Nick Johnston9 May 2018

Three questions to help you conquer your fear of failure

One of the biggest roadblocks to innovation at a lot of organisations is a lack of flexibility and risk-taking. Organisations have historically avoided taking risks, instead focusing on ‘safe’ opportunities for growth where the risk of failure is lower.
But in an age of disruption, organisations are beginning to encourage employees to take more risks in the pursuit of innovation and growth. The issue now is that there is a lingering culture of taking the safe option even if the riskier option has a high potential pay-off. We have grown to think of failure as ‘bad’, to avoid it, and even fear it. We need to conquer this fear to unlock our full innovation potential.

So how can we push past this fear?

I spent the summer teaching myself to surf (you might remember I promised I would). After a couple of lessons and buying myself a second-hand board I was ready to jump in and give it a whirl. But on my first trip to the beach, I sat in the car for 45 minutes watching the waves roll in as I contemplated whether I should just head home.

The truth is I was scared. Scared of failing. What if I couldn’t do it? What if I made a fool of myself? Would people laugh at me?

Then I asked myself a couple of questions: “What is the worst thing that could happen?”, and “What is the best thing that could happen?”.

The worst thing that could happen was I couldn’t surf, I made a fool of myself and people laughed at me. But this happens all the time anyway and it’s not so bad. And a lot of this downside could be overcome by practicing by myself, away from the pros (and anyone for that matter).

The best thing that could happen is that I would have a new hobby that was good exercise and free, I could learn a new skill and I might even find something I love doing. I could even be the next Mick Fanning*.

*Don’t laugh – I still haven’t given up on this dream.

Surely that payoff was worth the potential risk! So I jumped out of the car to show-off some of the worst surfing I imagine a person could do. Three months later I have not looked back. I am slightly better at surfing and much better for the experience.

Push past your fear
My story may seem silly (and a little embarrassing) in hindsight, but fear of failure stops us every day.

Think back over the past month in your job. Have you had an idea in a meeting but didn’t share it in case it got shot down? Or maybe you did something the ‘old way’ because you knew it works even though you know there is a faster or better way? This is your fear of failure holding you back.

So next time you get to this point, stop. Take a deep breath and ask yourself these three questions:

1. What is the worst thing that could happen?

2. How can I limit the chance of the worst thing happening?

3. What is the best thing that could happen?

If the potential downside is small and the potential upside exponential, what are you waiting for?

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