Fear of Failure…

The group walked onto the dark stage taking their places for their dance. The music started, the lights came on and there they were, 15 special needs adults about to dance in front of a few hundred people. Their yellow and silver costumes moving sometimes in the same direction and sometimes not. The few who knew the routine helping those who weren’t sure. Their courage to be up on that stage was inspiring, they put their fears aside to dance and show everyone what they have learned over the year.

The recital continued with numerous dance numbers and people with all different abilities in dance striving to do their best on stage. If there were any fears, they were not apparent. There were smiles, not tears, as they danced with abandon. There were missteps, and at times it seemed some were dance too fast or too slow, however they were all dancing, fully engaged in their performance.

If thoughts determine feelings and emotions which in turn determine action or behavior, then this groups’ thoughts could not be on failing. Their thoughts had to be focused on success, on achieving what they set out to achieve. How did they overcome those feelings of failure, those thoughts of “what if I fall?”, or “what if I forget the next step in the dance?”, or “what if I don’t catch her?”

Overcoming fear is not about not having the fear, it is about having the courage to change the thought of the fear to one of positive, courageous action. It is knowing that no matter what you can handle the consequences of what your doing.

I remember the first time I had to present in front of over 1000 people (250 in the audience and another 750 by streaming). My greatest fear leading up to the presentation was not that I wouldn’t remember what I was presenting, but that I would fall as I stepped up onto the stage and make a complete fool of myself. And that fear of shame or embarrassment was haunting for me. The night before this presentation I had a dream that as I stepped onto the stage I tripped. I fell spread eagle across the stage, my leopard print dress up across my back with my bum out there for all the audience to see. The audience was horrified, there was a collective gasp from the group, and one lone laugh. A senior executive who I didn’t work for was the laugher. I awoke in a cold sweat convinced that this foreshadowed what was going to happen and reignited my fears. As I sat waiting my turn to walk up on the stage I was doing everything in my head to overcome this fear of falling and ultimately failing. I stepped up onto the stage and let out an audible sigh of relief. I then told the story of the dream, making the audience laugh and allowing myself to move on from the fear as it didn’t come true. The remainder of the presentation went well and I overcame my fear of falling and failing.

Conquering that fear was as simple as saying it out loud and realizing that the fear wasn’t real. That it shouldn’t hold me back from doing anything. Everyone’s fears are different. There are fears that are based in “what if I die,” such as a fear of heights or flying. There are fears that are based on shame or embarrassment, like mine was rooted, although I thought it was just about falling, but it was really about the outcome of that fall. Many times in corporate America people are focused on the fear of losing their job. That holds them back very often from taking risks, finding opportunity and possibilities and in being their best self. They are too focused on the “what ifs” versus the here and now.

In many of these cases it is about reframing the thought of failure. It is about understanding the fear, what is behind it and what are the consequences associated with the fear. Then it is about knowing that you can overcome those by either having a plan B or changing the thought associated to one of positive action. As Michael Jordan once said, “I failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.” The failures taught him to practice something more, to change the thoughts and thus the feelings about something, to continue.

As I watched my niece and her friends dance, I was struck by the lack of fear that they all had. They went onto that stage ready to dance. Because of their differing ability, they don’t see a fear of failure as real. They just go out and do their thing, rejoicing in the process with no attachment to the outcome. If only we all could do that versus worrying about failing! How much less stress would we feel? How much better would our lives be if this fear of failure was kept at bay, knowing we had the confidence to overcome whatever happens?

Change the thought, allow the new feeling to take over and take action. We can all overcome our fears!

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