The other day we were talking entrepreneurship with a business school professor, when he somewhat veered from our topic to say, “Fear of failure is unbelievably powerful!” So earnest was the professor in saying this, it was actually surprising. And this guy had once been that 20-something entrepreneur doing battle in the trenches, and still dabbled as both entrepreneur and angel investor, so he knew what he was talking about.
Yeah, failure sucks. Yeah, we fear failure. Certainly we hear it reiterated in our interviews with entrepreneurs. Consider what Flyway Wellness founder Betsy Nesbitt said: “There’s a part of you that’s petrified to fail. You’re afraid to embarrass yourself. You’re afraid to make mistakes.” But his conviction suggested a power from the netherworld – really. Something that could take hold of us, possess us, and make us do unexplainable things. Sometimes fear can be so incapacitating and debilitating that you can’t cope
FDR, Aristotle and the Internet Weigh In
In that light, now consider FDR’s celebrated line from his 1933 inaugural address: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself …” Did you know that the sentence continues with “ … nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” He could have been talking to a roomful of entrepreneurs. Maybe if we got to know a fear a little, it wouldn’t be so scary.
How does fear rate among our emotions? Hell, it’s a preeminent primal emotion, king of the hill even. Across centuries, philosophers have waxed hyperbolic about fear. Here’s what Greek philosopher Aristotle said: “Fear is pain arising from the anticipation of evil.” He also said, “He who has overcome his fears will truly be free.” Hmm, to be free … Getting to a more medical treatment of fear, here are a few juicy tidbits:
• fear has been categorized as “negative and not in control,” and paired with anxiety, embarrassment, helplessness, powerlessness, and worry;
• fear is also considered a primary emotion with the secondary emotions of horror and nervousness linked to it;
• linked to horror are the tertiary emotions of alarm, shock, terror, panic, hysteria, and mortification, among others;
Here’s another interesting nugget. In his book Click: What Millions of People Are Doing Online and Why It Matters, Bill Tancer took a look at the search phrase beginning with “fear of…” to understand what types of fear people were most interested in. The results in order of most to least: flying, heights, clowns, intimacy, death, rejection, people, snakes, failure, and driving. So failure makes the top 10. Won’t ever beat clowns, but not bad.
It’s a Survival Mechanism – That’s Good
So we have these threat-related stimuli (the specter of failure being one) that prompt fear and all the physiology that goes with it – racing heart, sweating, muscle tension, stomach butterflies – you know, the stuff that results in flight or fight impulses, or also paralysis, that is, freezing. Essentially it causes some kind of adaptive behavior on our part to either avoid or cope with it. Let’s say we can’t avoid it. So how do we cope with fear? Pray? Pop a pill? Find a DIY YouTube video? If only it was that easy. Ask ten people and you’ll probably get ten different answers.
Bottom line, fear is a survival mechanism. That’s a good thing; therefore, maybe we just have to accept fear as part of the deal. “It’s part of the process,” as Nesbitt says. So embrace it. Understand it. Maybe talk about it with someone – for many of the entrepreneurs we’ve interviewed, talking about emotions rather than burying them was one of the best changes they made in their lives. Just have to be honest and truthful, and throw it on the table.
Circling back to fear of failure. The business school professor suggested listening to what Lean Startup guru Steve Blank has to say on the topic. So we did. There’s actually a good talk of his posted on YouTube called “Failure Sucks” – check it out. In the opening, he says, “Anyone who tells you failure’s good, it’s fine to fail, obviously has never done it. It’s not fine to fail, it’s terrible, but if you’re afraid to fail, then you’ll never succeed.” That latter line is the crux of it for us. It kind of boils down to: You only pass this way once so you gotta give it a shot!
The sentiment echoes what Wethos co-founder Rachel Renock told us: “If I do everything in my power to try to get this thing to work and I pour all of my energy into getting this thing off the ground and making it happen, then if it fails, at least we tried. … At least I tried to make something out of my life. I took a chance, I took a risk, and it worked for a second.”
Rather than Popping a Pill or Praying, Consider …
Of course, there are all sorts of methods for dealing with fear, and everyone deals with it differently. If you search the term “overcoming fear of failure” or just “overcoming fear” you get a gazillion hits as you can imagine. We perused a bunch with a wide range of suggested tips. In short and in part, they include:
• Know your fear and root causes
• Expose yourself in gradual doses to what you fear to become more accustomed to it
• Make decisions and stick to those decisions, rather than backpedaling and feeling bad about yourself (no regrets!)
• Yoga, meditation, reflection, journaling, and talking it over are often mentioned
• Exercise, eat healthy, cut out alcohol and drugs (including caffeine)
• Consider therapy and support groups (a number of entrepreneurs we’ve spoken to have sought therapy and recommend it!)
You might find these links useful to better understand the range of options:
https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/overcome-fear-anxiety (Scroll down to the section on “How Can I help Myself?”)
And maybe, it’s just helpful to know that there are lots of us who are afraid, but you work hard and get through it.