A Google search on “fear of failure” will produce over 150 million hits. It’s number 15 on the top 100 phobias list listed as atychiphobia. It’s also one of the greatest barriers to success. People afflicted with severe atychiphobia consider the possibility of failure so intense that they often undermine their own efforts so that they no longer take any risks. At a more mainstream level, those who are afraid to fail also suffer from chronic depression, general unhappiness, and poor self-esteem.
It takes courage to overcome the fear of failing and sometimes the greatest enlightenment comes from defeat.
We’re taught at a very young age that the goal is to get the right answers. And even though we know that we can learn much more from our mistakes, no one wants to be wrong. Failure and disappointment come as a package deal and disappointment doesn’t feel good. But courage and grit are a package deal, too. It takes courage to overcome the fear of failing and sometimes the greatest enlightenment comes from defeat. Gritty people aren’t afraid to fail, rather they embrace mistakes and recognize that it often takes mistakes to achieve progress. They find rewards in recognizing the root of their failures and turning them into successes. It takes grit to be courageous, but courage fuels grit. Perhaps Thomas Edison was on to something when he said,
I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
Gritty people are on a quest for excellence rather than perfection. We tend to use the words excellent and perfect synonymously. But as it turns out there is a big difference. Perfection focuses on the endgame with little patience for the process. Perfectionists view any outcome less than perfect as failure, and many times that perfection is simply their own perception of the ideal. They strive for impossible goals with a relentless pursuit of an illusory prize. As with the fear of failure, perfectionists often suffer from chronic unhappiness, clinical depression, and low self-esteem as they constantly chase the rabbit. Moreover, perfectionists are often described as obsessive, anxious, rigid, and unyielding. These aren’t descriptors of successful, happy people.
The quest for excellence is motivating and far more forgiving than perfection. Excellence is an attitude that emphasizes progress, and progress implies the process of continual improvement. Tony Schwartz refers to this as the “growth conflict.” Paraphrased, we strive for excellence as we continue to learn, grow, and change while also learning how to accept our own limitations and imperfections. The distinction between perfection and excellence is important. Michael J. Fox once said,
I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence I can reach for; perfection is God’s business.
Perhaps the most essential ingredient of grit is passion, and you can’t talk about passion without talking about purpose. Passion enables us to develop stamina and tenacity toward a greater purpose. It’s this symbiosis that creates meaning from chaos, finds value in effort, and cultivates happiness, personal satisfaction, and the sense that what we do really matters. People who genuinely love what they do are motivated by their passion and a greater purpose. They tend to be more satisfied with their work and more healthier psychologically and emotionally. Conversely, people who are unsatisfied at work are more likely to be dissatisfied with their nonprofessional relationships and experience distress in other areas of their lives.
Consider some of the people in today’s society that epitomize success – Steve Jobs, Michael Jordan, Oprah, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, fill in the blank – they have an unrelenting passion for a greater purpose. They love what they do and they do what they love. Malcolm Gladwell identifies this as the most important factor for success. He says,
Nothing happens without desire and passion. Without it, nothing else falls in place. It’s very hard to find someone who’s successful and dislikes what they do.
Grit may be the difference between those who go for the gold and those who just show up. Grit may also be the defining factor in how happy we are in the process. As a student in the classroom or a student in the classroom of life, most of us want to enjoy the rich rewards of success. Perhaps one of the best gifts we can give our students is to teach them how to get gritty and cultivate happiness as they strive for success. And to teach them that, we have to get gritty ourselves.
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