Fear of Failure is a Gift

Fear of failure is a gift. It is the target, not the obstacle. If you are trying to accomplish something that has no possibility of failure, is it really an accomplishment?

Imagine going to the course one day, checking in, and walking to the tee box for a round with three friends. You tee it up and stripe your drive down the middle of the fairway. Then on your approach you pure a 7-iron to a foot from the hole and tap in for a birdie. On the next hole you repeat another perfect combination of solid drive, approach stuck to a foot, kick in birdie. You reach the four, par-5’s in two and drain eagle putts. The round ends with you having the best score in the history of golf. Your friends are amazed and in awe. Every shot and putt you attempted was hit perfectly and felt effortless. 

Now, imagine the exact same outcome occurring the next time you play, then the next, and in-fact every time you play from that moment on. No matter how you feel, and whether you are trying or not, your shots come off perfectly every time.

Is this a dream scenario, or a nightmare? Heaven or Hell? Is this the reality you would want every time? Saying that you would like it for only a week or two is not an option here. The truth, golf would lose any appeal to you very quickly if the picture described above were to materialize. Most likely, it would become boring and you would lose interest. There is something in the struggle you go through to catch glimpses of brilliance that is engaging. It is the challenge of the pursuit that captures your attention the most. Yet, your mind obsesses over not achieving success—that arbitrary standard you have created as the measure of acceptability. You feel pressure to perform and along with it a fear of failure if you do not. Then you experience this paradox of performance-the more I fear failing, the more I fail.

We are taught that fear of failure is a bad thing, something to be avoided, treated, and guarded against. “If only he could overcome his fear, he would be great” I hear from parents and coaches directing golfers to me. “Fearless” is a common and revered adjective held up to as a prerequisite for excellence. To play and hit shots free of fear is a fixation for many golfers that I begin working with. So much so that they complain more about the fear of hitting an errant drive than the errant drive. “I just feel so scared over the ball” they lament, hoping that I can help them reverse that. They have convinced themselves that once this feeling is eliminated, they will find excellence.

Fear of failure is not the problem– the problem is the fear of fear of failure.

When you have convinced yourself that you cannot succeed if you feel afraid over the ball, then you have created fear about the fear. So naturally, your mind will be more occupied with fear removal than possible solutions to pull off the desired shot. The remedy here is to look at fear of failure differently, with wisdom.

Fear of failure is a gift, not a curse. If our pre-historic ancestors did not experience the fear of failure-of getting eaten by packs of carnivorous creatures, I am a no show for my 9 am tee time this Saturday. Fear protects us from harm and in the pursuit of excellence, it can be the driving force towards greatness. Often, we succumb to the fear rather than prosper from it. Because of this aversion and the ugly image, we form about it, we want to look away and not think about the fear. Running away from fear yields little insight, however. What would happen if you were to look longer and more deeply into the fear? You would develop a more rational and objective understanding of what the challenge is.

Let’s say you are completely stressing out on the tee box. The fairway is tight and there is a penalty area along the right. You have this recurring and pestering feeling that you will lose your drive out to the right. People are watching and you are feeling afraid. “Don’t think it” you repeat to yourself hoping somehow the fear will subside. But this does nothing but cast more attention on how horrible this outcome will be. So instead you decide to explore exactly what is going on. On the surface you say you are afraid of losing a drive to the right but that is not the real fear. After all you have done that before and dealt with it fine. The real fear is feeling embarrassed. Missing the shot out to the right would carry no fear if you were out here by yourself with no one watching. Now, the fear is about the reaction you perceive that other people will have upon seeing you hit this drive, way right. You fear they will laugh and think less of you. Now, imagine for a second how you would react if you watched another golfer miss the way you fear missing. You realize that you would not laugh, would not think less of the golfer. You have seen countless players, even the best players in the world do the same. And suddenly you are struck by how calm, accepting, and collected the best players remain after such errors. You recall now, how impressed with that you are. You begin to experience less aversion to the possible missed drive and reason with yourself that it may happen, and it may not. Further, if it does, you have no fear about how you will handle it because that is both a controllable action and something to take pride in. The fear when acknowledged, understood is a clear way, and accepted as normal, becomes an instrument for meaningful growth rather than a crippling roadblock. It is a gift.

Try This

Use fear to your advantage. When you notice fear, look for the adjustments. Start by forming a clear perspective of what you are afraid of. This may require you to travel deeper into the fear story. Repeatedly ask yourself these questions:

  1. What am I afraid of?
  2. What am I truly afraid of?
  3. Why is that so bad?
  4. Has it happened before?
  5. Has it happened to anyone else before?
  6. Is the feeling permanent?
  7. Are there any viable options available to avoid this?
  8. What can I control?
  9. What is the most workable action I could commit to at this moment?
  10. What is the cost of committing to that versus the cost of not?
  11. Time to hit, what am I going to do?

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