Why We Glorify Failure-And Seven Ways to Overcome the Fear of It

Every time I turn around, it seems someone encourages me to fail. Fail. Fail fast. Fail frequently. I'm doing great on my own without the encouragement, but failure seems to be going viral these days!

I get it. The message is that we should take risks, try new things, and get outside of our comfort zone where the chance of failure exists. Personal and business growth comes from outside our comfort zone. We succumb to the status quo within our comfort zone and breed mediocrity. And quite frankly, it's where we learn to suck! All of which should be avoided! Risk is a prerequisite for everything good in life, but we may occasionally skin a knee when taking it. We need to reframe the concept a bit. We shouldn't be trying to fail or fail frequently. However, we should be taking risks that may lead to it, and we shouldn't fear failure to the point of paralysis.

Warren Buffet refers to the ABCs of business decline – Arrogance, Bureaucracy, and Complacency. All three characteristics are risk-averse, and as a result, forward movement slows, eventually leading to stagnation. Stagnation leads to decline as more innovative, risk-taking competitors build momentum and surpass the "ABC" business. Taking risks avoids the dreaded ABCs, although a company can certainly fail due to flawed strategy and execution. But hey, better to die trying than to lay down and die.

The difference in our performance when we are playing to win instead of playing not to lose is tremendous. You can't win a game unless you have scoring chances, and you don't get scoring chances with all players defending your net. You must push hard enough and risk a crash to win a car race. Think about this in terms of your business. Do you tell clients or prospects what they need to hear or want to hear? Do you pursue more prominent or more complicated clients than your typical client? Do you price to resistance or price for acceptance? Are you playing to win?

Failure can be a powerful motivator, as the sting from a losing argument, match, or poker hand may bring us back with a vengeance in the next round. Failure is a way of measuring the degree to which we push ourselves and our businesses outside of our comfort zones and towards success. Hence it's glorification.

Why do we avoid it if there is a strong case for risk-taking and potential failure?

Simply put, failure is painful, and we don't like pain. We'll do anything to avoid it, and we would prefer to feel nothing rather than feel pain.  

We are hardwired to avoid risk and failure. Nine times out of ten, our primitive fight or flight instincts will have us retreat deep into the cave in response to new stimuli as we evaluate whether it can kill and eat us or if we can kill and eat it. When we convince ourselves of the latter, we slowly exit the cave potentially to find that the current opportunity has passed us by. These "survival" instincts exist to keep us safe despite their flaws.

Our parents reinforce these inherent safety mechanisms in our early years by startling us with their overreaction when we go near the stove, stairs, or road. Participation awards support these "play it safe" messages throughout our formative years. Conventional workplace wisdom seals the deal by promoting SMART goals, which are achievable and realistic, meaning someone else already took the risk.

Nature and nurture join forces to keep us safe and in precisely the same place as we are today! Leaving the safety of the nest we've created to chase the unknown brings about anxiety and fear, which must be conquered.

7 Ways to Overcome Fear of Failure

  1. Have a strong vision – If we'd rather feel nothing and live in a numb state than feel the pain of failure, we have to dig deeper for motivation. Having a powerful, clear vision of the preferred future can provide it. What does it look and feel like when you get there? To use some of Tim Ferris' work, what will you be, have, and do when you arrive? Do the positive emotions of achieving that vision outweigh the negativity of failure along the way? Visualize, then act!
  2. Put failure in perspective – We need to keep failure at bay by evaluating it in the context of the timeframe or goal we are pursuing. For example, I may fail today but be successful for the week. I may fail this week but be successful for the month. I may lose this game but still have a winning season. Thomas Edison said, "I haven't failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." That mindset kept Edison on the path to success, ultimately finding the one way that did work. Keep your feet moving.
  3. Read – I know. I criticized SMART goals earlier in this blog as a counter to what we are trying to accomplish. But we'd be hard-pressed to pursue a path without being able to find a book, YouTube video, whitepaper, etc., that at least gets us partway down it. Please take it to the next level but mitigate your risk by leveraging existing IP. I recommend Jia Jiang's book, Rejection Proof, which discusses resilience and success despite rejection and failure in a very entertaining way. More hypocrisy - I also recommend being very strategic on what you read as over-educating is insidious, making us feel good that we are doing something worthwhile while preventing us from taking real action. As author Steven Pressfield says, "do the work!" 
  4. Find a mentorA mentor is typically an informal relationship you develop with someone who has done it before and is willing to share their wisdom. They impart their knowledge by offering answers and solutions as the primary focus of the relationship, and a secondary focus may be the mentee's personal development. Mentor relationships can be compelling in mitigating risks, but not unlike the previous section on reading, they may only take us partway down the path.  
  5. Hire a coach or consultant – Coaching and consulting are professional relationships focused on your success and are also potent risk-mitigating options. The terms coach and consultant are sometimes used interchangeably, but the difference is significant. The chart below draws the distinction:
  6. Join a peer or mastermind group – The combination of a facilitator/coach, peer/mentor, and a common goal can be a tremendous tool for individual and business success. A testament to its strength is the popularity of groups like Entrepreneurs Organization, Young Professionals Organization, and Vistage (TEC for our Canadian friends). Avoiding mistakes others have made, seeing what's worked elsewhere, and the added accountability to your group can help you capitalize on opportunities, minimize risks, and accelerate your success.
  7. Lift and Deploy – Last but certainly not least, "borrow" ideas from competitors and other businesses facing the same issues. Public accounting is not the only industry dealing with staffing issues. How are different sectors handling it? Discount brokerages like eTrade experienced significant downward fee pressure on their core services (driven to zero). How did they deal with it? Mcdonald's "borrowed" its drive-through concept from the banking industry, which has worked out quite well… 


Contrary to popular belief, failure is not the key to success. Taking chances and risks, pushing the envelope, learning from failures, and course-correcting, when they occur is the key. Business is about managing risk. I recall an experience I had attending a meeting with a venture capital firm and an entrepreneur raising money for his second venture after a very successful exit from the first. The entrepreneur didn't want to commit any of his money to the venture. He was managing his financial risk, and I'm positive he was using some if not all of the seven methods listed to manage the rest.

Release the ball and chain that is the fear of failure by understanding why taking risks that can lead to failure is important, why we avoid these risks, and how to mitigate risk.