Fear of Failure? What’s Failure Anyway?


Definition of failure

Lately, I have been fascinated by people’s definition of failure and how they perceive implications. What they told me varies so much that I found myself googling the Merriam-Webster definition, just to make sure my perspective wasn’t too far off from the norm.

Failure is omission of occurrence or performance.” OK, so, basically failure means that something we wanted to see happen didn’t happen. That’s not a big deal, right? Scrolling down a bit further, the second definition is lack of success. That seems incredibly arbitrary, don’t you think? There is no universal way to assess success. If each of us can define success based on our desires and values, and failure is lack of it, failure is just as subjective as success.

So, I am back to thinking it’s perfectly acceptable for each person to define failure the way they want, especially when they are assessing events in their own lives. That’s a highly empowering perspective. We can make failure as large or small in our own minds as we wish.  

Fear of failure

Fear of failure can be paralyzing. Every day, many higher ed. leaders choose not to make a decision, not to start a new initiative, or not to apply for a new position, because they are afraid to fail. But if failure means not getting what you want, and letting fear stop you from pursuing what you desire, also leads to not getting what you want, isn’t that failure too?

While I am not a fan of recklessness, I am a big fan of courage. And I know I am not alone because thanks to Brené Brown, courage is a topic being widely discussed right now in leadership. It’s about time! Especially in higher ed., where bureaucratic processes, tradition, and politics can seriously impede change and improvement.  

Stop fearing failure

Brené compels her readers to be courageous and willing to fail when she tells us that “There is no innovation and creativity without failure. Period.” In her Netflix special, she insists that getting in the arena and doing courageous things guarantees there will be failure along the way. She implies that we shouldn’t just be open to the possibility of failure, but ready to experience it because it’s inevitable. I actually like that warning! When you’re ready for things to not go your way, you are less likely to be crushed by disappointment and you’ll be more resilient.

However, if that makes you more hesitant and resistant than excited, let me suggest an alternative. Given that failure is such a subjective concept, you can choose to see setbacks as lessons rather than failure. You can choose to believe “I never fail. I either win or I learn.” Personally, I love that. Every time I try something courageous and don’t get the results I was hoping for, I learn invaluable lessons that help me do better next time. There is value in every experience, whether it’s pleasant or not in the moment. Easy things don’t seem to excite me much anyway. I prefer to grow and keep expanding my capabilities and results. How about you?

Choose a growth mindset

In my opinion, you only fail if you give up on something that is important to you. But if it takes many attempts before you create the success you seek, it’s still success, not failure. And if you don’t get the success you originally wanted but either get something else you love, or realize that your goals have changed and you have a clearer intention now, that looks like successful outcomes to me too!

So instead of being rigid and having a closed mind to what is possible for you, I invite you to be courageous, get in the arena, and do things that are meaningful to you, even if you may experience setbacks or even failure. Regret for playing small is far more painful than a rocky ride!

What do you want to change on your campus?

I invite you to reflect on what you’d like to change on your campus, not because it’s self-serving, but because you know it would provide improvements for the people you serve. Make a list of courageous decisions you can make or courageous initiatives you can lead. You don’t have to commit to anything right now, just let your mind consider new possibilities.

Next, reflect or journal on the benefits your ideas would provide. Don’t worry about your own discomfort or fears, simply focus on purpose and impact. Are you getting excited yet?

Can you choose one thing you will transform on your campus? Start with something that is a bit uncomfortable but not excessively intimidating. Pick something important to you so that you won’t let yourself forget why it’s worth the effort.

Be courageous but don’t be too impulsive

I wish I could tell you to be bold, find your voice, and speak up fearlessly! But no, wait, you work in academia, and if you look like a bull in a china shop, you’ll do more harm than good. Being courageous only works if you are also sensitive to other people’s situations, beliefs, needs, and agendas, and can inspire them rather than make them feel threatened.

To succeed, you’ll need supporters and advocates. Focus on building quality professional relationships, developing trust, and being politically savvy. Being confrontational is never the best approach. Making executive decisions without communicating doesn’t work either. To be courageous and effective you may have to step up to a higher level of leadership. But you don’t have to do it alone. Click here to schedule a complimentary call with me and discuss how I can help you succeed.

About the author: Dr. Audrey Reille has empowered thousands of professionals through one-on-one coaching, group coaching, speaking engagements, and online courses. Audrey is the go-to coach for leaders in higher education administration. She empowers them to thrive by reducing stress, optimizing strategies, improving professional relationships, and developing a strong and empowered mindset.

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