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How Do You Overcome the Terror of Failing?



Valerie and her rescue dog,
"Cokie Roberts"

By Valerie Young

This article originally appeared in Issue 199 of the Changing Course Newsletter.


That was the question someone asked in a recent survey of Changing Course readers. It was the second time in as many months that someone who was getting ready to start a small business talked about being “terrified” of failing. In neither case were we talking about anyone putting their home up as collateral or sinking their life savings into a venture. In fact, the stakes were relatively low. And all too often this sense of terror at the prospect of failing can be paralyzing.

Every entrepreneur experiences failures on the way to success. I am certainly no exception. While I was still in my corporate job, I decided to produce a line of humorous greeting cards on the side. I spent months drawing each card, surveying my friends to see which ones people liked best, and then invested a couple of thousand of dollars getting them printed. They sold pretty well in small gift stores in San Francisco, Boston, New York, Hartford, Connecticut, and Provincetown, Massachusetts. But about a year into it, I realized that it was the wrong business for me.

Did I spend more money than I made? Yes. But I never felt like a failure. To the contrary, I felt proud of myself for giving it my best shot. I learned a ton about the greeting card business which I’ve been able to share with others considering that same path, and I moved on to my next venture with a much clearer picture of what I was looking for in a livelihood.

No one sets out to fail and certainly no one likes it when they do. But terror? There are things worthy of being terrified about like global warming or a car bomb going off in your neighborhood. Giving something your best shot and finding out that it didn’t work, well, I call that “life.”

If you really want to change course to work for yourself, then you absolutely must readjust your emotional response to failure. This means embracing some fundamental truths about failure that have guided successful people since the first caveman’s spear missed that first wooly mammoth and he picked it up to try again.

To get you started, here are six rules about failure, mistake-making and risk-taking that every entrepreneur needs to understand:

Rule 1: You’ll strike out more often then not.

In baseball a .333 batting average is considered outstanding. If you’re not a baseball fan, what this means is that for every 10 pitches, the batter only has to hit the ball three times to be considered exceptional. Even the legendary Babe Ruth “only” batted .342. The point is, you can be at the top of your game and still strike out more often than not. No one bats 1000, so stop expecting yourself to be the exception.

Rule 2: Failures offer valuable lessons – and opportunities.

Believe it or not, there is lots of good news about failure. Henry Ford understood that, “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.” In engineering, the process of “failure analysis” is based on the recognition that you can learn just as much from studying what went wrong as you can from what went right. It is this understanding that led Thomas Edison to famously remark, “I have not failed. I have successfully discovered 1,200 ideas that don’t work.”

Instead of seeing your flops as evidence of your incompetence, think of them as information you can use to do better next time. Do you need to develop or hone a certain skill? Do you need more practice or a different approach? Do you need to delegate the things you’re not gifted at? What will you do differently next time? What lessons can you glean? The sooner you grasp the learning value following what feels like a setback, the better. The key is to fail forward.

Rule 3: Failure is just a curve in the road.

I know how easy it is to be so discouraged by setbacks that you just give up. But it’s time you start seeing failure for what it is, a curve in the road and not the end of the road. Did you know that Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper job for “lacking ideas”? Or that H. Macy’s store failed seven times before it caught on? Or that Michael Jordan was cut from his junior varsity basketball team? Did they give up? No.

If Abraham Lincoln had taken failure as cause to quit, it would have changed the course of history. In fact he suffered repeated failures on the road to success. After failing as a storekeeper and a farmer, Lincoln decided to run for political office. He failed. Once he finally did get elected to the legislature, he sought the office of speaker and failed. He failed in his first bid for Congress. He failed when he sought the appointment to the United States Land Office. And he failed when he ran for the United States Senate. Despite repeated public failures, Lincoln never saw failure as a reason to give up.

Rule 4: Not taking risks may be the riskiest move of all.

So much of changing course comes down to being able to shift your thinking about what “risk” really means. It worked for Janice Bennett. Whenever people begin with “What if…” right before saying “…it doesn’t work?” Janice would always finish their question with, “…what if it does?” “Now,” says Janice, “is the time for me to [ask myself] not only what could happen to me if I didn’t make the change, but what could happen to me if I DO?  Wow, those possibilities are endless. As morbid as it may sound, at my funeral, I want it to be full, to be standing room only, to be overflowing, to know that I made a difference in people’s lives, and I touched them somehow.”

Just two weeks after Janice shared her big “aha” at the Changing Course Blog, she took her own advice. She took the plunge and signed up for the Outside of the Job Box Career Expert and Small Business Success Idea Consultant Course. I have no doubt that in the process of realizing “endless possibilities” for herself, that Janice’s ability to turn fear into excitement will indeed make a difference in the lives of everyone she touches.

