Overcoming fear of failure

Overcoming fear of failure

A common reason professionals don’t reach their full potential is a fear of failure. This fear can stop people from applying for a new job or a well-deserved promotion, or from sharing their ideas and expertise in a conference presentation.

On the day-to-day level, it drives procrastination; after all, if you never finish the task, you can’t possibly be judged on it and found to have failed. Both a tendency towards perfectionism and deadline pressure exacerbate the fear.

If a fear of failure is holding you back, here are seven steps you can take to overcome it:

1. Work out what it is you really dread. “Fear of failure” is actually a bit of a misnomer. It tends to be the emotion we will feel, rather than the failed event itself, that we dread, whether that is being turned down or making a mistake in public. Failing is no big deal. We all do it, and we learn from our mistakes.

In reality, what we’re afraid of is the shame or humiliation we may feel if we don’t succeed, or we feel our effort was not good enough, especially when the stakes are high. We may also feel shame if we believe people think we are not smart enough, not experienced enough, or just not as good as someone else, though our perception may bear no relation to what they actually think.

2. Admit the real fear to yourself. As soon as we name a fear, it loses some of its potency. So, if you dread the shame you would feel if people laughed at you in public, say that out loud: “I am afraid of feeling ashamed if people laugh at me when I give my presentation at the conference.” Naming the fear is the first step to facing up to it.

3. Ask yourself three questions:

  • What’s the best that can happen?
  • What’s most likely to happen?
  • What’s the worst that can happen?

Then work out what you can do to maximise the likelihood of the best possible outcome and minimise the risk of the worst. Come up with a plan and follow it.

4. Focus on what you can control. If your worst fear is people laughing at you during your presentation, for example, minimise the likelihood of that happening by preparing well and practising what you’re going to say. Try things out in front of people you trust, get constructive feedback from your colleagues, and act on it, even if it is painful.

5. Mitigate what you can’t control. Identify the risks and decide how you will respond if things don’t go quite to plan. Sticking with the conference example, find a way to deliver your presentation if technology fails. Be able to speak without notes or prompts, or give your presentation using just a flipchart.

I was speaking on the subject of resilience at a business conference, and the laptop died just before I stood up to address the audience. It threw me at first, but I ended up doing the whole thing on a flipchart – resilience in action. I enjoyed myself, and the delegates loved it.

6. Think about past successes and draw on your positive experiences. It’s easy to focus on our mistakes and what went badly. In fact, we’re biologically programmed to do this, as it keeps us safe. However, thinking about what has gone well in the past, our strengths, and our talents gives us a lift and can help us be successful. We tend to forget or discount things that go well, so it’s a good idea to keep a record of achievements and successes you can look through when you need a confidence boost.

7. Ignore the fear. Pretend it’s not there. In my experience, getting out of your comfort zone by taking the first step and doing the thing you fear is the best way to increase your confidence and reduce your fear of failure, and ultimately fulfill your potential. Just try it.

Jackie Fitzgerald ( is a UK-based career coach who specialises in helping professionals develop their confidence