09/18/2012 08:49 am ET Updated Nov 18, 2012

Don't Let the Fear of Failure Limit Your Genius

Having been raised by a therapist mom whose self-help/psychology books could fill a small library -- wanting, I suppose, to continue my teenage rebellion -- I promised myself I would never venture into "the motivational writer" role. But screw it. I'm no longer a teenager and my mom is almost always right. Cue up the "Deep Thoughts" background music. I am going to motivate you.

Because again and again, in the course of writing my upcoming book, The Fear Project, I've been seeing people -- very capable, smart people -- not even attempting to act on their great ideas for one reason: They're afraid of failing.

Now, there are clearly times to heed our fears of failure. If you've just graduated college, you might not want to blow all your savings on a presidential run. Overconfidence is nothing to praise. But the vast majority of the time, our fears of failure are overblown. And so often, they're social. What will my friends and family think if I fail?

To debunk this fear, there's the obvious point that they're probably not worth having as friends if they won't stick by you after a failure. But the other key point is that our fears of social rejection have often been set up unconsciously during childhood. In kindergarten, if you were the one kid who still peed in his pants in school, that failure could mean rejection from your whole tribe -- i.e., your class. (At least, it could feel like a total rejection.) But if, as an adult, you fail at starting a new company, other adults know how challenging that can be and they may even respect you more for having tried. In Silicon Valley, where an eventual success with a start-up usually requires numerous failures, failing is often a badge of honor.

Our social fears are not just set up in childhood, though. As my friend neuropsychologist Rick Hanson recently told me, when humans were evolving in east Africa, getting rejected from the tribe could be a death sentence, and that fear of rejection was so adaptive, it became innate in most humans. But rejection from the tribe now doesn't equal death. If your family thinks you're a nut for moving to Hollywood to become an actor... uh, so what? Life's short. They'll get over it.

Perhaps the best way to debunk an overblown fear, though, is to ask yourself what the true risk is of following your dream at 100-percent capacity, rather than picking at it halfheartedly and using those failed attempts as reasons why you should give up. (The latter is what I usually do.) If you spent, for example, the next year going into debt to write that screenplay that's burning a hole in your head, would it really be the end of the world if the screenplay didn't sell? Would you really not be able to go get a job, or two jobs, and get out of debt? Play out the worst-case scenario, and if you can handle it, then it's go time. Even if you don't reach your ultimate goal, as psychologist Susan Jeffers points out, "Pushing through fear is less frightening than living with the underlying fear that comes from a feeling of helplessness."

When you do leap and begin that start-up or that acting career, the fear doesn't always suddenly end. As a rule, action does almost always decrease symptoms of fear, but as I know from working on my first novel, you can be in the darkness for months, even years, wondering if you're in the process of failing. In these times of stress, I find it helpful to think of athletes and their masterful ability to reframe pain, adversity, and failure.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a story about my dear friend Jamie Patrick, who was about to start a history making 68-mile swim around Lake Tahoe. Jamie is world-class ultra-swimmer, and his last two mammoth, history-making swims (44 miles in Lake Tahoe and 111 miles in the Sacramento River) had been successes. There was reason to believe this swim would be, too. But it wasn't. The swim had to be called off after he was just 28 miles in because of howling winds and huge waves. Months of training, all that money from sponsors, all the energy from film crews and friends who'd taken the weekend to support Jamie -- all wasted. Except Jamie didn't see it that way. "It is never about the destination," he told me. "We had a great adventure. It's just a stepping stone to the next thing."

World-class athletes like Jamie can complete superhuman feats like 111-mile nonstop swims because they constantly spin pain into growth and perceived failures into stepping stones. They get so good at this, sometimes they end up liking it when they fail. One of my best friends from childhood, Urijah Faber -- you might know him as The California Kid -- is now one of the best mixed martial artists in the world, primarily, I think, because of his unshakable positivity. Urijah has won nearly every single fight he has ever entered professionally, but there have also been a few losses -- big world-championship losses. Instead of ignoring the losses, Urijah recently told me that he actually likes talking about them because they're what motivate him. "I don't take a loss personally," he told me:

I focus on the thing that I did wrong in that fight and how I can change that. Then it motivates me to train harder. I also don't let a loss or a win define who I am. I know who I am. It has been proven over time. I've worked hard. I've lost before. I've lost games in elementary school. I've lost football games and wrestling matches, and you know, you don't stop living.

Urijah is right. You don't stop living. And the failure you're avoiding may be the exact failure you need to teach you about the glaring fault you can't yet see because it hasn't been revealed through the act of failing.

Of course, one of the reasons athletes like Jamie and Urijah are able to look so positively at failing is that they have so many successes to fall back on. They're gifted. But we all have lots of small successes we can remember -- and more importantly, emphasize. It's just that our innate negativity bias tries to prevent us from doing so. If we consciously recall and emphasize the good memories, they'll help us when the darkness of fear seems unbearable. And if you really feel like you don't have any successes to fall back on, then create some. Find some very attainable goal like running a three-mile race and go do it, celebrate it. Or get a new job skill. As psychology professor Timothy A. Pychyl writes in Psychology Today, the fear of failure only turns into procrastination when people don't feel competent in their ability to attain new skills.

Sometimes we don't even notice how the fear of failure controls us in subtle ways. Writing The Fear Project, I've had to look into my own fears with a fine-toothed comb, and it only hit me recently that my fear of failure has been affecting my decisions subtly since I was little. I was decent at lots of sports growing up, but anytime I started to get really good, I would lose interest and switch to another. My soccer coach was a jerk. The ski slopes had become too corporate. There were always lots of excuses. But really, this fickleness was protection: If I committed to one thing with everything I had and failed, what would that say about me? By always changing, I could tell myself that I could've been the best, you know, if I'd actually cared. I acted so cool and blase, rolling my eyes at the guys who took themselves so seriously and actually excelled. In truth, I was jealous.

"He who never makes mistakes, never makes anything," goes an English proverb, and when you start looking, successful people fail a lot. Thomas Edison is said to have gone through somewhere around a thousand combinations of gas and filament to find a light bulb that would last. When he finally succeeded, Edison didn't frame these thousand attempts as failures. He said that there were a thousand steps to inventing a proper light bulb.

Dr. Regina Dugan, former director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) -- the think tank that gave us minor successes like GPS and the Internet -- echoed a similar perspective recently in The Wall Street Journal. "Failure isn't the problem," Dugan said. "It's the fear of failure that's the limiting factor there. We have to push through. We say at DARPA, you can't lose your nerve for the big failure, because the nerve you need for the big success is the exact same nerve -- until the moment you know which one it's going to be. Not before."

For more by Jaimal Yogis, click here.

For more on becoming fearless, click here.