Why are we all so afraid of failure?


We know that failure plays a crucial role in success. It’s how we learn. So why are we so afraid of it?

To understand failure and its more attractive antithesis, success, we need to explore what they mean to us as individuals. Collectively, we as a culture have an entrenched notion of what success looks like and in the stampede to achieve it, we forget to examine our own unique notion of it.

As a society, we celebrate successes such as doing well at school, getting a good degree, and hitting certain landmarks at the appropriate time. And within our microcultures, there are smaller targets; being promoted, buying a house in the right neighbourhood, receiving a certain number of likes on social media. Most of these perceived successes rely on the approval of others. (As a side note, there is now even a syndrome called approval addiction.)

Whenever I read about entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Richard Branson, I’m always surprised and yet not surprised to learn that they have left formal education early and yet went on to create powerful businesses.

I did try to find some notable female entrepreneurs who dropped out of college and there were surprisingly few on the list. We’ll examine why later.

In an interview with UK Business Insider, Bill Gates commented that he enjoyed college among other reasons because "they gave you these nice grades that made you feel smart". He went on to say: “I don't think I missed any knowledge, because whatever I needed to learn, I was still in a learning mode.”

Maya Angelou, the American poet, writer and civil rights activist tried out fifteen jobs including sex worker and cable car conductor before she enjoyed a writing career spanning 50 years. She suggests: “It may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

Maya Angelou ·  Credit: Craig Herndon, Washington Post)

Maya Angelou · Credit: Craig Herndon, Washington Post)


This idea that failure can help you to learn who you are and teaches you what you can overcome is something we at Healthy Selfish are keen to explore.

We can all buy in to the notion that learning from our mistakes is how we achieve success, BUT it’s rare to meet someone who doesn’t actively try to avoid the humiliating and miserable experience or failure.

I’m sure we can all agree with Bill Gates, when he says ‘we all need people to give us feedback, it’s how we improve’. And yet, the elusive skill of giving and receiving feedback is one of our most requested masterclasses as I know it is for many other leadership trainers.

Moving to women is a big change of subject.

To consider this further, let’s examine why there aren’t so many notable female entrepreneurs on the college drop-outs list. At a recent conference for women in advertising and media run by Bloom, Patricia McDonald Managing Director, Strategy and Insight at Weber Shandwick talks about an increasingly noticeable phenomenon called The Good Girl Trap.

The “Good Girl’ Trap

The “Good Girl’ Trap


She drew this bell curve to illustrate her concern that the lure and trappings of achievement and positive feedback overrides a woman’s natural urge to challenge the status quo, which is as we know the only way we can make an impact.

An Australian corporate mental health survey reported that 33 per cent of women surveyed in corporate workplaces had high perfectionism scores, compared to 21 per cent of men.

Psychologist Peta Slocombe, who conducted the survey said perfectionism would manifest in results such as a lack of "tolerance for making mistakes or errors, not getting everything done that they wanted to get done, and getting feedback that isn't positive".

The other unsurprising information from this survey was about high self-criticism, 44 per cent of women exhibited this trait, compared to 34 per cent of male respondents.

So we know that women have a higher rate of perfectionism and self-criticism, but we can also see that these are not insignificant statistics for either gender.

Perfectionism can be both good and bad for us. We know it can cause anxiety stress and depression. Researchers at the University of Montreal have found a link between perfection and anxiety-induced compulsive behaviours such as nail biting, cheek chewing and hair twiddling.

But we also know that if we have the adaptive kind, it is what drives us to do bigger, better and greater things.

To throw a final spanner in the works, clinical psychologist Jodi J. DeLuca, PhD points out that perfection doesn’t even exist. He explains to Elite Daily...

"The goal of perfection is an unrealistic expectation, as the pressure that is placed on the individual can lead to burnout, depression, and anxiety. It involves the higher cortical functions with the neocortex (the thinking brain) and the limbic cortex (the feeling brain). Because it involves that unrealistic goal, with the feeling brain, you get the anxiety, and the thinking brain, you're getting a lot of the frustration. So in a nutshell, perfection is a misplaced goal."

So what does this mean for how we approach success and failure?

Could it be that instead of perfection, we strive for continual improvement? And that as part of that, we use failure as a means for learning about ourselves and the world.

Perhaps it would also be helpful to take a step back and examine the goals we’re working towards to check whether they are aligned to what success means to us as individuals.

By getting focused on our own trajectory, we can keep rooted to our individual goals instead of becoming distracted and disheartened when others achieve milestones that are externally defined.



Jack Watkins