Whenever you try anything new there will always the risk of failure. At the same time, not taking risks is often the riskiest move of all. The reason Michael Jordon says he made so many baskets is because he was willing to take so many shots, explaining, “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games.  Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Rule 5: It’s not your failures that count but how you handle them.

Imagine making a major mistake with 1 billion people watching. That’s what Miss USA Crystle Stewart did when she fell during the 2008 Miss Universe pageant. She handled the fiasco by putting on a radiant smile, picking herself up and clapping her hands over her head as if to say, “Let’s have a round of applause.” This was not the first time Stewart had to pick herself up after a failure. It had taken her five tries before being crowned Miss Texas. As you think about launching that entrepreneurial dream, remind yourself that it’s not your failures that count, but how you handle them.

Rule 6: Choose what kind of failures you want to have.

In his commencement address at Macalister College, radio show host and author Garrison Keillor encouraged his audience to “have interesting failures.” Let those words sink in for a moment. Have interesting failures. Not only do you have a choice about how you handle failure, you also have a huge say in what kind of failures to have.

From time to time you’re going to miss the mark. So why just be a failure at parallel parking or balancing your checkbook when you can come in third at the National Jigsaw Puzzle Championships, only write one children’s book, or make it only half way up Mount Everest? The fact that you never fail is proof of only one thing – you never tried.

Every day you get to choose settling over reaching, inaction over action, continuing to live your life the way it is over the life you could have. It really is your choice. As Billie Jean King once said, “Be bold. If you’re going to make an error, make a doozey, and don’t be afraid to hit the ball.”

Rule 7: Make your fear work for you.

It’s one thing to quietly promise yourself that you’re going to push past your fears and finally act on those long buried dreams. It’s quite another thing to announce to the world your intention to write your first chapter, hold your own seminar, figure out how to sell your jewelry, learn a new craft, or whatever it is you’ve been “terrified” of doing. It’s quite another to announce it to the world. 

Yet making a public commitment is one of the best ways to ensure that you’ll actually follow through, because now you’ve built in that all important accountability. After all, suddenly other people are watching and waiting. Sure the naysayers are watching and waiting for any setback so they can say, “I told you so.” But if you make a point to tell the “right” people I guarantee they’ll be cheering you on. And guess what? When other people see you taking steps, they’ll be inspired to act too.

That’s because action is contagious! Which is why I’m asking all of the members of the Changing Course Club to add their goals to a “Changing Course in 2009 Pledge list.” It’s a new section of the Club Forum where members get to stand up and publicly state their goal and one action they’ll take to get there and the date they pledge to take that action. And, if they choose, Club Members can sign up to be in a small Tele-Study Group or Dream Team to help one another stay on track. (Not a member? Learn more at ChangingCourse.com/changingcourseclub.htm)

With the New Year comes the opportunity to start anew… to make new choices. Which will you choose – fear or action?

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  1. Pingback: Posts about Entrepreneurs as of December 30, 2008 | The Lessnau Lounge
  2. Anthony Sepe

    Hi Vallerie,
    Great post, and great timing for me. Though I’m familiar with most of this advice, it sure helps to review these crucial concepts from time to time.

    This may be a bit nit-picky, but as a baseball fan I wanted to point out that the “failure rate” is actually much greater for a successful hitter than your explanation allows. His or her success, as expressed through batting average, would be more accurately explained as the number of hits for every 10 AT BATS,

  3. Anthony Sepe

    Hi Vallerie,
    Great post, and great timing for me. Though I’m familiar with most of this advice, it sure helps to review these crucial concepts from time to time.

    This may be a bit nit-picky, but as a baseball fan I wanted to point out that the “failure rate” is actually much greater for a successful hitter than your explanation allows. His or her success, as expressed through batting average, would be more accurately explained as the number of hits for every 10 AT BATS, rather than for every 10 pitches. Many times a batter will face 10 or more pitches per at bat, so the failure rate for a very successful hitter is actually much higher than you stated.

