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.


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