When you are stuck and trying to make a decision, what do you tell yourself? One answer people give for inaction is fear of failure. Yet, when probing this response, we may find fear of success is an equally important reason for indecision. Both fears may prevent us from moving forward, but for different reasons.
Fear of failure and fear of success are two sides of the same coin. Each face of the coin represents fear and provides information for decision-making. When we want to take appropriate action, first we need to recognize which type of fear we are facing and then confront the fear. To do this, consider “Heads” of the coin to represent thoughts in your head. “Heads” thinking is based on self-limiting beliefs (internally focused), which are controllable by you. “Heads” thinking represents fear of success. “Tails” thinking, on the other hand, comes from beliefs about external events, some of which are not controllable by you. “Tails” thinking represents fear of failure.
Within this context we will look at some results of failure and beliefs about failure. We will do the same for success. To accomplish this we will use three lenses to examine beliefs about each type of fear. The first lens focuses on beliefs about those people we report to. How we see leadership, business or institutional – our boss, supervisors, managers, directors, officers, vice presidents, deans, executives, and boards. The second lens gives perspective on those we work with. How we see co-workers – peers, direct reports, subordinates, and others. The third lens views how we see ourselves (you). Next, knowing beliefs for each type of fear we will discuss possible implications for each. Then, we will discuss how to use your insight for improved decision-making.
Results of Failure and Beliefs
Fear of failure (“Tails” thinking) maybe may default thinking because we fail more often than succeed. It is natural to fail when learning a new task or completing difficult assignments. Also, results from failure are openly discussed in our culture so we assume we fear failure when faced with something new. For each lens, beliefs about failure may include:
Results of Success and Beliefs
Fear of success (“Heads” thinking) may be less often discussed than results of failure. As described, failure is part of learning and we fail many times before we succeed. Therefore, we have less experience with results of success, unless we are one of the few who continually succeed. Also, the downside of success may be viewed as necessary and acceptable because success is usually desired. Therefore, we are less familiar with outcomes of success so we are less likely to identify fear of success when faced with something new. For each lens, beliefs about success may include:
Implication for Decision-Making
Every event requiring a decision will present unique factors for evaluation of fear of failure and fear of success beliefs. In this example, fears of failure are primarily driven by beliefs based external factors such as culture, resources, and opinions of others. These factors are not under your control. As Stephen Covey observes, you may have concerns about these factors and they may influence you but they’re not within your circle of control. Therefore, making decisions based on factors beyond your control would be risky.
Fears of success, on the other hand, are primarily based on beliefs arising from internal factors, which may be more easily overcome once you understand them. These beliefs are controllable by you because they are based on your negative thinking about potentially positive outcomes of success.
Apply Your Insight
Return to the coin. Examine your fears as you look at the coin. If your fears about leadership and co-workers are primarily “Tails,” based on factors beyond your control, proceed with caution in decision-making. Fear of failure is largely about avoiding something with negative consequences. However, you have an ability to change your thinking about yourself related to failure, just as you do with success. Therefore, in our example, one-third of your beliefs about failure may be controllable by you.
If your fears are primarily “Heads,” all beliefs about obstacles to success (leadership, co-workers and you) are within your control. As such, fear of success is about avoiding something positive. If it’s possible to change your beliefs about success, such as success would be desirable and implications of success are manageable, you have strong evidence to proceed. By naming your type of fear, you will eliminate what’s holding you back from taking action.
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Richard Wilberg, MS, PLCC, ACC
Life and Business Coach
About the Author
Richard Wilberg is a coach, musician, photographer, and former business leader who lives in Madison, Wisconsin.