I’ve been thinking a lot about failure lately. It sounds strange and perhaps unconventional to approach these rose-colored glasses the start of the year with such a view. But this is not pessimism, nor is it my intention to drown myself in the shortcomings of others. Instead, on this journey to overcome my fear of failure, I have realized that the saying holds true. Every failure is an opportunity to learn, changeand grow.
This philosophy of failure proves it even more: Our missteps and defeats are not the end of our story. They mark a point on our road map to success. And truly, when we look at mistakes without criticism and instead analyze the information they offer, we are able to move forward with more wisdom and power.
Selected image of Simone Boyce by Michelle Nash.
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How to overcome your fear of failure and achieve your goals
Culturally speaking, we have perceived failure as the worst imaginable experience. We are supposed to feel shame when a business fails, a relationship fails, or even an exercise plan fails. But is there a way to redefine failure—to let go of our fear of failure—so that we can freely explore the possibilities around us? Read on for my proven tips for embracing failure, honoring your efforts, and taking on new challenges with grace.
Our missteps and defeats are not the end of our story.
Nothing in life is a zero sum game
I gleaned this beautiful insight from Holly Whitaker’s recovery memoirs/social criticism, Exit as a woman. In a section on “Relapse Failure,” she walks us through the many truths about failure that we often forget. That failure never sends us back to the starting line. You’ve probably heard that growth (or healing, success, insert whatever you want here) isn’t linear, and that’s exactly the case. On our journey we encounter challenges that send us in new directions, revelations that accelerate our progress, and setbacks that can slow our growth. But we are still on the way and still driven by hope. And now, armed with our failures, we have a greater understanding of how to achieve the success we seek.
Whitaker writes:[…] I failed several times. These failures were not a setback; they were rungs on a ladder—precious, painful, and defeating experiences I had to endure to learn the things I needed to succeed.” Failure is knowledge and a beautiful, inextricable part of your story.
In many ways, failure says that you are not afraid because you have been brave enough to innovate, pursue passions, and grow in ways that those who have never acted on their fear of failure can never know. As a woman in my late 20s, when I look back on my journey so far, I can see with such clarity the many ways I have failed over the years—and the many ways those failures have rewarded me in the long runs.
I didn’t get into my dream university. But you know what? I wouldn’t change my college experience for the world. I didn’t get any of the 68 jobs I wrote individual cover letters for my senior year (yes, really). But going through rejection after rejection helped me become aware of the professional path I wanted to pursue. And when I didn’t get into graduate school to become a therapist, I knew: being a writer was the dream I wanted and always wanted all along.
Everyone fails, and the more we embrace its inevitability—and push forward without fear—the more deeply we can connect to an honest and passion-driven life.
You must honor your growth before anyone else
While failures are an inherent part of the growth process, others often won’t see it this way. Here’s the hard truth: Until you achieve visible success, you won’t receive external validation of your efforts. The only way to combat it? Stop looking for it. I’ll say it again: you must honor your growth before anyone else does. IN Atomic habits, James Clear is quick to emphasize this reality and contextualize it through our habits and what he calls “the valley of disappointment.” He writes:
“[…] people feel discouraged after putting in weeks or months of hard work without experiencing any results. However, this work was not wasted. It was simply stored. It is only much later that the full value of previous efforts is revealed.”
Like Whitaker’s belief that failure teaches us what we need to succeed, the moments that go without praise or recognition from others remain essential parts of our journey. And perhaps even more than those moments of reward, they teach us what we are working for – and why we really want it.
Remember: failure is always worth it
From this moment on, whenever you fail (because you will fail), remember that whatever we pursue, whatever we try or attempt, is both a practice and an endeavour. And it is one worth pursuing as much as the goal itself.
To illustrate this, I’ll share what might be my favorite line from it Exit as a woman. Reflecting on the experience of quitting, Whitaker writes, “It’s hard, and not in the way that it’s impossible, but in the way that makes it worth doing.” As we try, fail, and perhaps eventually succeed, we prove our resilience to ourselves. Again and again we remind ourselves that we can overcome the obstacles we face and navigate the roadblocks along the way.
By letting go of my own fear of failure, I have learned to reflect experience of failure—how it feels and the emotions that come with it—have been some of my greatest teachers along the way. So when you fall short, miss that opportunity, or experience a perceived setback, ask yourself the following:
- What does this experience tell me?
- What is the next step I can take that acknowledges where I’m coming from and sets me in the direction I want to go?
One final note about failure
If you are in a place where you feel paralyzed or unable to move forward because of your fear of failure, you are not alone. Society, social media and the world around us make us believe that we have to be perfect before we can pursue any goal. But you have my permission to be your messy, beautifully imperfect self as you navigate the ups and downs of your journey. Remember: It won’t look like anyone else’s, and really, that’s the point.