So, you’ve got something on your mind. Maybe you’re dreaming of changing your career path or you’re weighing a big decision in your business. Maybe you just accepted an offer to a graduate program and you’re second-guessing yourself. Or maybe it’s time to make a big move in a relationship, like proposing to the love of your life or preparing to become a parent.
Whenever we face a new challenge, we have to deal with the fear of failure. What if I don’t have what it takes? What if our new product line is a bust? What if she says no? Whether you’re 18 or 80, we all experience doubts like these. We’re all in process. We’re all growing and learning and failing and getting back up and trying again.
I love this quote from Winston Churchill: “Success is not final; failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” I don’t want fear of failure to hold you back from living the life you’re dreaming of. So, let’s talk about what causes the fear of failure and what practical steps you can take, even in the face of fear.
What Causes Fear of Failure?
While each one of us struggles with the fear of failure, we all probably have different backstories surrounding that fear. Your story is unique, and it’s a good idea to spend some time reflecting on the root cause of your fear. Here are a few reasons we develop a fear of failure:
- Perfectionism: Often, we don’t want to try something new because we’re afraid of feeling dumb or not doing it right the first time around. The key to overcoming perfectionism is to give yourself the permission to be a beginner (more on that in a minute).
- Comparison: It’s easy to fear failure because we care so much about what others think. We compare ourselves to people around us instead of focusing on who we want to become.
- Past trauma: All of us carry scars from painful things we’ve experienced. You might be afraid to put yourself out there because you don’t want to risk a repeat of what happened last time. But as my good friend Dr. John Delony says, “Your past is a context‚ not an excuse.” We can’t blame our past for our present—at some point, we all have to choose to make changes in our lives.
- Belief systems: Our values and beliefs are often engrained into us from a very young age. Your family’s patterns of talking and relating with each other shaped you more than you realize. You are bringing a unique perspective on life to the table. And that’s a good thing! But sometimes, our beliefs can hold us back. For example, if you were told by your parents that you weren’t smart enough to be a (fill in the blank), then you might struggle to believe you can accomplish great things, even as an adult.
- Negative thoughts: Often, we’re our own worst enemy! You probably hear all sorts of discouraging lies in your head about who you are and what you can accomplish. When you hear those voices, I want you to pause and challenge those negative thoughts. Instead of listening to yourself, you need to talk to yourself and replace negative thoughts with positive ones.
- Tying your self-worth to your accomplishments: If you’re like me, it’s easy for you to find a sense of meaning in what you can accomplish. But when you find your worth in what you can do, failure becomes devastating, because it reflects on who you are at your core. We all need to work extra hard to separate our sense of self-worth from our jobs or our goals.
How to Overcome Fear of Failure
Okay, let’s break this down. Here are 10 practical steps you can take today to overcome the fear of failure.
1. Recognize that fear is normal.
We should expect to feel afraid when we’re doing anything meaningful or challenging or worthwhile. Fear doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong—in fact, it probably means that you’re doing something right. That’s because the good things in life usually involve some risk, which is scary.
Want to build a non-anxious life? Learn how in Dr. John Delony’s new book.
I was scared out of my mind when I was preparing for my first ever Business Boutique event. All sorts of thoughts were racing through my head: What if no one comes? What if my talk doesn’t land? What if everyone hates every single minute of it? After the event—which turned out to be a success—I slowly started to replace fear with confidence.
Of course, fear still surfaces whenever I face a new, scary challenge, and I’m sure it will for you too. But we can reframe our mindset. We can choose to see fear as a sign that we’re doing something bold—not something bad.
2. Give yourself permission to be a beginner.
Often, fear keeps us from moving forward with our decisions and dreams because we want to be perfect from the get-go. We want to hit a home run, get 100 on the test, and give a stunning performance on our first try. But let me break it to you: When you start something new, it’s not going to be perfect. And that’s okay!
When I first became a public speaker, I had to give presentations and talks to some tough crowds. I would get distracted by some of the things people did in the audience. I would feel nervous and, every once in a while, forget a train of thought or stumble over my words. But you know what? I had to start somewhere, and so do you.
By giving yourself permission to be a beginner, you can set aside your need to be perfect and just get started. As you take one small step after another, each step gives you confidence and fuels the next step.
