Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Fear of Failure or Success with Learning

Should we be scared to fail? What is that we are scared of about failing? And before that we must understand when do we really fail? How do you define failure? Is it objective or subjective? Many questions and there are zillions of documents and research data on this quest. Psychologists make mega-bucks trying to cheer people who conceive themselves as failures. What if these people are not really ‘failures’! They could as well be achievers on a different scale. From a rock climber’s point of view; failure on 5.9 could be a success on 5.8 or 5.7 and in my climbing world reaching the summit is not always the sole criteria for success. Even when we don’t reach the summit it could be a success; as I am wont to say that no matter where you reach, it is still a summit, ‘your’ summit.

Failure can and does evoke different emotions within different individuals, at different times under differing circumstances. I could feel disappointed or more encouraged; it could lead to my giving up or redoubling my efforts. I could brush it off as non-consequential or I could soak in deep anguish. I could feel low, dejected or motivated. Feeling of failure may vary in degree depending on the location and how many other people know about it. If no one knows about my failure then perhaps my fear of that failure would be less or negligent. Whereas even a slight under-performance or achievement, if it is widely known, might scare me more. Since failure is mostly a way how others view us and judge our actions or outcome of our actions against an established scale based on norms or preconceived notions.

Very few have the courage to defy the norm and stand head held high when they don’t perform according to the norms and that is the key of our fear of failure. The act of not succeeding to the degree desirable and that it is now known to many and hence I am subject to their ridicule or a lower image in their eyes, is what makes us most scared and hence we try our level best not to fail. We are scared not necessarily of the failure as such but the outcome of it. As to how others would react to our failures, being treated as outcast, being rejected from peer groups, being ostracized, etc even though we may not be failures on a different scale. None of us want to set a so called ‘bad’ example. We don’t want to be labeled as ‘failures’.

All our lives, right from the time we learn to walk and speak our parents and teachers all ingrain this deep within our psyche that it is a taboo to fail. Failing is bad, evil, and if we fail then we are not good – we all want to be good, we all want to be loved and feted and we all want to be included. We carry this fear all through our lives through all walks of our existence. We try not to fail and in so trying we often fail, at least on some scale of comparison. What if we could just put in our best efforts without a care about failure or success! What if we compared our achievements in terms of what we achieved and not in terms of what we did not (which is the usual way of measuring).

In order to categorize failure we as a society’s norm define certain benchmarks against which performances are compared. Without a scale for comparison there won’t be any failures. Fear of failure can also be a fear of the unknown since we mostly fail at what we don’t know or don’t know enough, but for me fear is replaced by curiosity and what I don’t know is a good reason for me to do it in an attempt to find out. If I do then it is good and if I don’t then at least I now know it for sure what I don’t know and if it is important enough then I can now learn it. Failures can actually be a progression towards success. Like it is said that ‘failure is the stepping stone to success’. Then why do we treat failure with such negative connotations? Is failure good then, should we fail, or aim for fail-proof life and systems instead.

Some of my original thoughts on the subject:

1. Success lies not in courage alone but in the courage to accept failures

2. There’s motivation to succeed where failure is not an option

3. Failure is nothing but success with learning

4. Success do not motivate us to improve or learn new skills or to innovate or explore or challenge ourselves again and again, whereas failure does

5. If I am not failing then I am not trying something hard enough

Failure can be good and it mostly is. We must welcome failures and those who fail rather than shunning them. When Edison failed 10,000 times before he succeeded in making the filament bulb, he said: I have not failed, I have just found out 10,000 ways that won’t work.

And if a thing is good, should we be afraid of it? I don’t think so; hence there is no real fear of failure.

In my field failure to accomplish what I want to; a simple bad pro placement, a misjudged piece of the tiniest rocky flake or a miniscule piece of ice can hurtle me to my death, ending all learning thereafter. I have no room for such failures since from the failure all I would learn is how to die and since death is inevitable it is a useless lesson. So I try not to fail. But on the larger picture I constantly do.

Since this post is not going to make me popular with the parents, teachers and bosses though I would be hailed a revolutionary hero by the other side let me conclude this post with a rejoinder. While failure is good, it must not become a habit out of lack of efforts. You can’t fail since you put in less than what you are or were capable of and then bask in the thought that it is good. Fail if you have to but only after doing everything that you could within your power and resources and then don’t give up. Try and try again. Success shall be yours. Please don’t measure success by constant lowering of your scale since after every success you should actually go up in your scale. Let it be a journey of self within oneself. My sincere advice to all my young friends, if you fail in a subject or don’t get selected in your sports team you have every right to feel bad about it, but you don’t have the right to give up on your dreams or wishes. Keep them alive, try harder next time. Don’t get trapped in comparison. You are you and you are unique and priceless. Do your best.

And my advice to the parents, teachers and bosses; don’t ostracize, don’t compare, don’t ridicule… please remember the child is already hurt and feeling guilty for not having performed up to your expectations. Hug her, comfort her, show her that failing is not the end of the world, let her try again or in different fields and then encourage her to go on with life. Teach the child to face failure boldly and objectively and not be afraid of it. Such children will grow up without fear and will attempt things never dared before. We live in the Aquarian Age, the age of discovery and innovation. In this age we need children and adults who are not scared to experiment and explore. And they will convert failures into ‘successes with learning’.

Failure is no more or less important than success. They both are necessary as one complement the other like day and night. Without one the other wouldn't make sense. And we need to experience both to have a full life.

I will conclude with Edison: Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.

P.S. The above came out of a brief deliberation on how to tackle ‘fear of failure’ with my friend Rasmus who is a motivational speaker and a bestselling author from Denmark. When two like minds collide something must be the outcome, so it was with Rasmus and me. Thanks my friend for the thought provoking discussion.


  1. Satya, you've always inspired me NOT to get affected by failures and this post was again motivating and inspiring.
    I liked "Success do not motivate us to improve or learn new skills or to innovate or explore or challenge ourselves again and again, whereas failure does!"
    For me "Impossible" is not a fact. It's an opinion... so I don't get afraid of failures and keep learning from those failures!

    Keep inspiring...


  2. Its one of the best inspirational articles that I have read. Failure explained with the simplicity and the ladder to success.

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  4. hmmm... big words from a bigger heart. Pretty inspiring S, success lies not in courage alone but in the courage to accept failures... i hope each one of us do. hugs always.