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Dr. Robert A. Kornfeld Headshot

The Fear of Failure

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Failure. What feelings does that word conjure up within you? In a society whose structure is based on complementary opposites (i.e. good/bad, right/wrong, smart/dull, yes/no, up/down, more/less, rich/poor, etc.) it is apparent that failure is on the "wrong" side of success. The word failure surely brings up feelings of fear, shame, pain, low self-esteem, embarrassment, anger, sadness, stress and victimhood. Of course, there are more things people feel about failure, but the important point is that failure is not a desirable experience. It is not the end result that anyone looks forward to. And when it comes, your world comes crashing down and the weight of failure can be too much of a burden to bear.

The stress of failure is a very real phenomenon because we live in a society that frowns upon failure as if the failure itself is a reflection of the character of the person. We are living in an era where "not good enough" is an epidemic which gives rise to depression, anxiety, agoraphobia, shyness, passivity and all kinds of insecurities. People who fail at anything are at high risk for suffering, stoked by their own shame as well as the morays of our society.

When someone has experienced failure with all its attendant pain and suffering, trying again to succeed at anything seems like an insurmountable task. It's often better not to try again, that way, you can't fail. Sadly, this approach to life is a guarantee of permanent frustration and lack of fulfillment.
So how can someone experience "failure" without falling prey to all of these negative outcomes? I believe the answer lies in redefining what failure is and changing our perceptions of failure by changing how we experience any negative result.

To fail without trying is less painful than to put all of yourself into a particular goal and still come up short. Yet, we know that success does not come easy. It requires commitment, dedication, grit, determination, resourcefulness and confidence. Yet in the face of the fear of failure, how does one call upon these attributes? Herein lies the difference between success and failure.

Once you set a particular goal that you want to achieve, it is imperative that you develop a plan to get there. With eyes on the goal, we must release the outcome. Once we release the outcome, the fear of failure is disabled and we can move forward more confidently toward our goal. What does this mean? It means that once you are on the path toward your goal, you keep your eye and attention on the goal. If the chosen path doesn't seem to be able to get you there, you simply choose another path, always keeping the goal as your intended outcome. When we release the outcome, our steadfastness to succeed at realizing our goal becomes that much easier to engender.

Think of a running back breaking through the line of scrimmage in a football game. That first line of defenders presents a huge obstacle to success. Yet, once he breaks through the line, now there are players in the secondary that will come speeding towards him to stop him in his tracks. He may have to run around or through more players, but with his eye on the "goal" (i.e. a touchdown) he must be willing to change direction when the danger of being tackled is imminent. Or, he can cower under the fear of being tackled, stop running and quickly be knocked to the ground. Does every change of direction net a touchdown? Of course not. But the willingness to change direction and the determination to achieve the goal each and every time is what enables him to score touchdowns.

Achieving any goal should not be fraught with fear of failure. This fear is what makes failure a possibility. Releasing the outcome gives us the unique advantage of taking the possibility of failure out of the equation. It becomes more like, "Hmm. That didn't work. So what is my next step?" Eye on the goal. Success becomes the only possible outcome when we apply this simple rule.

So what is my definition of failure? The only true failure is the failure to keep your eye and attention on the goal. Everything else is success in my book. If you have no fear of failure, you will succeed. There is nothing better for self-esteem and well-being than achieving your goal, no matter how hard it is, no matter how long it takes and no matter how many times you must change your path. In this way, the journey toward success is success itself.

If every child was taught this simple rule of success, there would be far fewer children crumbling under the weight of "failure" in school, in social life, in athletics, in relationships and in adulthood. Our system of grading children cultivates an enormous amount of failure mentality. Can we continue to pass these values on to our children? How many more teenage suicides? How many more broken marriages? How many more drug addicts and alcoholics? How much more suffering before we learn to shine a light on success rather than failure?

Do I really believe this can happen? I release the outcome!

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