Psychology: Learning to fail can bring success

An old Chinese proverb says ‘failure is not falling down, but refusing to get up.’

Have you avoided a challenge rather than risk failure?
Most of us have done that. We have a fear of experiencing failure. Yet, we also know it would be foolish to expect to win and succeed at everything we do. Our emotion has us in fear of things our reason knows are inevitable and even normal. There seems to be a disconnect between our emotion of fear and our intellectual reason.
For some people the emotional fear of failure is so great it severely limits their ability to succeed in life. They set unrealistically high expectations for themselves and believe that anything less than success at those levels is failure.
Carol Dweck studied such perfectionist tendencies in school-age children. She studied bright children for whom school work and grades came easily.
They were the top of their class and were often told they were smart or even brilliant. Problems surfaced for these children when they faced challenges and adversity in areas in which they did not excel. If work did not come easily and there was a real possibility of less than stellar performance, these children would avoid the challenge. The few that did not avoid the challenge would become hypervigilant in their work and extremely nervous in fear of not attaining perfection.
Adults with these perfectionist tendencies set up unrealistic goals for themselves. They overload their schedules with endless work which induces high levels of stress. Not only do they impose such standards on themselves but they often do so of their colleagues as well.
The first step to overcoming the problem of ‘fear of failure’ is to realize the toll it is taking on you and on those you work with. The price you pay is in your peace of mind and your struggles with work. If failure is inevitable and you are worried about avoiding it, then you will be living with high levels of stress. In addition, you will be overly invested in making sure every aspect of your work is perfect, and it may make you feel the need to go over and over it multiple times while avoiding completion.
THE FIRST STRATEGY to use after realizing the problem is to change your frame of mind from goals of perfection and universal approval to striving for excellence and doing the best you know you can. That means not focusing on the end goal all the time but on the effort you put in daily and recognizing the small accomplishments along the way. It is also necessary to accept, to understand and even value the fact that failures are an important part of the process. They are valuable learning opportunities.
For parents it means they should learn to encourage gifted children’s efforts rather than only their abilities or performance. It may seem counterintuitive, but praise of their talent is detrimental to someone with a fear of failure if it is not accompanied with praise for their effort.
The advice I have given to many a parent of such children is to emphasize the effort that went into an accomplishment rather than the result. Rather than saying, “It’s great that you got an A- in that course,” a parent should say “It’s because of your hard work studying and reviewing that you were able to get an A- in that course.” There needs to be a link between the work, the effort, and the result. If school work is too easy, then challenges need to be found.
Your approach to accepting failure is relevant in the workplace as well. Seth Godin is one of the most heralded and brilliant online marketing experts. He not only emphasizes the importance of accepting failure in order to achieve success, but he advocates the need to embrace your failure in order to do significant work and succeed. In many of the successful companies he ran, Godin included failed attempts in the corporate culture. People were encouraged to fail because it was a sign they were willing to take risks of doing something special.
In fact, he said that in one company he called two employees for a negative review because there was nothing they failed at in the past 12 months. For Godin, not to fail means not pushing the envelope or daring to do things that would make an impact. It is a sign you have settled for a safe way out. You have settled for mediocrity. One of the key strategies to overcoming “fear of failure” is to consider failure as a learning experience. In his endless struggle to create the light bulb, Thomas Edison said: “I have not failed; I just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” You must see the pitfalls and failures as stepping stones to learn from. If you can see your failures as lessons learned, and appreciate the small successes on your way to a greater goal, you will achieve success.
The writer is a positive clinical psychologist who helps clients in his Jerusalem office and gives workshops on positive psychology to businesses and organizations.