Why are we so afraid of failure?

“The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

I remember when I was about 8 or 9, my older brother told me that there was a monster in the main hall closet. He warned me that if I was too slow when I walked by, the monster would grab me. He left the rest to my impressionable and colorful imagination as to what would happen next.

Obviously having no reason to doubt the word of a big brother – all the younger siblings reading this will know what I mean – I would, like a bolt of lightning, run by the closet at least 3 or 4 times a day. After all I had to, as this was the only route to my bedroom.

I can only imagine what my father while sitting in his favorite chair, wondered what I was doing on those occasions when his bespectacled head would peer over the top of his newspaper to see me streak by him as if my life depended on it.

This sprint-fest by the closet door went on for many weeks, then something happened.

I am not sure why but, for whatever reason I became tired of being afraid. Perhaps it was the countless times that I had stubbed my toes on the frame of my bedroom door because I was too preoccupied with looking back to make sure that I had eluded the terrible beast? Maybe it was the fact that the initial thrill and relief of escape had dissolved into a sense of annoyance? I really don’t know. What I did know is that I had had enough!

So I walked right up to that door, and opened it. I then went into the closet, closed the door while still inside, sat down and dared the monster to get me.

At first I felt a sense of absolute terror at the prospect of coming face-to-face with my nemisis. Then, as a few more seconds that at the time seemed like an eternity passed, the terror was gradually replaced by a feeling of relief and finally a sense of joy and accomplishment. I had done it! I faced down the monster in the closet and emerged stronger and more confident.

I was too young to realize it at the time, but this was a moment that would stay with me for the rest of my life. Based on this early childhood experience, I came to realize that our biggest fears are often times more freighting in our anticipation of what might happen as opposed to what usually does happen.

Take failure for example. Why are we so afraid of failure?

Fear of Failure

A few years ago I interviewed one of the top Venture Capitalists in the high tech industry, Brad Feld.

During the course of our conversation, he had indicated that unlike entrepreneurs in other parts of the world, North Americans view failure in a negative light, as opposed to being the necessary building blocks for ultimate success.

Feld’s observation left an impression because we tend to look at failure as something to avoid, a terminal condition that once experienced, becomes a permanent part of who we are.

I am of course not talking about the valuable lessons that we should gain and retain from our setbacks. What I am talking about is the paralyzing loss of confidence or belief in our ability to ever succeed once we have taken a stumble.

Think of it in the context of my monster in the closet story.

What would have happened if I had never opened that door and bravely sat down and dared the monster to get me?

It is possible that I might have grown up to avoid situations that made me either fearful or even uncomfortable.

Our fear of failure, like my fear of that “imaginary” monster, can prevent us from pursuing our dreams and achieving all that we are capable of achieving.

Edison on Failure

The fact is that failure is inevitable. I have failed per my “million dollar napkin” post, as many times in life as I have succeeded . . . and I am not alone in this experience.

Instead of avoiding it, we should face it like the monster in the closet.

By doing so, we will discover that while challenging, disheartening and even frustrating, failure is not as Churchill once said, fatal. Failure will however make us smarter and stronger and better prepared for the inevitable success that is just around that next corner.


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