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Fear of Failure: What it Looks Like, and How Entrepreneurs Can Overcome It

“The entrepreneurial journey starts with jumping off a cliff and assembling an airplane on the way down.” Reid Hoffman, Founder of LinkedIn. Not much evidence of a fear of failure here!

That’s a great quote, right? It encapsulates the wild, blind embrace of risk that epitomizes all success stories. Or, at least those as depicted in the public imagination. 

The entrepreneurship narrative is often romanticized, with stories of triumph, innovation, and untold riches. However, behind the scenes – behind every scene – entrepreneurs face an unsettling challenger lurking in the shadows: the fear of failure. This deep-rooted anxiety can debilitate even the most driven and ambitious people, preventing them from taking risks, pursuing their dreams, and realizing their optimum potential. 

The fear of failure manifests differently for each individual, and its effects can be devastating for great business ideas. It can manifest in any number of ways, and we know it exists everywhere.

If you’ve ever wondered what’s causing your great ideas to remain stubbornly locked in your head, never taking glorious flight into the real world, read on to explore whether it’s a fear of failure that’s holding you back.

Recognizing Fear of Failure 

Some common indicators include procrastination, excessive perfectionism, risk aversion, and a fear of rejection. Do you recognize any of these in your life or business? Or maybe you find yourself succumbing to imposter syndrome? Let’s look at these signs in some detail to identify how they relate to entrepreneurs.

Procrastination

If procrastination is the tendency to delay or avoid taking action on important tasks or responsibilities, sometimes opting for short-term gratification instead – short-term gratification doesn’t have to mean a descent into booze and drugs – it can be something as innocuous as constantly rechecking emails or rearranging your desk. If you’re exhibiting these behaviors, you can see how it has a paralyzing effect on your entrepreneurial goals. 

Fear of failure by procrastinating and waiting until later to do your work.

It is a common challenge faced by many of us, and entrepreneurs are far, far away from being exempt. You know where you want to get to; you know the steps you need to take to get there; you know the hard work will be worth it. But you’re feeling overwhelmed by taking even the smallest step. Why is this? Fear of failure could well be the answer here.

Excessive Perfectionism

In your relentless pursuit of flawlessness and loathing of making mistakes, are you really giving yourself the best chance of success? While striving for high standards will always be beneficial, longing for unattainable perfection will be counterproductive and stressful. For entrepreneurs, this mindset can lead to a fear of launching a product until it feels ‘perfect’, delaying progress and missing valuable opportunities. 

If the idea, especially when you’re developing something new, that the first entity of the product you’re working on doesn’t need to be 100% perfect horrifies you, you may well be looking at a fear of failure as the reason for this.

Risk Aversion

Of course, every entrepreneur should be somewhat risk averse. We could all launch and crash a business or product very quickly if we paid no heed to inherent business risks.

Excessive risk aversion, though, can hurt entrepreneurial growth and innovation. Successful entrepreneurs recognize that taking calculated risks is an inherent part of building a business. You already know that nothing in business, nothing in life, is without risk. If you find anxiety about the risks you have already calculated and verified – but haven’t caused you to abandon your idea – is holding you back, could it be because of a fear of failure?

Fear of Rejection

This is a powerful emotion that can inhibit you from pursuing new opportunities, seeking funding, or engaging with potential customers or partners. Fear of rejection is often accompanied by a fear of criticism or being perceived as inadequate. 

Again, you know that rejection is a recurring bump on the road to entrepreneurial success. You know your product or business isn’t for everyone, and nor are you going to be for everyone. Those are simple facts of human life. So if you’re incapacitated through fear of rejection, maybe you also (guess what) have a fear of failure.

Imposter Syndrome 

Young woman sitting at desk frustrated about work with her hands on her head.

Many entrepreneurs, despite their proven successes and achievements, can experience imposter syndrome and doubt their own abilities. 

If you’re one of them, don’t worry, you’re in good company: 84% of entrepreneurs and business owners have felt it too. Imposter syndrome and fear of failure are often very closely linked.

By acknowledging these signs, as an entrepreneur you can gain valuable insights into your own mindset and begin the journey toward overcoming your fear.

Shifting Perspectives: Embracing Failure as a Growth Opportunity 

To overcome the fear of failure as an entrepreneur, it can be necessary to undergo a fundamental shift in perspective. Rather than viewing failure as a roadblock or an indication of personal inadequacy, you can reframe it as an opportunity for growth and learning. Some of the most successful entrepreneurs have experienced multiple failures before achieving remarkable success. Embracing failure as an integral part of the entrepreneurial journey enables you to learn from your mistakes (there will be mistakes, after all), refine your strategies, and ultimately increase your chances of success.

