The fear of failure can hold us back from success—but research suggests that we can change the way we think and feel about it.
Most people don’t know this about me, but I applied to graduate school five times. Each collection of annual rejection letters stung. I failed again, I thought every time I didn’t get in.
But now, looking back on these failures with my Ph.D. in hand, I see that each one was a learning experience, a part of the journey forward. It shows that we’re taking risks—risks that can either result in failure or pay off big. By being willing to take these risks, we make it possible to experience great success.
That all sounds good in theory. But how, exactly, do we use failure to our advantage when it feels so bad to fail, especially in our work?
When we fail, we worry that we’ll be punished and we feel ashamed, so we try to avoid failure at all costs. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The first step is to overcome our fear of failure, and these three steps can help.
1. Find the benefits of past failures
All negative experiences have some benefits, even if they are hard to see or appreciate in the moment. By practicing finding these benefits with past failures, you may be able to enhance this ability so that it is easier next time you fail.
To find the benefits, start by picking a past failure and writing out three things you learned from it. For example, if you missed an important deadline, maybe you learned that you need to prioritize better, say no to more projects, or tone down the perfectionism. Ask yourself: Have you made any changes to prevent failures like this from happening in the future? If not, take the time now to make a few small changes.
Next, ask your friends how they have benefited from past failures. For example, a former boss of mine once published an error in a paper, and now she triple-checks everything. A colleague stumbled through giving a presentation, and now he’s less afraid to stumble again; he can handle whatever happens. Witnessing others overcome their failures can help decrease your fears and show you how to find the benefits of your own mistakes more easily.
Plenty of business experts will tell you that you should reflect on your failures right after you experience them, as a way to extract maximum learning from the experience. Keep in mind that if you are still feeling upset about the failure, it will be harder to come up with effective solutions—so it might be better to wait until the sting has subsided.
2. When failure is possible, view it as a challenge
Completing important tasks—tasks that you could fail at—is stressful. But how you choose to approach this stress is up to you.
If you think of stress as a threat, as many of us do, your body will prepare for battle—and you’ll feel like you’re in a battle. On the other hand, if you choose to view this stress as a challenge, then you’re more likely to think you are capable of handling it. As a bonus, thanks to the calming effect it has on your body, you actually will be more capable and less likely to fail.
To build a challenge mindset, reflect on past challenges that you’ve overcome. Let’s say you’re worried about a meeting with your boss. Take a moment to think back to past meetings. Did you handle them successfully? What exactly did you do? When you remind yourself that you have succeeded before, the task in front of you doesn’t seem so insurmountable.
Next, visualize success. By imagining yourself doing well, you feel more positive, which can enhance your performance. On the other hand, if you ruminate about what could go wrong, your fear builds, and the failure you fear becomes more likely.
Keep in mind that even if you are able to shift your brain to stop seeing something as a threat, you may feel similar physical sensations, like nerves and shakiness. If you notice these, try to see them as excitement, energy, and “good” stress—evidence that what you’re doing is important to you.
3. Treat yourself kindly when you experience failure
There will never be enough hours in the day to do your best on every project. You’ll be cramped for time or make a mistake or disappoint yourself. In these moments, you can be really mean to yourself. Or you can choose to be kind to yourself, taking steps and cultivating attitudes that can stave off guilt, shame, and embarrassment.
One way to be kind to yourself is with self-care. For example, you’ll benefit from seeking out a friend to talk to who you know will be compassionate. Or you may prefer a stress-relieving activity, like exercise, to help you cope with intense negative emotions. Or you can try any of these workplace stress busters.
It’s also important to practice self-compassion when you make mistakes. Remember, everyone fails and there is no need to be a bully to yourself, feel guilty, or put yourself down. Indeed, that kind of attitude won’t help you persist in the face of failure in the future. Instead, try talking to yourself in a way that is supportive, kind, and caring—and you’ll be more likely to acknowledge mistakes and do better next time.
With these tips in mind, you can more easily overcome your fear of failure at work and in life. In my life, I went from being a cashier making minimum wage, to getting a Ph.D. from Berkeley, to owning a small business. I still fail at something almost every day, but because I am willing to try, I also succeed sometimes, too.