3. Decide to learn from failure.
In 2020, people went crazy over the docuseries The Last Dance, which follows the legendary career of Michael Jordan and focuses on his last season with the Chicago Bulls. One of the big themes of the series—and one of the things that I admire the most about him—is how he embraces and learns from his failures.
Michael Jordan says, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
You see, with the right mindset, we can see failure not as an enemy, but as a teacher. I guarantee that any successful person you admire—in business or leadership or sports or as a great mom or dad—has experienced a lot of failure.
The reality is, there’s no such thing as a risk-free life. But when we decide to learn from our mistakes, we can let our present failures fuel our future successes, just like Michael Jordan did.
4. Talk to someone you trust.
One of the best things we can do when we feel afraid is talk to someone we know and trust. This could be a friend, mentor, pastor or spouse. A lot of the time, we get stuck in our own heads about our plans and dreams. We feel the overwhelm start to creep in, and we feel stuck. But there’s something about processing your fear out loud that makes it less intimidating.
Plus, if you’re opening up to someone you trust—someone who loves you—you’re going to gain some valuable insight and advice on next steps to take.
5. Ask, Who am I fighting for?
Your fear is holding you back from something important—and chances are, it’s holding back other people you care about too.
For example, let’s say you have a dream of starting a nonprofit or a business, but it feels way too big and scary to wrap your head around. I want you to pause and consider this question: Who am I fighting for? There are real people who need the solution or product or service that you’re dreaming up. And if you choose to stay stuck in fear, those people will never be blessed by what you have to offer.
Even if you’re facing a more personal goal, like getting into shape or working toward a career move, you’re fighting for more than just yourself. You benefit everyone when you take care of yourself.
6. Give yourself multiple options.
If the fear of failure is keeping you from making a big decision, brainstorm multiple options and evaluate each one.
Let’s say that you want to make a career switch. It can be terrifying to leave a familiar space and step into the unknown—especially when you’re taking on a financial risk. But here’s an important thing to keep in mind: Good information leads to good decisions.
Do your research. Talk to people who can connect you. Give yourself multiple timelines and approaches to solving this problem. Be intentional and thorough, and in the end, you’ll be able to make a well-informed decision out of confidence, not fear.
7. Ask, What if?
When you’re weighing a new project, business idea or personal goal, think worst-case scenario. Ask yourself: What if my worst fears come true? Will I survive? When the answer is yes, the decision is no longer so scary. You know that even if it doesn’t turn out how you hoped, you’ll be okay in the end.
I love how Dave Ramsey puts it: “Once I know I’m not going to die from making this call—even if I’m wrong—it releases me to make the call.” You can silence the whispers of fear by recognizing that, if you actually do fail, the world will keep spinning. And you can get back up, brush it off, and start over with a new perspective.
8. Recognize the cost of not trying.
Suzy Kassem says, “Fear kills more dreams than failure ever will.” Ouch. Living in fear comes at a cost. It will cost you your dreams and hopes and plans, and everything good you feel led to create and be. So, you’ve got a choice: to sit on the sidelines or to participate in your own life. Get up and get after it! Yes—you might experience some failure from time to time. But your dreams are worth the risk, friend.
9. Learn to adjust on the fly.
We often fear failure when we feel locked in to a specific course of action once we commit to something big and scary. But learning to be flexible and adapt to challenges can help us avoid failure, or soften the blow from mistakes we make.
Just because you started in one direction doesn’t mean you have to continue going in that direction. You aren’t stuck. When it’s not working, you can come up with something new. You can stop, reset, change your mind, and make a change.
Whatever it is you want to do—take on a physical challenge, start a new business, ask someone out on a date—will take you down a path you can’t predict or control. Be open to shifting your approach and growing throughout the process.
10. Do it scared.
Nothing will silence fear like doing the thing you’re afraid of. In the end, it’s up to you to sign up for the race, walk onto the stage, launch the blog, start the business, or put yourself out there. It’s up to you to get to the other side of your fear. Don’t wait until you’re not scared to do the thing you want to do. Do it scared. There’s something extraordinary waiting for you on the other side.
Gain Confidence to Face Your Fears
Friend, even if you feel stuck and overwhelmed and terrified of doing the thing you want to do, you don’t have to stay there. You don’t have to wait until you suddenly feel courageous to take action. You can learn to build confidence in yourself and, more importantly, in the God who created you.