How to Overcome the Fear of Failure

Dalila Madine speaks on stage at the Boma France Festival. Credit: Boma France

Dalila Madine speaks on stage at the Boma France Festival. Credit: Boma France

What do post-it notes, microwave ovens, and Viagra all have in common? The answer, if you don’t already know it, is pretty surprising: They are all the by-products of failures.

A researcher at 3M wanted to develop a super strong glue. After years of hard work, he developed a super not strong glue, one that was only good for use as a temporary adhesive. However, this frustratingly defective glue, after being combined with a small bit of paper, turned into one of the most popular and well-known items in the world — the post-it note.

As for Viagra, the pharmaceutical company that originally started developing the drug was trying to synthesize something that could be used to treat cardiovascular diseases. Clinical trials proved that it had a rather different use than the one that was intended. And today, it is one of the most widely used and effective drugs for treating erectile dysfunction, earning over a billion dollars in annual revenue.

Microwaves are yet another miracle failure. Or at least, they were a rather accidental invention. Percy LeBaron Spencer was working with high-powered vacuum tubes when he noticed that the candy bar in his pocket had melted. It didn’t take him long to realize that the tubes were generating short radio waves, also known as “microwaves.” And in 1945, he filed a patent for his small metal cooking box. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, today, nearly 90% of U.S. households have a microwave.

At the Boma France Festival, Dalila Madine, founder and CEO of the French Future Academy, noted that each of these companies eventually achieved success because they accepted their failures, took time to analyze and understand them, and then changed direction. According to Madine, such a response is unique, as most individuals and organizations staunchly refuse to accept failure.

And refusing to accept failure, as it turns out, is not a positive quality to have.

What is a failure?

Most people don’t like being bad at something or displaying weakness. As a result, instead of seeing a failure as an opportunity for learning or as a time to reflect and change course, people often refuse to see failures at all. According to Madine, the same can be said about most companies. They are unwilling to consider that their products or services may not meet customers’ needs. Instead, they tend to blame their employees for some perceived inability or for not performing their jobs correctly.

In short, we pass the buck. Madine stated that this is why we need to change our view of failure. Instead of clinging to the outdated “fixed” way of thinking about failure, we need to adopt a “growth” oriented understanding of failure.

Madine clarified that fixed thinking individuals and organizations believe that they are either born with talent or they’re not. To this end, they also believe that an idea or project is either good or bad. In other words, things are fixed, and there is no middle ground. When it comes to failure, this mindset this leads individuals and organizations to work too hard to keep dead projects alive, or it leads them to utterly abandon projects that aren’t going the way they want.

Growth thinking, on the other hand, recognizes that failure is a fundamental and inescapable part of success. Individuals and organizations with this mindset see failures as just one step on a much longer path and as an opportunity for learning and growth.

In this respect, Madine stated that failure can be best understood, not as an end point or state of being, but a juncture where the results don’t align with what we desired or expected.

Accepting failure

In order to internalize a more productive view of failure and, eventually, move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset, Madine stated that the first step is publicly talking about failure. Yet, it won’t be enough for a few individuals to alter their view of failure. We, as a society, need to transform our way of thinking.

One way that we can start this larger dialog is through “failure events.” Madine explained that this is where entry-level employees gather with entrepreneurs and CEOs, and they all tell their failure stories. The entrepreneurs talk about how they can’t get any seed money. The CEOs talk about downsizing and the employees they lost to competitors. The entry-level employees talk about their experiences with bankruptcy. Sometimes, individuals talk about failed relationships or projects or dreams.

Madine noted that the important thing isn’t the specific story that’s told. Rather, the important part is for individuals to be open about the emotions that the failure generated, how they responded, and how they moved — or are still trying to move — forward.  

Such events are important because they help us keep from closing ourselves off, blaming others, or blindly pushing forward the next time we experience failure, Madine said.

Dare to collapse

Madine noted that one of the central tenants of her school is failure, and she argued that teachers and organizations around the world should work to incorporate failure into their own conversations and processes. One way that Madine does this is by asking individuals from all walks of life to send in their “failure resumes” for her students to see. 

The idea comes from Melanie I. Stefan, who is a Lecturer in the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Edinburgh. In an article in Nature, she discussed creating a resume covering all her failures, including unsuccessful projects, unpublished articles, and awards she didn’t get.

Madine noted that she is trying to get her students to see that failure is as much a part of our learning experiences as our successes. And by highlighting them, we are afforded a perfect opportunity to talk about our values, perspectives, and growth in a truly meaningful way.

Madine envisions a world where, just as individuals get awards for their successes, they get awards for their failures. Or more specifically, they get awards for how they adapted and the lesson that they learned as a result of their failure. This, Madine argued, would encourage people to let go of their fear and try things that may have a high risk of failure but could transform the world.

We need to stop being scared of failing, Madine said, noting that, “if you want to be able to soar when you jump, then you need to dare to collapse.”