In more ways than one, the world still longs for answers to its biggest challenge of the year; the pandemic which people have accurately compared to flying an aeroplane while building it. On one hand, there has been an undisputed process of learning in the plunge to uncertainty.
On the other, people have addressed the equally formidable task of constantly discarding or putting aside the knowledge that may have outlived its usefulness.
Whether it is the need for consistency in messages about responses to the coronavirus pandemic, or debate on the most ideal protective measures for the new public health environment, a key lesson was, and still is, to avoid looking at failure as marking the end of the road.
In this same time, I have heard and learnt from aspiring writers who are recovering from rejected book manuscripts. In responses to their drafts, they received comments like bad timing, stock characters, overdone and crammed back story, and complicated. Many have thought of giving up on writing, driven and tormented by a fear of failing again.
I have understood the disappointed writers’ feelings of sadness, shame, regret and resignation. After all, it is accepted that the average human view is that failure is unacceptable. This article emphasizes the beneficial role of fear over its detrimental nature.
The author of Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Guy Winch, writes that, “unless you learn to respond to failures in psychologically adaptive ways, they will paralyze you, demotivate you, and limit your likelihood of success going forward.”
On his part, the late American investor Thomas Edison once said that, “I have not failed. I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.”
The two examples which introduce this piece show that failure is not always avoidable. As a result, it is important to think about ways of recollecting one’s mental strength and getting back to work again.
Because we cannot entirely escape failure, some scholars call it a powerful enabler. Whether we are doing after-action reviews or post-mortems, the next step is to project failure as an opportunity for continual learning instead of the easier option of throwing in the towel.
Research shows that a fear of failure causes people to be “self-protective and avoid challenging situations and opportunities that are essential for learning and development”. Instead of accepting failure, they are more concerned with measures to minimize their loss of self-image and self-respect.
Psychotherapist Amy Morin notes that, “everyone has unhelpful thoughts sometimes, like self-doubt and catastrophic predictions. Mental strength can help reframe those thoughts and deal with uncomfortable emotions like embarrassment, fear and anxiety.”
The fear of failing should not, however, detract from the work that one considers as purposeful and valued. This is also true amidst the plethora of present-day potentially life-changing situations and challenges.
The presence of fear and doubt in decision-making and behavioural responses can be self-reinforcing. To survive and thrive, people need to confront and eliminate the roadblocks which fear quickly installs on the mind after experiencing setbacks.
Accordingly, business coach Don Yaeger suggests that it is important for communities to be more accepting of failure: “failure is the lack of success which induces a feeling of inadequacy, which in turn perpetuates the fear of failure in future endeavours, especially in a position of leadership. We must create an environment in which fear is not ridiculed or shamed but encouraged.”
In a study entitled ‘Fear of Failure and Entrepreneurship: A Review and Direction for Future Research’, Gabriella Cacciotti and James C. Hayton write that the “fear of failure can be many different things – from the worst of enemies to the best of friends. The experience of fear is a complex, understudied, and highly nuanced issue”.