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Overcoming A Fear Of Failure

by R P Gibson 2 months ago in humor

No matter how many people I run down in the process

Photo by Samuele Errico Piccarini on Unsplash

Driving is scary

Hands at 10 and 2, check your wing mirrors, adjust the car seat, ensure the air vents are pointing at a comfortable angle, maybe get out and check the pressure and treads of the tyres, flip the bonnet and check the oil levels, and while you’re in there make sure the windshield washer thing is filled, check underneath the vehicle for bombs or hanging cables that could signal your breaks being cut, then get back inside and try for the tenth time to see if your wife will drive for you, say a little prayer after she says no…

You know how it goes, all the standard cockpit checks.

With all that done, you wipe the heavy moisture forming on your forehead and you’re ready to go.

For me, driving was something that had to be done, rather than anything I actually wanted to do. I didn’t want a car and still don’t. I didn’t want to own my own personal death trap and run the risk of being pounded in to a smoldering cube of metal every time I needed to nip to the shops for a loaf of bread.

All my friends starting learning to drive at around 18, which is the norm in the UK, and at the risk of being considered a social outcast (gasp) I learned too.

I was always a nervous wreck sitting behind the wheel of a car. It felt like too much responsibility, with far too many things that could go wrong with a relatively low margin of error. Modern vehicles put all their faith in the driver, whereas in days gone by, for example with a horse and carriage, the amount of control the driver had was always negligible.

The best driver in the world is always at the mercy of the horse if the latter wonders what will happen if it flies off a cliff.

Horses and carriages were slower, but at least if I went flying off a cliff it would the their fault and not mine, you know?

“What if I’m driving, and a maniac slams in to the back of me, or my breaks fail, or someone’s tyre pops, or someone runs across in front of me, or maybe I sneeze and in that split second of terror I slam in to a pavement full of pedestrians?”

Of course, my wife rolls her eyes. She can’t understand any of this because to her, these things would never happen.

A fear of failure

For years I put this fear of driving down to a naturally nervous disposition, a lack of confidence I’ve suffered from my entire life, consolidated by (and because of) the fact that I’m just not very good at it. I’d be driving 30 in a 50 zone, sweating buckets, making wrong turns — why bother putting myself and others through that?

But no, this problem runs far deeper, because this is far more than just driving, and it is more than just me that this is a problem for: this is something that affects career goals, affects us on the dating scene, affects us taking the necessary steps to accomplish what we want in life.

For me, more than anything else, it’s something which affects my writing, because I’ve been putting off my writing and making excuses far longer than I’ve been putting off driving.

This is a fear of failure (atychiphobia to those interested in the scientific terms).

It comes in many forms and people have many ways of dealing with it in their day to day. Below is the Quadripolar Model showing success versus a fear of failure:

By Victoriagc - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

You’ll notice there are four sections of this chart: Self protectors and failure acceptors (both of whom have a low chance of success in whatever they’re trying to do), and optimists and overstrivers (those whom generally have greater success).

And you’ll notice that a fear of failure (the y axis) runs through all these sections. I’d place myself quite comfortably as a Self Protector, i.e. taking few risks and thus minimising chances of failure, but as a by product also reducing (in many cases to zero) my chances of success.

After all, driving around an empty car park for 20 minutes every few months isn’t going to get me anywhere, is it? No, I’m quite literally going nowhere doing that. So my chance of failure is reduced, but my chance of success is as well.

This is the basis of a fear of failure. Playing it safe. Saving your ego/pride by not participating, rather than having to deal with the idea that you aren’t good enough.

Looking elsewhere on the graph our other options are to either accept our own failure and not try at all (failure acceptors), dive head first with confidence and failure be damned (optimists), or overcome our fear of failure with increased effort and devotion to minimise the risk (overstrivers).

That’s right, a fear of failure doesn’t mean you can’t succeed. If you can’t overcome it, you just have to put in extra effort to minimise it like an overstriver does. That’s all there is to it.

A fear of the unknown

At the core of a fear of failure is the fear of possibility, or the fear of the unknown. Nobody in the world knows what will happens when you hit submit on that manuscript you’ve been working on, or when you put the car in to gear and start moving, or when you take the plunge to set up your own business, or whatever else you may do.

“This person is a fraud! They’re no good! Everyone laugh!”

That’s what you imagine people will say.

And sure, that’s a possibility. Some times that worst case scenario will happen and it will be bloody awful and you’ll be tempted to stop trying. But remember, that’s worse case scenario. Out of all possible scenarios, that is the worst. It will be altogether more likely that something else happens far less damaging, possibly even that you succeed.

Ever imagined that?

So… how does one combat a fear of failure? Only two ways unfortunately. First is the easy way: to not combat it at all, to avoid the thing altogether and give up.

In other words, become a failure acceptor.

“You don’t overcome a fear of sharks by swimming naked in the ocean with strips of ham taped to your body, do you? No, you stay out of the damn water!”

The other way of dealing with a fear of failure, which is the far more difficult than that first option, is this: just do the damn thing.

Become an overstriver if you have to. Failing builds tough skin. Failing once makes failing a second time a little bit less painful, as you realise that it isn’t so bad. Those worse case scenarios in your mind are just that: worse case scenarios, not likely scenarios.

Failing also makes you get better and thus makes you fail less often. We learn from mistakes, whether that be self reflection, feedback, or whatever. You may never truly stop fearing failure, because it’s a natural human reaction. But the more you try, the less you’ll notice it, because you’ll be getting better and failing less.

So all of this to say: just do the thing.

Write every day if that’s your thing. Drive if that’s what you want to do. Dance if you’re that way inclined. Whatever your goal, if you find yourself blocked by a barricade of fear, you just need to do the thing and fling yourself at that barricade— it’ll hurt the first few times but eventually if you fling yourself often enough the barricade will come tumbling down (or at the very least you’ll get used to the pain).

As for me, I still don’t write as much as I should. I still dither on projects and look at what I’ve written and question what the hell I’m doing wasting my time with this.

Every now and then, I toss something to a publisher and hide under my sheets waiting for the rejection email to come back, hoping it isn’t too scathing. But every day I’m getting a little bit braver. Every day, I care a little bit less about failing.

And some day I’ll get back to driving too.

So for your own sake, stay off the goddamn roads.

* * *


R P Gibson

British writer of history, humour and occasional other stuff. I'll never use a semi-colon and you can't make me. More here -

Read next: Don’t Allow What Works for Others to Stifle Your Writing

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