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Fear of Failure Scares off Many Successes

Harvey Mackay
From an International Speaker, Author, Columnist and Consultant Perspective

Issue 73: July 2008
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Of all the fears that come with being in business, I think the fear of failure is the worst, the most paralyzing and the most costly.
Costly? How can that be? Don't the actual failures themselves cost a lot of money?
Sure they do. But refusing to try new ideas, methods or products because you're afraid they might fail can prevent you from growing your business and your customer base. Fear can cloud your judgment and make calculated risks look like Mt. Everest.
I have taken some colossal risks in my career, not without some fear. But it was never fear of failure. I have had spectacular failures. And no, that is not an oxymoron. A spectacular failure can, and often will, lead to your most spectacular success.

Fear of failure starts at an early age. Throughout our school years, we are graded on what we learn. A big red F on a test is a demoralizing event, even when we knew we hadn't studied or prepared for the exam. The goal was always to make straight As and impress all your pals and parents. You aim for the honor roll, the dean's list and head of the class.

Fast forward about 10 years. You've gone out on a limb to support a project that sounds foolproof, but it's not working quite the way it was supposed to. Your brilliant career is tarnishing—you're worried that you will be labeled "a failure."

Stop worrying. Start learning from your experience. Sometimes a little tweak will fix the problem. Sometimes you need to scrap the whole mess and chalk it up as a teachable moment.

"A fall from the third floor hurts as much as a fall from the hundredth. If I have to fall, may it be from a high place," says Brazilian author Paola Coelho.

Orville and Wilbur Wright and Professor Robert Goddard knew something about falling from high places.

All of us who benefit from jet travel can thank the Wright brothers for learning from their failures. At the turn of the 20th century, after they failed to launch the largest glider ever flown, the brothers predicted that man would probably not fly in their lifetimes. But that didn't stop them from trying.

In 1903, Orville took their latest design, dubbed "The Flyer," for a few test flights. The first two failed. But the third attempt resulted in 12 glorious seconds aloft, the first powered, piloted flight in history. Fear of failure wasn't in their vocabulary.

In 1919, Professor Goddard published a scientific paper, "A Method for Reaching Extreme Altitudes." The essence of his work was that human space travel was possible. You can imagine how well his work was received, considering the Wright brothers had their first successful—but very brief—flight 16 years earlier.

The New York Times led the media criticism with the opinion that Goddard "does not know the relation of action to reaction. He only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in our high schools."

Was Goddard a failure? At the time, many thought he was crazy. In fact, Goddard is today considered to be the father of modern rocket science. The newspaper admitted its own failure, owning up to its ignorance some 50 years later. As the Apollo astronauts blasted off for the moon in 1969, the Times printed an apology for the 1920 editorial.

British author Samuel Smiles summed it up: "We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success. We often discover what will do by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake, never made a discovery."

Failure is seldom fatal, unless you are like Karl Wallenda, the famous tightrope walker. Wallenda had fallen many times in his career, but always got up and tried again. However, he was killed in 1978 (at age 73) in a tragic fall in a promotional walk in Puerto Rico. His widow said, "All Karl thought about for three straight months prior to the accident was falling. It seemed to me that he put all his energy into not falling—not into walking the tightrope."

Keep your eye on the prize, and understand that sometimes you won't win. But you only lose if you stop trying.

Mackay's Moral: The biggest failure of all is not trying again.


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