New Directions

Fear of Failing

Because I’m a professor, I spend my days around a lot of people who are doing things for the first time. Many of my students are new to college. Some are planning to travel out of the country for the first time–and some have never left the state, much less the country. (One of my students had never left the county where our university is located before being required to do so for a class field trip.) Others are studying subjects they haven’t encountered before.

“I have never tried to think about stuff like this,” a student told me recently, in reference to her philosophy class.

Not surprisingly, I also have a lot of conversations about my students’ fear of failure. Traditional students aren’t sure they made the best choice in coming to college right out of high school. Returning students aren’t sure they’re really ready to try again. Struggle, it seems, is evidence of error. Anything less than immediate perfection is just proof that they aren’t cut out for what they’ve taken on. If you’ re not coasting, the thinking goes, you’re failing.

But rather than focusing on errors, re-thinking failure itself might be the smarter way to counter that fear.

Our fear of messing up serves an important evolutionary function: it keeps us from getting ourselves into big trouble. The fact that our ancestors survived to produce us is, at least in part, due to a healthy level of hesitation in the face of threat. Problems arises only when our perception of a threat is out of balance with the actual danger it poses.

Enter: the comfort zone. When we deal only with the familiar, we feel completely safe. But a safe life is almost always a small life, too. If that’s a good fit, then fear of failure might never be something you’ll deal with. If you’re feeling a need to stretch, though, you’ll have to re-evaluate your fear.


Recognize that you can’t avoid taking a leap.

While I believe that there are better and worse times for everything, the truth is that there’s never a perfect time for anything. I raised two toddlers while working on my Ph.D.. Definitely not perfect timing. But when I look back, I have to ask: when would have been the perfect time to raise children? While I was on the tenure track, trying to secure my career (and in my late 30’s, which would have presented its own problems)? Before I began my degree, while Mike and I were barely making ends meet?

I’m an academic, which means I like to do a lot of research and careful thinking before I make decisions. But eventually, even I have to realize that it’s time to take a leap and have some faith in myself.

You may never feel totally ready for a challenge. The only relevant question is whether or not you’re ready to take it on.

Consider the scientific method.

The way scientists learn anything is by testing hypotheses–making a logical leap and testing its accuracy. If that hypothesis was incorrect, they figure out why. Then, based on that new information, they take another leap.

That first leap might lead to important information, but it almost never leads to a definite conclusion. As a scientist friend likes to say, “Science doesn’t tell us what’s true; it tells us what a preponderance of the available evidence suggests.” That’s an important thing to remember when evaluating your own fear of failure, because it reminds us that we’re always in the process of learning. New information will lead to leaps in different directions.

So, after you’ve taken a leap,  figure out where you’ve landed. If that’s not where you want to be, decide where to go next. Take another leap. See where you are. Leap again. Repeat that process until you get to where you want to be. And then remember that you can take another leap anytime the available evidence suggests that it’s a good idea.

Fake out your fear.

When I first started teaching, standing in front of a classroom for an hour at a time was utterly terrifying. The only way I got through those early days was by pretending that I was the sort of person who could do that without fear. I thought of The Teacher as a role I was playing, not as the person I was.

Gradually, the line between me and The Teacher disappeared. Suddenly, I was a teacher. That’s because our brains don’t distinguish between real and fake. A forced smile makes your brain respond as if you’re actually happy. When you fake confidence, your brain becomes convinced that you actually know what you’re doing.

So even if you’re terrified of failing, keep telling yourself I’ve got this over and over again. Then behave as if that’s true, and you’ll persuade your brain that it is. So what if you don’t feel it? A fake smile doesn’t need the backing of real joy to do its job. Forget “Fake it til you make it.” Fake it long enough, you’ll be it.


Some years ago, I mentioned to one of the coaches at my university that the baseball players on our college team tend to be really good students.

“That’s because they fail so much,” he said. “They’re out there swinging and missing every single day.”

I’ve failed so many times, at so many things, that I’m pretty confident I’ll recover from any setback. Maybe keeping that history in mind when we find ourselves feeling hesitant about taking a leap is the only real challenge any of us face.


  • Reply Tonya November 1, 2016 at 2:25 pm

    I’ve been feeling a lot of this latily in a few areas. One of them it brings to me near panic and other times I think it’s worth a try and make myself work towards it. A second situation makes me anxious/excired/antsy, it’s a position I want badly but have been finding that I feel if it doesn’t happen I’ll be disappointed but OK bc it won’t change the things I’m passionate about or the projects I’m working on!

    • Reply Pam November 6, 2016 at 9:36 am

      I think it’s really important for us to know which failures count–sometimes, giving something a try is all that really matters. That attempt might be the learning experience you need to succeed next time around.

  • Reply TheSeanaMethod October 31, 2016 at 3:40 pm

    Frequent failure also helps to minimize the amount of angst we feel over each one. When I used to (try and) play lacrosse, I sat on the bench a lot. If and when I got to play, it would be for a very short time, and if I made a mistake, I felt terribly. In contrast, those who started every game failed more than I did, but in comparison to their play time and other plays, it seemed less important. If we can give ourselves to get off the bench, each individual failure can seem smaller and less catastrophic.

    • Reply Pam November 6, 2016 at 9:34 am

      Absolutely! I think one of the reasons I’m less fearful as I get older is the fact that I’ve tried and failed so many things at this point–enough to realize that no failure is going to bench me forever. As we recover from a failure, we learn the coping skills we need to recover next time. And those skills give us the confidence to try again.

    Go ahead, tell me what you think.