How to Conquer Fear of Failure

Fear of failure is a significant obstacle that stands between you and your goals. But it doesn’t have to be.

Fear of failure is the intense worry you experience when you imagine all the horrible things that could happen if you failed to achieve a goal. The intense worry increases the odds of holding back or giving up. Being successful relies to a large extent on your ability to leverage fear.

What can you do to prevent fear of failure from setting you back?

1. Redefine failure as discrepancy

Success is often hard to define. Failure is even harder.

What is your definition of failure? Giving up? Never going after your goals? Not achieving the desired outcome? Not achieving the desired outcome within an expected timeline? You may think that the answer to this question is obvious. But it is important to be clear about what you consider failure since failure is the object of your fear and the obstacle to your success.

To make your goal pursuit fail-proof, switch from thinking about failures to thinking about discrepancies between what you hope to achieve and what you might achieve. Discrepancies provide you with information that you can study, explain, and learn from so you can recalibrate your future efforts.

As long as you continue making an effort, there is no room for failure. When you give up altogether, for no better reason than fear of failing, that’s a different story!

2. Distinguish between real and imagined threats

Fear is our response to two kinds of threats: real and imagined. You already know the difference. Real threats pose a risk to our survival. Imagined threats are hypothetical scenarios. Delivering a speech in front of a group of people is an imagined threat because there is little risk to your survival. Delivering a speech in front of a pride of lions in the savanna is a real threat because they are not interested in hearing you, they are interested in eating you.

Fear of failure by definition involves imagined threats. And while the fear is real, the threat is not. For the time being, the threat is a prediction, a product of your imagination, a scenario you built. This doesn’t make your fear unfounded or irrational. But it makes it premature and unnecessary. Instead of letting it stop you, study it and plan how to avoid the consequences you’re scared of.

3. Create promotion rather than prevention goals

The research on goal achievement suggests that there are two types of approaches that people take with respect to their goals: approach and avoidance. I like to call them promotion and prevention goals.

Promotion goals are about achieving a positive outcome (e.g., “I want to get a raise,” “I want to expand my client base,” or “I want to get a promotion”), while prevention goals are about avoiding a negative outcome (e.g., “I don’t want to lose my job” or “I hope I don’t get a negative review”). Prevention goals are associated with more disorganized approaches to goal pursuit, lower engagement, less self-determination, and more anxiety. Moreover, prevention goals lead to the creation of more prevention goals in the future.

Fear of failure leads to the creation of prevention goals, which may blur our focus, undermine our efforts, and make planning difficult. Reframing prevention goals as promotion goals is one way to take the fear of failure out of the equation.

While most of us set promotion goals at one time and prevention goals at another, it is important to remember that how we frame our goals can obscure our intentions, delay implementation, and make it easier to give up.