Fear of failure has held each of us back at some point. Whether it’s chickening out of talking to someone new or not applying for that dream job because “you couldn’t possibly get it,” it can be really difficult to act when you’re afraid you might not succeed. One solution might be to simply change what we mean by “success.”
A few weeks ago, I was talking to a male friend – let’s call him James – about the agonies of being single and trying to approach people you’re romantically interested in. This is a perfect example of something many people want to do, but avoid for fear of being rejected. “I actually enjoy going out less when I’m single,” James told me, “because I only feel like I’ve had a good night if I manage to hit it off with a girl. But this means ‘having a good night’ is often out of my control – much more so than if I only cared about having a laugh with my friends.”
Later I was talking to a different friend, whom we’ll call Oliver. I told him what James had said and asked if this fit with his experience. I was surprised when Oliver said he hadn’t really ever felt like this. He had a very different perspective: He really enjoyed going out and talking to girls, even if they didn’t respond to him well. The challenge and buzz of approaching a stranger and striking up conversation was fun for him, regardless of what came of it.
It strikes me that James and Oliver are defining “success” in very different ways. For James, success is about how the girl responds to him: whether she seems interested in him, whether she gives him her number, or whether she goes home with him. For Oliver, success is about what he does: it’s having the guts to go and strike up a conversation with a girl he doesn’t know. Because Oliver defines success in terms of what’s under his control, he generally has a much better time. He probably speaks to more girls, too, because he’s less afraid of them responding badly to him.
If we want to get anywhere in life, we need to be able to do things we’re afraid of failing at. Approaching a member of the opposite sex is just one case of this general problem. A novel way to overcome this fear of failure might be to start defining success in terms of things we can control, rather than in terms of things we can’t.
To see why this might help, let’s first step back and think about what the problem is. To learn any new skill (whether it’s chatting up girls, public speaking, or playing the piano), unless you’re some kind of prodigy, you first have to go through a stage where you’re not very good at it. This can make it really hard to motivate yourself to keep trying. Decades of research in psychology show that one of the most important things for motivation is self-efficacy: believing you can succeed. If you don’t believe you can succeed at something, it’s near impossible to motivate yourself to do it. One way to increase your sense of self-efficacy is to frame your goals in terms of things that are under your control. Oliver’s goal, “just talk to girls” is much more motivating for him than James’s, “get a girl’s number,” because Oliver is much more confident he can achieve it – it’s completely under his control.
Setting small goals that are under your control and thus achievable is also a good way to build success spirals (another great technique for boosting your motivation). Have you ever had one of those days where you feel like you’re just knocking down every task that comes your way? The more tasks you complete, the more confidence you have in your ability to complete the next one. This creates a positive feedback loop, making your motivation levels skyrocket.
The next time you find that fear of failure is preventing you from doing something, ask yourself: How am I defining success? If we can reward ourselves more for what we do and focus less on what the outcome is or how people respond to us, then we’ll find it much easier to do new or scary things.