The fear of failure is not talked about much, but it is something that is very real.
For some of us, we grew up in cultures of perfection where we only pure, untainted success will do. To retain your reputation as an achiever, you must reach every goal and never, ever make a visible mistake.
For that very reason, we stick to the tried and tested model, even though it’s not always the best available option for us.
Not too long ago, that was the way I operated. I wouldn’t venture out to try something new, for fear that I would fail. Accompanying that failure were the basic emotions of disappointment, frustration and shame — all of which I did not want to bear. I saw failure as a death blow rather than just a series of jabs which I could recover from.
Over time, the fear of failure became crippling. I lived on past achievements, no matter how small they were. As I stopped experimenting and hence growing, I was regressing relative to my peers. This was not just in terms of how well I was doing in school, but also in how I was growing as a person.
And guess what? I was just a teenager, stuck in school, and sheltered away from the harsh realities of life. Yet, I was already afraid of failure.
I couldn’t continue living like that. Nobody can in today’s world.
I was fortunate enough to experience, and subsequently, escape this dangerous line of thinking early in my life. There are others who have been ensnared by the fear of failure their entire lives.
How do we overcome the fear of failure?
Look no further then to the co-founder of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman. In his book, The Startup Of You, Reid Hoffman urges people to be in a state of “permanent beta”.
To the uninitiated, beta refers to a stage in development where the product is being tested through constant experimentation and usage. During this stage, an imperfect product is released to a select group of testers in order to receive feedback. This way, bugs — problems with certain features — can be quickly surfaced and worked on. Only after most errors are resolved is the final product released for general use and considered complete.
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” — Thomas Edison
When we approach life in the framework of permanent beta, failure is not something that we have to avoid. Rather, it is part of the process. Every failure and setback during this period of beta is immediate feedback of what’s working and what’s not. There is nothing to fear about failure because it is not an indictment on our capability and potential — it is simply an evaluation of our progress.
It’s not easy to discard the security of perfection. Doing so opens ourselves to criticism and rejection. However, this seemingly lopsided exchange is another trade of short term pain for long term gain. We accomplish more in a year living vulnerably than we would in ten years living cautiously. We keep failing forward.
The best start-ups often release their product, even though imperfect, for beta testing to improve quickly. Even then, development takes far longer than expected. Gmail, for example, launched in 2004 but only left official beta in 2009, even though millions of people were already using it.
If Google can spend five years experimenting a product that constitutes zero to a negligible percentage of their revenue, you can spend your entire lifetime experimenting on something far more important — you.
“We are at our most alert when we are in danger of failing. The greatest growth comes from being alert, scared, and striving.” — Dan Sullivan
An Experiment In Learning
Failing forward means putting out work that isn’t perfect. Your aim isn’t to produce the Mona Lisa; rather you want to just ship a minimal viable product and get started. You aren’t afraid of failing because you know it is not your magnum opus — there is more to you than that.
Start a side hustle or pet project. That allows you to explore something that you normally wouldn’t do. It’s also not a radical change, which allows you to sustain your interest without being overwhelmed by practical concerns. Beyond the skills you learn, you’ll also overcome the fear of failure since you are thrown into the deep end of the pool. You’ll eventually learn to tread water with your constant struggling.
Writing is my personal pet project. Through it, I can document the challenges that I face. I can journal my learning and personal growth. It is not on the level of Tolstoy, nor is it Hemingway-esque. It does however, serve its purpose of allowing me to create something that is unique to me and helps me grow by forcing myself out of my comfort zone. Most importantly, it is an act of creation and not just one of consumption.
Work In Progress
Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, concludes every annual letter to shareholders by reminding readers, as he did in his first annual letter in 1997, that “it’s still Day 1” of the internet and of Amazon.com.
In the same vein, we should all be allowing ourselves to be a work in progress. Keeping yourself in permanent beta forces you to acknowledge that you have bugs, that there’s new development to do on yourself, that you will need to adapt and evolve. It is a lifelong commitment to continuous personal and professional growth.
For entrepreneurs, “finished” is an F-word, because they know that great companies are always evolving. “Finished” ought to be an F-word for all of us. Because when it comes to life, we are all works in progress.