How fear of failure can hold back your business (and how to beat it)

Joel Svensson

A fear of failure can cause you to balk at the slightest risk, robbing you of opportunities and suffocating innovation. And since running your own business is guaranteed to be fraught with risk, this is a fear you cannot afford to run away with. To see how powerful a roadblock this can be, just consider that 40 per cent of Australians cite fear of failure as the main reason for not starting a business.

If fear is holding you back, here are some tactics for breaking through a costly aversion to risk.

Consider the worst-case scenario

A big part of knee-jerk risk aversion is the human tendency to catastrophise. We see a situation with the potential to go south, and we imagine it will carry us all the way to Antarctica. But it’s not always so.

If a move seems risky to you, lay out the worst-case scenario. It might not be so bad as you first imagine. Once you’ve done that, you can start figuring out how much you can commit to an opportunity before cutting your losses if it goes awry.

As the saying goes, fail fast, fail cheap and try again.

Just remember that even the most successful people have, at one time or another, failed miserably.

Cut yourself some slack

In environments where people are punished or ridiculed for making mistakes, risk-taking tends to be minimal and innovation practically non-existent. But when you run a small business, you can end up being your own draconian taskmaster.

Perfectionism is a real problem in modern society, to the point where many of us almost feel obligated to beat ourselves up when we don’t succeed. We end up fearing failure because if we fail, we think we have to feel bad about it. This can lead to chronic procrastination, overworking, and even depression.

Just remember that even the most successful people have, at one time or another, failed miserably. Those that succeed are the ones who develop a method for learning from their mistakes and applying those lessons strategically.

You are not your mistakes.

Measure your results

Nothing evokes hopelessness better than not knowing where you’ve gone wrong. Which is why it is essential – as much for morale as practicality – to record your approach, capture your results and see where you can improve. Doing so will maximise the lessons you receive from failure, and increase your chances of future success.

At worst, the results will show that you may have picked the wrong battle, and you can move on to more worthwhile pursuits, rather than labouring in fruitless frustration.

We can’t all be Elon Musk, but it does go to show, you shouldn’t let a single bust endeavour sour your relationship with risk.

Accept that some risks will not pay off

Even well-planned risks with, say, an 80 per cent chance of success, will still on occasion fail. That’s what makes them risks. The key is to remember that the road to success is paved with failure.

Even Elon Musk – the man who some are calling “the real Tony Stark” – failed to get a job at Netscape. When his resume went unremarked, he visited Netscape in person, to no avail.

But Musk didn’t give up on cyberspace. Instead, he founded PayPal. And in 2008, when his car company Tesla was floundering under the strain of the global financial crisis, Musk took a huge risk and invested $35 million of his own money into the company. Today, Tesla is worth $2.5 billion, and Musk’s latest venture, SpaceX, made history in April when it completed the first ever successful rocket-landing – after five failed attempts.

We can’t all be Elon Musk, but it does go to show, you shouldn’t let a single bust endeavour sour your relationship with risk.

Joel Svensson

Joel Svensson is a Melbourne-based freelance writer specialising in politics and business.

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