun right away. When I started doing some writing at work, the first thing I had to overcome was the fear of failure which was an enhanced version of constant criticism. When writing technical documentation what seems precise to one person reads more like charades to someone else. I had to change my mindset to expect change, expect critique, and to expect to rewrite even text that seemed very succinct to me.

Sharon Reed  |  21 Aug 2015  |  Reply

Thanks for sharing your own experience, Jane. I agree that mindset can make a huge difference when it comes to accepting critique from others. Intentionality is key, and when we can shift from being reactive to reflective, we are already ten steps ahead (though it is often easier said than done)!

As I reflect reflect back, I shudder when I think about all of the times in the past I internalized another’s critique instead of seeing it for what it was — both an invitation to learn and a reflection of someone else’s value system, perspective and/or experience, not necessarily my own. Learning to trust myself instead of leaning into others’ approval has been an important element of my own leadership journey.

Julian  |  22 Aug 2015  |  Reply

Great post. Fear of failure often stops us in our tracks, and I like the sculptors response.
We should all take the attitude of open curiousity and a chance to know about ourselves more by welcoming critique rather than fearing it.

Thanks for posting

Sharon  |  22 Aug 2015  |  Reply

Thanks so much, Julian. I, too, love Shaun Cassidy’s approach! By adopting a mindset of open curiosity, it takes us our of our ego and into a place of true learning.

nji philemon  |  22 Aug 2015  |  Reply

Thank you for this post. I am encouraged. Being a young blooger I was afraid to fail. After reading this I am sure that my baby site,, will explode. I am soo so happy.

Sharon Reed  |  22 Aug 2015  |  Reply

You’re welcome. I am glad the post gave you encouragement and wish you all the best with your hope-filled blog site!

Mike Henry Sr.  |  22 Aug 2015  |  Reply

Sharon, thanks for the great post. I’m most intrigued by the idea of embracing disruption. I don’t often embrace disruption. If’ I’m faced with criticism or critique or failure, I can choose to embrace the input. But I hadn’t thought about embracing disruption. Challenging idea. Thanks! Mike…

Sharon Reed  |  22 Aug 2015  |  Reply

Thanks, Mike! Whether we invite disruption or not, we can alway choose how to respond to it, and in fact, some of the most innovative ideas often evolve in its wake. That said, embracing disruption and opening ourselves to a different outcome requires we first let go of attachment to what’s known and familiar, and that part can admittedly be scary and difficult for all of us.

Adopting a mindset of curiosity and learning to trust the process of life itself may not be a cure-all, but I’ve definitely found they can help!

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