What does ‘failure’ mean anyway? If you ‘only’ achieve 95% of what you want to achieve, have you failed? Very few business outcomes are binary. If you redefine what failure means, it begins to lose impact as a concept. Say you want to sell 500 units of a product in Year 1, and you end up having sold 300. You sold 300 units!! Until you came along the number of units sold was nothing, nil, zero. In what universe is that a failure?! Making progress can start to be seen as a success, try to allow yourself to recognize that.

It is easy to think of success and failure in business situations as two sides of the same coin – it’s one side or the other. But the world doesn’t work that way. You are just as unlikely to completely fail as you are to surpass your goals by a factor of 1000. For almost everyone, the reality lies somewhere in the middle. Don’t be afraid of what happens on the journey, be afraid of never buying a ticket!

Building Resilience and Taking Calculated Risks 

Resilience is a key trait that, as an entrepreneur, you should try to cultivate to overcome the fear of failure. Developing a mindset that acknowledges setbacks as temporary obstacles and maintains focus on long-term goals is the key to resilience. Building resilience, or grit, can be achieved through practices like setting realistic expectations, maintaining a strong support network, and engaging in self-care activities. 

Taking calculated risks – step by step – is a great way for entrepreneurs to move beyond their comfort zones. By conducting thorough research, gathering relevant data, and carefully weighing potential outcomes, you can mitigate risks and make informed decisions. Sure, be hyper-aware that, despite your best efforts and preparation, you still might not achieve the outcome you want. But you’ll have armed yourself with the knowledge that you did everything you could to lay the ground for success.

And remember, risks aren’t binary either. Sure, if you bet the farm on a particular result and it doesn’t happen the consequences can be dire. But betting the farm isn’t business, it’s gambling.

What Happens if You Do Fail?

Say the worst happens. So what? What will that look like? Assuming you don’t intend to risk everything you have (please don’t risk everything you have!), it’s a project that didn’t work out. That’s all.

Of course, nobody wants to fail, but in business, everybody will fail. And this doesn’t amount to the total devastation of everything they’ve worked for. It means they’re doing it right. Without trying something, how do you know whether it works? And if you don’t ever try anything new in your enterprise, you’ll never innovate.

If you’re still to be convinced, think about a brand you know and have probably used: Instagram. It started life as a kind of experiment that one of its founders used to help him learn to program. It had a ton of features that weren’t fitting together to form a coherent platform. It wasn’t working. It was failing. The founders recognized the failure, learned from it, and made a pivot toward a more refined, simplified product that’s now worth more than $100 billion.

Failure isn’t an endpoint. It’s a vital part of your journey. 

‘Ah, but what about all the social media platforms we never hear of because they didn’t make it? They must have completely failed,’ you might say. And sure, there must be thousands of projects that get started and, for whatever reason, don’t achieve their objectives. 

If you find you’ve run into a total dead-end, you may be forced to ask yourself some questions about your business, its viability, and whether it’s still making you happy. If it isn’t, then it might be time to pivot toward success in another direction.  

Beautiful sunrise on the horizon in a large field with trees and grass.

The sun will still rise in the morning. It’s a new day with a new challenge, you’ve come through worse. And now you’re armed with some painful, but super-valuable lessons. Whatever mistakes you made, acknowledge them, accept them, and know that you won’t make the same ones again. You’ll make different mistakes in the future. That’s how it works.

Some entrepreneurs are motivated by the fear of failure. And if that works for them, that’s great. But if your fear of failure is preventing you from doing your best work it’s a big problem. Failure happens all the time, just like death, taxes, and reruns of Frasier. It’s not failure that’s holding you back, it’s fear. 

Still not sure? Make a solemn vow to yourself right now to achieve something in the next 24 hours. Something challenging, but not impossible. Add half an hour to your morning workout, make the perfect souffle, no TV all day, that kind of thing. Chances are you’ll succeed. And if you don’t? Well, you’ll still be here. The world will continue to turn. You’ll still be you. And you’ll still have that great idea in your head.

Takeaway

The fear of failure can be a huge barrier to the entrepreneurial journey. However, by understanding its manifestations, identifying the signs, shifting perspectives, building resilience, and breaking down what it is that you’re afraid of, you can overcome this fear and unlock your true potential. It is important to remember that failure is not the end but rather a stepping stone toward growth and success. 

By embracing failure, learning from it, and taking calculated risks, you can navigate your entrepreneurial endeavors with confidence, determination, and the knowledge that failure is merely a part of the process. Ultimately, it is through perseverance and the ability to confront and conquer the fear of failure that you can make your mark and achieve extraordinary success. You know the bubble wrap that comes in every package you receive? Its inventors intended for it to be textured wallpaper. Failure, like success, can be its own reward.

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