By Alicent Wong.
I love this quote by an unknown author:
“Failure is only a temporary change in direction to set you straight for your next success.”
Fear of failure is so pronounced that it has been classified as a clinical condition called ‘atychiphobia’. People who experience atychiphobia have an irrational and persistent fear of failing. In extreme cases, it can psychologically paralyse the patient, making it hard for them to progress with anything in life.
Why is the fear of failure such a commonplace in our society today? Based on my personal experience growing up in Singapore, the need to compete, be the best, and being the cream of the crop was everything. It started for me at a tender age in primary school where the students with the best grades got to attend the ‘Express stream’ and had the choice of fun electives such as Art and Literature. This also meant that they finished primary school a year earlier than the students in the ‘Normal’ stream. I don’t think this grading system exists anymore, however, living with a system like this has indoctrinated children and parents to see failure as completely unacceptable. Fear of failure then becomes not just what drives us, but what kills us, and in some very depressing cases, in the literal sense…
To be fair, this sense of competition and the fear of failure doesn’t just exist in Asian societies, it exists everywhere, and affects all of us to varying degrees.
Fear exists for one fundamental reason; to protect us. Fear is our safety trigger, it’s what used to save us from being eaten by predators.
The mind knows no difference between real dangers (being a hungry tiger’s next meal) and ‘made up dangers’ such as that sick feeling in our tummies knowing that we have failed at something. To the mind, they are all threats.
It may all sound dire, and that the fear of failing is just going to have that death grip on us till the end of our days. But what if I told you that failure is a good thing, and I’m going to go as far as saying that failure is A GREAT thing, and a blessing!
Before you slide away into the abyss and scoff at that last statement, let me share my personal experiences with failure with you. As someone who has had to grow up with that ‘fear of failing’, and having to work through overcoming that mindset throughout my career and entrepreneurial journey, I do have 3 nuggets of wisdom to share. What doesn’t kill you, does make you stronger!
And here are my 3 reasons why you NEED to fail.
1. Without failure, there’s no progress.
The irony here is that in most of what we do in life, we choose to do in order to live our best lives. But when we fail in those ventures, we recede, concede and condemn ourselves for not being good enough. We are our own worst critics! I know that when we’re going through tough times, we’d always think about how nice it would be if everything just fell into place.
Take a moment to reflect on this though, if everything were to always go according to plan, how boring would life be? Where would the lessons be in order for us to grow and to evolve? If everything were to remain status quo, then where would there be that motivation, confidence and inspiration needed for us to be bigger, bolder and better? It’s like driving on the long highway for hours, with not much change in the scenery and staring at the same license plate on the car in front of you. I’m pretty sure most of us know how that feels on long road trips!
Failure forces us to see things in a new light, and to look for ways to do things better.
If one way doesn’t work, try another, and then another. What happens then is that you learn, pick up new skills that you would never have otherwise learnt, make new connections and uncover new things about yourself that you may never have known.
2. Fear builds resilience
My science teacher at primary school taught me one thing that has always stuck with me. It gets easier each time you do something, and he was right and still is today.
Our brain is an amazing tool, we carve new neural pathways each time we learn something new, and when we repeat that same thing, that path gets deeper. Kinda like that trodden on path that you see going on bush walks. The first time we fail, it is painful, unbearable and sometimes just downright disheartening. With the loss of anything or anyone, you need to be kind to yourself. Give yourself the time to grieve, recollect and reflect. Never just rush back into it, take time out.
I know that when things didn’t go to plan with my business projects, like that launch that attracted nothing but crickets, that client going with another agency… I felt like a total failure. I used to just dive right back in to try and see what I did wrong, and to try and come up with another solution, but all I got was frustration and more frustration.
So I’ve learnt to give myself some time off. To notice these urges, and then tell myself what good is there is trying to do this right now? What can I lose by taking some time off, reset and then come back to it? The answer is that I’ve lost nothing in that time of rest, but I’ve gained fresh perspectives, a renewed sense of confidence and “I’ve got this!”. There were projects that were abandoned, and then there were new projects created in their place that were amazingly successful. That is resilience, and it gets easier as we practice with each ‘failure’. Resilience helps you get through those uncomfortable, prickly moments, and rewards you in leaps and bounds.
Thomas Edison couldn’t have said it better:
'I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.'
He had 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb, imagine if he gave up… What would the world look like today?
3. It helps you to uncover what truly matters to you
Failure, in a way, helps you to realise what truly matters to you. When you fail, you go through a grieving period as mentioned above. During this time, you reset and reflect on the lesson/s that you learn. You then start to pick up on what is important, and what was important that doesn’t really apply anymore.
My world was torn apart when I was made redundant at my first job in Sydney (the same job that got me migrating) barely a full year into it. After 2 years of working with my managers back home to make the move happen, and making the conscious choice to leave my family and best friends, I had to face the possibility of going home, with my dreams smashed and to live the shame of not having ‘made the cut’...
I remember doing a whole lot of soul searching sitting by Coogee Beach on my own, looking at the vast ocean and pondering my choices. I could take the easy way out, pack my bags and book the next flight home, or I could stay on, do my best to find another job within the next 3 months before my working visa expired. Even though my family and friends were so important to me, my dream of wanting to carve a new life for myself in Australia was a million times stronger.
It was then that I decided to find another job and got hired within a month. I got to stay, and boy, am I so grateful that I decided to not have failure hold me back. I simply will not exchange my life for what it is today (all of the failures included!) for anything else.
In parting, I would love to share this quote by renowned brain coach and global bestselling author of Limitless, Jim Kwik:
“If you fight for your limitations, you get to keep them.”
So ask yourself today, are you going to let your fear of failure fight for your limitations, or are you going to use failure as your muse to help you soar to those limitless heights? I do hope that it’s the latter.
Alicent is the founder of home.cook.love, an online marketplace for a curated range of artisan kitchenware. She’s also recently founded The Asian Women Entrepreneur Network, a community of likeminded businesswomen from diverse Asian backgrounds who share a passion for thinking differently and playing against the odds.