Don't Let Fear Of Failure Ruin Your 2016 Goals

Don't Let Fear Of Failure Ruin Your 2016 Goals

This article originally appeared on Forbes by Mark Murphy, Founder of Leadership IQ

New Year’s resolutions are practically an institution. Maybe your big goal for 2016 is to lose weight, quit smoking, work out, advance your career, start a business, double sales revenue, run a marathon, go back to school, save more money, etc. Whatever your goal, I encourage you to make it H.A.R.D. Goals that are Heartfelt, Animated, Required and Difficult stimulate and engage the brain in profound ways, increasing the motivational power that make our goals happen. All the studies on H.A.R.D. Goals indicate that the more difficult your goal, the better your performance will be.

But there’s still one universal issue that holds people back from realizing H.A.R.D. Goals: fear of failure. Big goals are intimidating, and in spite of all the studies on H.A.R.D. Goals, it can still prove tough to shake the belief that the more difficult your goal, the higher the possibility that you could fail.

So how do we overcome that fear of failure and mentally leap the hump of trepidation (or anxiety or fear or whatever you want to call it)? With a pretty simple, three-step process that uses the logical/analytical parts of our brain to rewire the way we think. In clinical psychology, it’s called reframing.


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Step one requires asking yourself a very simple question: “What happens to me if I fail at this goal?” I say it’s a simple question, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy question. Answering it truthfully requires a deep look into some of your inner mental processes. When I’m working with someone (or an entire organization) to figure out what they’re really afraid will happen if they fail at this goal, here are the kinds of answers I hear:

  • People will think I’m weak and couldn’t hack it.
  • I’ll be exposed as someone who talks a good game but can’t deliver.
  • People will be disappointed in me.
  • People will never believe in me again.
  • I’ll never believe in myself again.
  • I’ll die from embarrassment.
  • If I can’t do this, it means I’ll never be able to do anything.
  • It’ll mean that I’m not as smart/talented/skilled as I like to think I am.
  • This is my only shot at this and if I screw up I’ll never get another chance.
  • It means I’m stuck in this state forever.

All these statements are highly problematic. Too often, when we describe what will happen to us if we fail, we use words like never, always, only, die. These are serious and highly charged words, and they reflect a deep level of fear. Saying, “I’ll die of embarrassment if I fail to achieve this goal” is probably a bit of an overstatement when we assess the actual facts. But it is a true reflection of how intensely we feel these fears (even if we don’t acknowledge that intensity at a conscious level).

It’s not unexpected to feel a fear of failure, but the intensity of our feelings can often rival or even exceed the fear we feel from things that might truly kill us. When a fear of failure stops us from tackling a goal, 99% of the time the fear we feel is very different from the fear we’d feel if, say, a hungry lion were charging at us.

Some fear is very healthy. From an evolutionary perspective, fear kept us alive. But there are times when our fear reactions get pointed to something quite abstract, and perhaps even imagined. If you fail in your goal to escape that lion, there’s a really good chance you’ll die. But if you fail in your goal to increase your savings this month, it’s not going to kill you. Nor will we die of embarrassment. Most of the repercussions we face if we fail in achieving our goals won’t really kill us.

The statements on our list of “what happens to us if we fail” are not proven facts; they’re interpretations, assumptions, emotionally charged extrapolations, castastrophizing, irrational beliefs. Call them what you will. But they are not proven facts.

Step two proves this. We’re human beings, not computers, so we can’t just flip a switch and say, “OK, feeling like I’ll die of embarrassment is irrational, so I’ll just stop feeling that way.” Instead, we’ve got to debunk these thoughts in our heads, just as if we were attorneys cross-examining a witness. We’re going to take each of these statements and, one by one, ask ourselves if we can find any examples that might provide evidence to the contrary of what we said.

Let’s take the example, “If I fail to achieve my goal, I’ll die from embarrassment.” Can you find any examples in your life (or even someone else’s life) where you failed to achieve a goal but didn’t die? To take it a step further, can you find any examples where any embarrassment you felt was far less than what you were expecting? Now, by virtue of your being alive right now, I’m guessing you found at least one example that refutes the belief that “I’ll die from embarrassment.”

That’s a pretty easy example to counter, so let’s try something more difficult. How about, “If I fail at this goal, people will think I’m weak and couldn’t hack it.” Again, search your history, or someone else’s history, for counterarguments.

We literally need to take those “what happens to us if we fail” statements and debunk them, one by one. Use your analytical brain and your life history. I’m confident if you take every one of them apart, you’ll find they hold no real power.

Step three is rewriting those original statements. You’ve debunked them, so now turn them around into something a lot more encouraging. Here are some examples of revised statements:

  • If I fail at this goal, people won’t think I’m weak. In fact, they may even rally to my defense.
  • If I fail at this goal, people will still believe in me.
  • If I can’t do this specific goal, it has no bearing on my ability to tackle other difficult goals.

You’ve disproved the negative statements you started with, so it’s just a question of closing the loop and cementing this logically sound bit of encouragement in your consciousness. Overwhelmingly, we have little or nothing to fear from attempting (and even failing at) a H.A.R.D. Goal, because it’s only by attempting our goals that we hone our ability to successfully achieve them. And remember, we’ll have absolutely no control over our lives and destinies if we’re paralyzed by the fear of the mostly imagined consequences of failing at our goals.

H.A.R.D. Goals goal give us the motivational jolt we need to stimulate the brain, get us out of our comfort zone, and excite us emotionally so we’re able to deliver our best performance. Expect some fears, it’s natural. But as those fears pop up, don’t dodge them. Face your goal fears squarely and evaluate how much validity they really have. Are you really going to die of embarrassment if you don’t achieve your goal? Of course not. Nothing rips the power away from fear like a good debunking.

Mark Murphy is a NY Times bestseller, author of HARD Goals, founder of Leadership IQ, a leadership training speaker, and creator of the leadership styles assessment.


Posted by Mark Murphy on 06 July, 2016 Forbes, Goal Setting, no_cat, no_recent, sb_ad_30, sb_ad_5 |
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