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The Complete Guide: Get Over The Fear Of Failure

Have you ever made a mistake at work?

I know I have. I've made mistakes that cost tens of thousands of dollars. I've made mistakes that were made public and I've made mistakes that couldn't be fixed. I made many mistakes throughout my career, but I still built the career of my dreams. Not in spite of these mistakes, but because of them.

Mistakes get a bad rep, but they are actually growth accelerators.

Unfortunately, when you are in the moment, it's hard to see a failure as a growth opportunity. Reciting: "There is no failure, you either win or learn" doesn't help when you feel tormented by the thoughts in your head and the gut-wrenching feeling in the pit of your stomach. You can't stop thinking about your mistake, and it consumes you. Now the mistake feels 10 times worse than it really is, and you can't stop blaming yourself for being so "stupid".

Been there. Done that 😒.

If you want to grow and learn, you will make mistakes. It's inevitable.

So how do you get over the fear and learn to let go?

How To Get Over The Fear Of Failure

I don't believe you can get rid of the fear, but you can manage it. You can learn to feel the fear and do it anyway.

Here are a few tactics that helped me through the years (I still use them):

1. Separate the failure from your identity

We tend to confuse a failed execution with being a failure. Making a mistake doesn't make you a failure. Making multiple mistakes doesn't make you a failure. The only thing that makes you a failure is not trying. Think about it this way: When a toddler tries to take their first steps, they often fall. They fall again and again until eventually, they figure it out. No one would ever call a toddler a failure for messing up walking. Their persistence and ability to learn are praised.

You are no different. You are not a failure, you failed to do something well. Separating the failure from your identity - it's not who you are, it's something you've done - is the first step toward managing your fear. You can do that by changing your self-talk. Instead of thinking "I'm a failure" practice reframing your thoughts to say "I've made a mistake". It's a subtle change, but it will make a big difference.

2. Focus on the learning

I know it's hard to see the silver lining when you are surrounded by dark clouds, but you can trick your mind to focus on the positive. I use one question to force my brain to find something, anything, positive.

How is this the best thing that had ever happened to me?

Let me give you an example: About halfway through my career, I was working on a massive industry event. The keynote speaker was Satya Nadella, Microsoft's CEO, so trust me when I say the stakes were high. I was in charge of a transition that included dressing 100 people in unicorn masks for a photo bomb. I enlisted the "actors", I worked with the stage manager to mark the reserved seats, and I purchased the masks and verified they would arrive 2 weeks before the event. I arranged for storage and for the masks to be delivered to the venue 2 days before the event.

What I failed to do, is run this idea with legal. You see, putting a mask over someone's head is considered a health hazard. Taking on the liability associated with asking 100 people to put a mask on their heads was out of the question. I found that out a week before the event after I have spent the budget and made all of the arrangements, including coordinating with Satya's team. Needless to say, this mistake was costly and embarrassing (but in retrospect kinda funny...).

So how could this mistake be the best thing that had ever happened to me?

I'll never forget to check things with legal ever again (I have a better risk mitigation process)

I got to work with Satya's team. Those relationships will serve me in the long run

We avoided a possible catastrophe (what if someone would have choked???)

It forced me to get more creative (we ended up using funny T-shirts on stage instead, it was hilarious)

And if all else fails, I like to think making this mistake now, at this stage of my career, is better than making this mistake 5 years from now when I have more at stake.

3. Get some perspective

Mistakes have consequences, but when we are scared we blow things out of proportion and make everything feel worse. We do it due to a cognitive bias called Magnification. When thinking with this cognitive distortion, we exaggerate the importance of events. We think one mistake will get us fired, it would bankroll the company or humiliate us for life. The reality is usually much more forgiving.

A great way to gain some perspective and restore a more realistic point of view is to ask yourself:

Will this matter as much in 5 days? 5 months? 5 years?

Photo credit: @lizandmollie

If I use my previous story as an example this is what it would look like:

5 days from now it could still feel like the end of the world... but technically it won't have a massive impact on the event

5 months from now most people will forget it ever happened. It won't make a difference in my career.

5 years from now I may forget it ever happened...

If you gain some perspective it will help make the fear more manageable. It would also help you focus on the future rather than the present.

4. Turn your mistake into your superpower

The worst thing you can do after making a mistake is to ignore it. Failure is an opportunity to learn and if you don't seize this opportunity, all of your pain and suffering would have been for nothing. Instead, you should double down on your mistake. Learn everything you can learn, and become an expert. Turn your kryptonite into a superpower.

Here are some of my favorite questions to use to run a personal retrospect:

  • Knowing what I know now, what would I have done differently?

  • Are there any processes I can put in place to guarantee it won't happen again?

  • Is there anything I can do right now to rectify the situation?

Your goal is to recreate the situation in your head with a different ending. You are doing it to find ways to improve and learn, but going through this exercise will also help you realize you are not a failure (you just made a mistake) and will put things in perspective.

After that colossal mistake, you can be sure I became the number one advocate for "checking with legal". I added it as a requirement for every project, big or small, and I taught my team to do the same. Looking back, I'm sure this practice saved my butt a few times throughout my career.

I hope this answers your question, Galit.

Making mistakes is inevitable. How you react and what you do with your mistakes is a choice.

You can let fear take over and rob you of the opportunity to learn, or you can feel the fear and work through it with the above tactics.

It won't happen overnight, but the more you practice managing your fear, the easier it will get.



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