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Fear of failure

Fear has been on my zeitgeist lately, coming up in a lot of conversations about business and personal life. It’s a strange emotion, and our culture has a lot of different ways of spinning our reaction to fear.

No Fear.

Face your fears.

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.


And then there’s the un-spoken but all too real feeling of fear that we deal with on a daily basis. That makes us balk before action, that makes us change course, load up with accessories of safety, and sometimes even pre-emptively strike.

I’ve been consumed by my own new set of fears recently. Quitting a job and starting up something brand new is a scary thing to do. Suddenly you realize just how much money a regular pay check offered. And there’s a secondary fear in there… knowing that you are completely free can trigger a strange fear of freedom. And the third layer… the guilt of possibly having too much of a good thing and having a fear that the universe will unleash some hidden mechanism that hangs back the teddy bear just when you started getting attached to it.

There’s fear. And there’s our response to it.

Fear is an emotional response triggered by a perceived threat or danger. To completely rid ourselves of fear is probably not a good idea. Threats and dangers would then have a sitting duck to target at their leisure. It’s important to pay close attention to our own cognitive response to fear, and it’s slower acting cousin anxiety.

This secondary response, the cognitive response, is in many ways more helpful or harmful to our lives than the original causes of the fear. Maybe this is what FDR meant by fearing fear itself — how we respond to the things we are afraid of could end up hurting us more than the actual things we are afraid of.

Like many people, I am afraid of failure. That fear makes me obsess over the amount of money and time that I have to live on. It makes me have trouble sleeping at night, and makes me a little antsy at all times, probably leading to quicker emotional responses to negative stimulus. It affects my health and ability to enjoy things in the moment without wondering if that moment might in some way be hastening the end of all enjoyable moments.

In a more productive sense, it also makes me explore business options, keep an eye out for new ideas at all times, execute on ideas quickly to see if they have lasting value, etc. Fear is a great motivator and can help get to the real point of what you want to do. It discourages dilly dallying.

When people think about their ideal world, a world where we’re all millionaires and all doing exactly what we want to do with our days, madly in love with our spouses, family, friends, career, and selves, I’m guessing that most of the time people would neglect to add a healthy dose of FEAR to the mix. And yet, it’s fear that brings us to ourselves and makes us focus on the things that are most important to us.

This is a long ramble, and one likely to continue as I unravel my own fate in the presence of fear, but I guess my only point at the moment is to say that at the end of the day, I’m glad I’m afraid.

4 Responses to “Fear of failure”

  1. Fear is an interesting thing… something I study a bit for my day job. One thing we’ve learned is that the human brain’s capacity for dealing with fear is more grounded on neolithic times than most realize. Some good writing on this subject out there. Here’s some that’s centric to my field but you may still find illuminating http://www.schneier.com/essay-155.html

  2. Hey Buster — I went thru many of those feelings in the last 2 years, so if you’d ever like to talk about them, and how I came to grips with them and now live much better with them (they pop up from time to time), just send me an e-mail, and we can catch up for a coffee, lunch, drink…

    I think what you’re doing’s fantastic (even the v1 Locavore was cool… but I’m positive that you’ve got even more special stuff coming).


  3. Buster,

    I’m really glad that you wrote this. Striking out & doing something new is terrifying, but no one ever talks about that part of it. I’m actually experiencing this right now too. My aunt always tells me to do one thing every day that scares you- & I think she’s right. Comfort can be over-rated. We don’t know who we truly are unless we put ourselves in a new set of circumstances.

  4. [...] been thinking a lot about fear, self-criticism, etc.  I know enough about myself to know that I don’t really have trouble [...]