    Thanks for your great work,

    Anthony Sepe

  4. Great post! Stepping out in faith and simply doing business by the Golden Rule will create success for you if you keep putting one foot in front of the other. Going the extra mile is a key ingredient to blowing the competition away. http://www.sendoutcards.com/61105 Darrin

  5. Valerie, I’ve just been reading RULES FOR RENEGADES by Christine Comaford-Lynch. Like all bios of successful entrepreneurs, this one is full of stories of failure. What I love about her telling is how early on she learned to find the lesson in every setback and “failed forward.”
    MONEYLOVE author Jerry Gilles used to say, “Fail on purpose at least once a week. It will take away the fear of failing.” For me, I just have to go bowling to feel like a klutz.
    Also liked the quote from Garrison Keillor. I recall a British rock band whose philosophy was if you want to succeed greatly, you must be willing to fail greatly. Hard to find any evidence to the contrary.
    Thanks, Val, for another brilliant reminder.

  6. Della

    Well, Valerie, I’m really glad you posted this because it couldn’t have come at a better time! We threw the teens and families a New Year’s party last night! We charged a fee to get in…$10 for singles and $15 for families…we knew going into it that our pricing was probably too low. I was getting frustrated at the fact that these dances seem to cost a bit of money to put together and the cost of the food that we provide isn’t cheap either. But like I told my husband…we made enough to probably cover the cost of the food and beverages that we provided…anything else we bought was technically stuff that we can reuse for future parties/dances…so overall, I feel that instead of looking at it as a failure (because we didn’t even make a profit on this)…it was actually a success only because, we made enough to cover the food and everyone seemed to have a lot of fun. Not to mention, we offered families that wouldn’t ordinarily get the opportunity to spend time together let alone do anything together as a family on New Year’s, a place to go, hang out and have a little fun! Overall, I think we accomplished our goal. Right now, I’m still in the learning phase of things and I’m looking at each dance that we throw as a way to strengthen my experience at throwing these.

    I thank you Valerie because I don’t think that I would have viewed this experience quite in the same way if it hadn’t been for your article. Thanks again…and Happy New Year to you and yours!

  7. Thank you for all of your great comments (and clarification Anthony!) and Della, I would definitely not consider that a failure! I would go back to those who attended and ask for a testimonial or pictures they’re willing to share to help you promote your next event!

  8. Della

    Actually, Valerie…I got a great idea from Lisa Tarrant using the animoto.com site that she used…I think putting together pictures and possible testimonials from past events would be a wonderful promotional to future events! My husband is the photographer who takes lots of pics at these events and I know I can get some of the teens to give me testimonials…and even some of the families that came…I had quite a few come up to me and thank me for doing this for them! That felt really great!

    I do want to thank you Valerie…because without the resources that you provide, like these articles and right now I’m listening to the Making Dreams Happen Cd’s and I’m seeing my future in a whole new light…I absolutely LOVE it! THANK YOU!!!

  9. Paula

    I grew up hearing “Anything worth doing is worth doing well,” which I found a powerful disinducement to do many things because I wasn’t sure I COULD do them well no matter how hard I tried. Years later I read (and I don’t recall who said it), “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly” — i.e., it’s better to do something than not to do it, because if you ONLY do things you think you can do well, you’ll never accomplish much.

    I also have a poster from despair.com with a photo of a skier about to take a bad fall, and the caption “INEPTITUDE — If you can’t do it well, learn to enjoy doing it badly.” I think this is saying the same thing: you don’t have to do something well for it to be worth doing. (E.g., I’m a slow hiker, but I backpacked for years with Sierra Club groups and enjoyed it greatly — even though I was almost always the last one to make it in to camp. As long as I didn’t hold everyone else up or cause problems for the leaders, nobody CARED how slow I was, least of all me!)

  10. Valerie I just love this fabulous reminder and it is great timing, and as with all of your articles, and a great reminder for me. You’re so awesome and I’m so grateful for God putting me in your path, because you always have a way of encouraging me even when you don’t know it :).

  11. Reading this, finding your website while looking for ways to Learn to Love Yourself has been delightful! All of your ideas and words of encouragement are very solid and I am finding myself happily following along like a little colt after green grass!! Thank you dear~heart for following YOUR heart then creating a beautiful map for the rest of us to follow. How sweet and loving and considerate you are. Bless all you do. I am remembering things, important things about myself that I need to go on more happily from here. This is NOT a small closed world after all. My beauty CAN shine into someone else’s darkness and show a way out. This is surprising me and I desperately needed this tonight after beating myself up internally for all of my “ADD shortcomings”. tHIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE IS SHINING AND GROWING BRIGHTER. CAN’T WAIT FOR4 MY ONE-ON-ONE! MAY GOD BLESS YOU RICHLY, SINCERELY, SUE

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  13. Lilieth

    well said! i do what i know is right for me i make my own bed. because i look to god for direction,sometime he showed us the right way but something draw us in that little hole.chances is there to take.once you’re not hurting anyone make that step!

  14. I agree Lilieth!

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