Fear of failure

I read an interesting post by Julian Thompson this week on the RSA blog: ‘Do grand challenges need fear of failure?’ I pondered this for a while, as fear of failure has been a thorn in my side for years. Although I prefer to use the term loss aversion, it sounds far more reasonable and productive.

I’m heading off tomorrow to The Do Lectures – an event held in Wales by people with no fear, who boldly want to change the world, for people who want to change the world. I signed up because increasingly I’ve been feeling that I do want to change the world. (It’s creeping age and having children that does that to you). So, Do approaches. And so does The Fear.

Now seems an opportune time to think about fear. And wanting to change the world. I really thought I wanted to. But now I’m not so sure. The fear has gripped me so firmly, it has consumed my energy for days. It has me pinned to my chair, unable to pack and unable to concentrate.

The promise of Do is so great, the potential truly is infinite. (They even have amazing designers creating fabulous posters to inspire you!). They have 80 visitors and 30 speakers, over 5 days in beautiful Wales! They have Scritti Politti playing live for goodness sake. I defy anyone not to be excited!

I know I am. Well, to confess, I was. I’m now scared. This, however, is a good thing, because yesterday was worse; I was completely numb with fear. And a couple of days ago, well, you see where I’m going. Thomson wonders if the fear of failure spurs us on to achieve great things – and muses that perhaps this is what motivates athletes? I don’t think so. I think being massively competitive spurs them on. Fear of losing is a by-product. Like medals, but less shiny.

So, do grand challenges need fear of failure? I’m going to have to say no. My grand challenge would perhaps benefit from a light sprinkling of nerves, or a tiny hint of excited anticipation. Fear of failure – which is what I am suffering from – really is of no use at all.

Fear of failure is paralysing in it’s most powerful form. I’m not even marginally spurred on. Examples litter our memories and crush our confidence over the years. How many people, for example, scared out of their wits, failed their driving test first time – only to pass it a week later with flying colours? And who repeated that exact pattern a year later with their motorbike test? (Oh, just me?!).

I’m scared of what I’ll find at Do. I’m worried about camping. I’m terrified of being cold. I’m worried I won’t sleep, that I’ll snore, that I’ll stop worrying?! And I’m also petrified that I’ll have the time of my life and not want to return to the real world. I do not need this fear anymore.

And then I realise it is true: I do not need this fear anymore. I won’t fail. I don’t need to fail. If it was comfortable there would be no point. If it was a day like any other we’d be less inspired, less excited and less likely to be innovative. Without a comfort zone to step out of, we’d just merrily carry along, happy and content, mingling in our own social circles and reading the Independent online. Finally, I realise that fear of failure can be a force for change. I also realise that I’m going to have to get packing: literally and metaphorically.



Today someone told me that writing came easily to me. “It just comes naturally to you” they said. Well, it does come more easily than, let’s see… playing the double bass, or flying a 767. Neither of which I can do. It doesn’t come as easily as shouting at small children, but that is hardly surprising given I have three and they are small. And children. Anyway, of what value is this statement? Was it a compliment? Or a thinly veiled attack? A suggestion, perhaps, that work is less valid if it doesn’t require insane amounts of effort? Well, indeed, anyone can churn out a load of words on a page. But to what purpose, focus, or value those words?

It takes time and effort to learn a skill, longer to do it well. It takes hours to learn computer programming. I know this having spent days programming in games, line by line, then losing them all. (It was real programming. It was.) It takes years of practice to become professional at most things – with the exception of sending text messages, perhaps. I’m fabulous at that. Texting whilst walking, however: case in point. Many a comedy moment has involved a lamp post and a mobile phone. (More practice required!).

It takes time and effort to acquire a skill. And once that skill is there, in some form, to some level then, sure, we who have worked hard to hone it may (inadvertently) make it look easy. That is not the same as it being easy.

That’s a little frustrating, isn’t it? It betrays the effort somewhat. But that is simply a conundrum of life. Like youth being wasted on the young. Which it is.


Time. We read a lot about it. Mainly how we don’t have enough – and how difficult the times we do have are. Or will be. Difficult times: they are ahead of us, you know.

And behind us. In fact, as a child of the 1970s I can’t actually remember a time when times weren’t difficult. One of my first memories as a child growing up in 1980s Durham was of the miners’ strikes and Arthur Scargill marching through the town centre. We moved south during the late 80s – boom time; but finances were difficult then. Then the crash – difficult; negative equity and interest rates passing 10%. I remember it all well.

My first job was with Go – BA’s low cost airline in the late 1990s – people wanted to save money, times were not as they had been – but they weren’t great. We couldn’t afford to look flash. We must save costs. Then an investment bank in the early 2000s – bonuses not what they used to be. Lunches not what they were.

And here we are. 2012. Times are tough. Things are bad. Again. It is tough out there.

If you have your own business you will know this more acutely than many. It’s tough – and you are busy! Not enough time in the day – chasing every client, every piece or work, every penny. You are hard working, committed to your company, passionate about what you do and you truly care about your customers. You do it because you love it – but you have to make money.

The bottom line is if you are not making money, your business is an expensive hobby.

When times are tough standing still is not an option. But where do you find the time?

Invest. Invest. Invest.

Invest in time. And invest your time wisely. Time to take stock of where you are and how far you have come. Take time to plan. Time to look at where you want to be. And take time to work on putting that into action.

Times may get better. They may get worse – we can’t do much about that. What we can do is make time to plan ahead, plan a strategy to weather this storm… and the next.