The media loves to tell us stories about the “high cost of failure” – think, Lehman Brothers bankruptcy at about $619 billion dollars (2008), BP’s Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico oil spill at about $65 billion dollars (2010 to present), Yahoo’s total compensation paid to Marissa Mayer for failing to turn the company around at about $137 million dollars (2012 to present), etc. Indeed, the media can keep such stories alive for many months (and sometimes for years) which has the collective effect of lowering our individual appetites to incur risk.
This is neither a wholly “good” or wholly “bad” thing…some lessons can certainly be learned from foolish and/or illicit risk taking behaviors – think Bernie Madoff, Francesco Schettino (ship captain of the ill-fated Costa Concordia) and Jeffrey Skilling (former Enron Chief) to name just a few.
Putting the colossal “extremes of failure” (noted above) aside, though, I think that society as a whole would benefit greatly from lowering the cost of individual failure. I’ve blogged about the “benefits of failure” previously and, recently, I read a great blog post by Scott H. Young called “How to Conquer Your Fears – Engineer a Low Cost of Failure” in which Young prescribes the practical method of essentially taking “baby steps” towards your goals (“the journey of a thousand miles…”) to lessen the “cost of failure”. Young’s basic thesis can be summarized as follows: Simple courage is not enough to overcome our fear of failure. I agree.
Young’s approach is one method for overcoming fear of failure but there are countless other methods that have spawned a similarly countless number of books on the subject as well (an Amazon search currently yields about 1,500 results on the topic).
In his book “10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found a Self-Help That Actually Works” Dan Harris tells the story of how he used meditation and mindfulness to deal with the fearful/neurotic voices in his own head (that he had previously been using cocaine and “ecstasy” to deal with)…knowing that these voices will likely never completely go away. I think that the link between Harris’ book and Young’s blog post is that overcoming the fear of failure is an incremental process…an ongoing journey…and that the more we do it the lower we drive down the “cost of failure”.
I take some comfort in knowing that even those people who appear to have completely “mastered” their fear of failure still have to work at that “mastery” on a daily basis.
For example, I was recently at a business networking event where a man who I thought was easily the most charismatic person in the room because of the many connections that he had and because of the great impromptu speech that he gave only a few minutes before actually expressed genuine feelings of self-doubt in a one-on-one chat that I had with him later that evening.
His comments were along the lines of, “I wasn’t expecting to make a speech…I hope it was okay”, etc. Imagine Superman coming up to you and saying, “I hope my destroying that incoming, planet-obliterating asteroid was okay…hopefully the people of Earth are cool with that”…I reassured “Superman” that he put on a great speech and that he was clearly a “natural”…he wasn’t wearing the “red cape” for nothing!
Bottom line: There is no single or “best” approach to dealing with your fear of failure…only the best approaches that work for you. If you haven’t found those approaches yet, don’t quit until you do find them!