Despite the common business psychobabble and overwhelming advice of not-so-sage pundits, I believe that a fear of failure is a good thing. And it’s not that I’m just a contrarian – we all know that fear can be healthy and provide safety. This is why we carefully and passionately tell our children about situations that should rightfully cause us trepidation. Being afraid is sometimes just plain sensible, among other things. And I’m not afraid to say I’m terrified of failure in every aspect of my life. Truth be told, you are afraid of failure, too, and it is one of your greatest motivators. So, instead of fleeing from it or rationalizing it as some sort of weakness, maybe we should embrace it and all the value it creates.
First, we must recognize failure is common and much more common than success. That’s why we even have a label called “The One Percenters” – some win but more lose. Only one team wins the championship and all the others are also-rans. Brian Tracey, in his book, Get Smart, reminds us: “The 2013 Harvard Business Review notes that fear [is] a major obstacle to business…innovation. Fear of failure so often prevents us from taking risks that might lead to exciting new outcomes, but the reality is we’re already failing rather miserably. The American Management Association estimates that 70% of decisions made in the world of work ultimately turn out to be wrong.”
Doesn’t that make sense? What percentage of the time have you competed and won? Yes, far less than you have lost. And all the potential-reaching, successful people I know consider second place or worse to be a failure. That failure, or the prospect of it, motivates me. To plagiarize Jim McKay and ABC’s Wide World of Sports of yesteryear, I have known the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat — and I prefer the thrill. I desperately crave the victory – desperately try to avoid the agony – and, without the passion to win, I would wallow in complacency and incubate in laziness. That’s a loser mentality and the thought of it scares the living bejeebers out of me.
Fear of failure can breed success, as oxymoronic as that might sound to modern day soothsaying, bookselling purveyors of snake oil. For certain, it promotes improved performance in the quest for perfection, which, despite everyone’s denial, is a part of every winner’s psyche. In his insightful work People Fail, Siimon Reynolds explains: “The U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels are a picture of disciplined excellence. This aerial acrobatic team of pilots mesmerizes audiences throughout the country with their precision flying formations and stunts. Each air show is a visual reminder that the team has spent thousands of hours practicing for what the 11 million annual spectators see. But even with all of that preparation, the Blue Angels end each performance the same way. They head back to their temporary quarters to review and scrutinize every move they made in great detail. This perpetual evaluation of what seemed like a flawless presentation keeps the pilots performing at their highest level and assures the safety necessary to excel. High-achievement expert Yehuda Shinar notes that such continuous evaluation “’helps winners to identify how they can increase the frequency of success and decrease the frequency of failure.’”
In other words, even in the celebration of seeming victory remains the recognition that failure lurks. If we lose our edge and cease improving, we face certain disappointment and potential disaster — and that’s petrifying, or at least it should be. UCLA football coach Red Sanders is famous for his quote, often wrongly attributed to the Green Bay Packer’s great Vince Lombardi, that “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” Yet, Lombardi’s version of this saying it just as applicable to my thesis: “Winning isn’t everything. The will to win is everything.” And, to me, the will to win intrinsically includes a dread fear of failure or losing.
Tonight at dinner I had a candid discussion – or as candid as a conversation with a 6-year-old can be – about the apparent rigors and seeming injustices of kindergarten. “I hate school,” was the way it was phrased.
In a moment of both helplessness and alarming vulnerability, I responded with, “Daddy is going back to school because I love it,” which was a lie. Oh, yes, I’m going back to school – that part is true. But a 50-something (don’t even ask)-year-old with two graduate degrees and two professional certifications is now pursuing a master’s degree in a field I’ve never studied, plus another sick attempt at becoming bi-lingual this late in life. Why? Because I love it? The theological term for that thought is “bull hockey.” No, it’s not for the love of it, or even because I’m fretful about potential mental atrophy or the supposed coming irrelevancy of many Baby Boomers. It’s because I’m mortified — mortified of losing more often and winning less often than I have to this point in my life.
I’m still pushing because I have, always have, and always will have a fear of failure. And God help me if I ever lose it. That would mean I’m done, I’ve quit, that I’m finally the ultimate failure.
And that thought scares the life into me.