I’ve been thinking a lot about failure lately. It sounds odd and perhaps unconventional to approach this rose-colored glasses start-of-the-year with such an outlook. But it isn’t pessimism, nor is my intent to drown myself in others’ shortcomings. Instead, along this journey to overcoming my fear of failure, I’ve realized that the adage holds true. Every failure is an opportunity to learn, change, and grow.
This philosophy on failure proves it all the more: our missteps and defeats aren’t the end of our story. They mark a point on our roadmap toward success. And in truth, when we look at failures without criticism and instead analyze the information they’re offering, we’re able to move forward with more wisdom and power.
Featured image of Simone Boyce by Michelle Nash.
How to Overcome Your Fear of Failure and Achieve Your Goals
Culturally, we’ve posited failure as the worst possible experience. We’re meant to feel shame when a business fails, a relationship fails, or even a workout plan fails. But is there a way to redefine failure—to release our fear of failure—so that we can freely explore the opportunities around us? Keep reading for my tried-and-true tips for embracing failure, honoring your efforts, and taking on new challenges with grace.
Our missteps and defeats aren’t the end of our story.
Nothing in Life is a Zero-Sum Game
I picked up this beautiful insight from Holly Whitaker’s recovery memoir/social critique, Quit Like a Woman. In a section on “Relapse Failure,” she walks us through the many truths about failure that we often forget. Namely, that failure never sends us back to the starting line. You’ve probably heard that growth (or healing, success, insert whatever you’d like here) isn’t linear, and that’s exactly the case. Along our journey, we come into contact with challenges that send us in new directions, epiphanies that speed up our progress, and setbacks that may slow our growth. But we’re still on the path and still driven by hope. And now, armed with our failures, we have a greater understanding of how we can reach the success we’re after.
Whitaker writes: “[…] I failed multiple times. Those failures weren’t some setback; they were rungs on a ladder—precious, painful, and defeating experiences I had to endure in order to learn the things I needed in order to succeed.” Failure is knowledge and a beautiful, inextricable part of your story.
In many ways, failing says you aren’t scared because you’ve been brave enough to innovate, pursue passions, and grow in ways those who have never acted on their fear of failure can’t ever know. As a woman in her late 20s, when I think back on my journey so far, I can see with such clarity the many ways I’ve failed over the years—and the many ways those failures have rewarded me in the long run.
I didn’t get into my dream university. But you know what? I wouldn’t change my college experience for the world. I didn’t get any of the 68 jobs I wrote individual cover letters for my senior year (yes, really). But going through rejection after rejection helped me get intentional about the professional path I wanted to pursue. And when I didn’t get into graduate school to become a therapist, I knew: being a writer was the dream I wanted, and have always wanted, all along.
Everyone fails, and the more we embrace its inevitability—and push forward without fear—the more deeply we can connect with an honest and passion-driven life.
You Have to Honor Your Growth Before Anyone Else
While failures are a built-in part of the process of growth, others often won’t see it this way. Here’s the hard truth: until you achieve visible success, you won’t receive external validation of your efforts. The only way to combat that? Stop seeking it. I’ll say it again: you have to honor your growth before anyone else does. In Atomic Habits, James Clear is quick to emphasize this reality, contextualizing it through our habits and what he calls the “valley of disappointment.” He writes:
“[…] people feel discouraged after putting in weeks or months of hard work without experiencing any results. However, this work was not wasted. It was simply being stored. It is not until much later that the full value of previous efforts is revealed.”
Like Whitaker’s belief that failure teaches us what we need to succeed, those moments that go without praise or acknowledgment from others still remain significant parts of our journey. And perhaps even more than those moments of reward, they teach us what we’re working for—and why we really want it.
Remember: Failure Is Always Worth It
From this moment onward, whenever you fail (because you will fail), remember that whatever we pursue, whatever we try or attempt, is both a practice and an endeavor. And it’s one that’s worth pursuing just as much the goal itself.
To illustrate this, I’ll share what’s perhaps my favorite line from Quit Like a Woman. Reflecting on the experience of quitting, Whitaker writes, “It is hard, and not in the way that it’s impossible, but in the way that makes it worth doing.” When we try, fail, and perhaps eventually succeed, we prove our resilience to ourselves. Over and over again, we remind ourselves that we can overcome the obstacles we encounter and navigate the roadblocks along the way.
In releasing my own fear of failure, I’ve learned that reflecting on the experience of failure—what it feels like and the emotions that come up along with it—have been some of my greatest teachers along the way. So when you fall short of the mark, miss that opportunity, or experience a perceived setback, ask yourself the following:
- What is this experience telling me?
- What is the next step I can take that acknowledges where I’m coming from and sets me in the direction I want to be headed?
A Final Note on Failure
If you’re in a place where you feel paralyzed or unable to move forward because of your fear of failure, you’re not alone. Society, social media, and the world around us make us think that we have to be perfect before we can pursue any goal. But you have my permission to be your messy, beautifully imperfect self as you navigate the ups and downs of your journey. Remember: It won’t look like anyone else’s, and in truth, that’s exactly the point.