CEO Shoptalk: Fear Of Failure

Chatting the other day with a serial entrepreneur of some seasoning and success and we get on the subject of “fear of failure.” He had some interesting things to say amongst which are: “Everybody has some degree of fear of failure. Perfectly normal. It becomes a problem when it prevents you from going forward.”

WTF is “fear of failure,” Big Red Car?

Ahhh, you want a definition? How about this — we are using an entrepreneurial, startup, business context, mates:

 1. Shrinks call it “atychiphobia” when it rises to a clinical condition that paralyzes its victims.

 2. Fear of failure is both conscious and deeply unconscious meaning there are elements of it that are easily identifiable as they are obvious and at the surface, and there are elements of it that are deep, buried far below our consciousness.

Feel free to blame it on your father or mother.

 3. At its core, it is all about the anxiety of self-doubt and shame associated with the stigma of failure rather than the actual prospects of a new endeavor.

 4. Fear of failure is paralyzing — sometimes — and is a barrier to trying new things, taking risks, and following your dreams. In every instance, it diminishes the speed with which we move. It is mental friction.

 5 . It can manifest itself in seemingly innocent things like procrastination and seeking perfection, both barriers to getting started in any new endeavor.

“Do not make perfect the enemy of good enough.”

“Most of the money gets made by people who are 80% right, but done on time.”

 6. There is a cumulative impact of low self-esteem, self-doubt, low confidence, and a chorus of negative thoughts in your head.

 7. Even a small dose is self-sabotaging and when the party confronts actual failure — as we all do eventually — there is a sense of validation of the fear.

Every entrepreneur has some dose of fear of failure. It is perfectly normal.

OK, Big Red Car, how do we detect it?

How do you detect it? You close your eyes and you retreat to that dark corner of your mind where the bullshit light resides and you take stock of who and where you are. It takes hard work, focus, and honesty — the first time — but it gets easier as you work this tool. You get used to the fear and it will eventually become fuel.

 1. With brutal honesty ask yourself, “What am I really afraid of?”

Take a minute and confront yourself. May help to write it down.

 2. When you have the slightest inkling, ask yourself, “What does this failure look, feel, and taste like?”

In sports, a losing locker room and a winning locker room look, feel, and taste different (no champagne in the losing locker room).

 3. When you think you have a handle on what failure would look, feel, and taste like ask yourself, “Is that failure? Is failure fatal?”

 4. Then ask yourself, “What is the absolute worst possible outcome?” Be hard on yourself.

 5. Then ask yourself, “What if I succeed? What if I make this work? What does that look like?”

Then you weigh and measure the nature of failure and the potential that your endeavor could be successful. Is the difference worth taking the risk?

I am not pre-supposing that the outcome is worth the risk, but it usually is.

OK, Big Red Car, how do we overcome it?

You don’t overcome it, dear reader; you learn to know it and refuse to allow it to control your life. You will ultimately transform the energy, the anxiety about fear of failure, into fuel.

You say to yourself, “I am not going to be defined by my fears. I won’t pretend they are not real — even when they are wildly unrealistic. I will use that energy to overcome the challenge. I will embrace the risk and beat it like a rented mule on the last day of the month.”

 1. You will reason with yourself that “failure isn’t final” and “failure isn’t foreign.” Every successful entrepreneur has a story of failure. Hell, Michael Jordan got cut from his high school basketball team. He turned that failure into rocket fuel.

Name of coach who cut MJ?

Clifton “Pop” Herring, head basketball coach at Elmsley A Laney High School in Wilmington, NC. Pop did not actually “cut” MJ. He put him on the JV rather than the varsity. MJ played varsity for Pop in his junior and senior years.

 2. We all fail at some time. There is no shame in working your ass off and failing — it’s what learning feels like. There is something wrong with refusing to try and thus failing because you didn’t try.

 3. You commit yourself to “fail forward” meaning you steal from every experience in life some learning that makes the next attempt more likely to succeed. You shoplift the life experience from every endeavor.

 4. You find a salty, non-judgmental mentor who has walked that path and you ask for help. When you feel wobbly, you unburden yourself to that mentor and he will provide you not the solution, but the grace for you to find the solution.

I cannot tell you the great number of times I have had an entrepreneur startup founder CEO seek my counsel and listen to him or her say, “I feel like I have a steel band across my chest and it keeps tightening. I am not sure I can do this.”

I respond, “Good. That’s what it’s supposed to feel like. You are off-piste, but gravity is on your side, and this is the business you have chosen and, guess what? You will do fine. You have what it takes, but that does not mean this is a walk in the park. You’re going to do fine.”

 5. You will break down the most intimidating tasks and challenges into their smallest constituent parts and you will eat that elephant one bite at a time remembering to chew slowly and to brush after every meal.

You will stop looking at the size of the challenge; you will look only at the next mouthful and when you’ve done that you will take a glance backward and surprise yourself, “I did that?”

“Yes, you did.”

 6. You will focus on the opportunity cost of not doing what you want to do.

 7. You will not disavow the presence of fear of failure; you will not allow — refuse — it to control you. Be fearful, but do it anyway.

Bottom line it, Big Red Car

Everybody has a bit of “fear of failure,” amigo. You are not unique because you are anxious about starting a new enterprise or taking a new risk.

You can identify why you feel that fear, but you cannot likely talk yourself out of it. You can, however, control it rather than allowing it to control you.

It will get better as you become more salty and seasoned in the risk business, but it never really goes away.

You got this.

But, hey, what the Hell do I really know anyway? I’m just a Big Red Car.