How to Defeat the Fear That’s Holding You Back

“I don’t dance,” Jane said to her cousin Ray as they watched an older couple dance at the wedding. “I’ve got two left feet. It’s just too embarrassing.”

“I used to be terrible,” Ray said. “But then I took some lessons.”

“I couldn’t even take lessons,” Jane said. “I’d be embarrassed to have the teacher see how bad I am.”

“I know what you mean,” Ray said. “I feel that way about golf.”

I used to feel that way about public speaking. I dreaded the thought of it. And when I was forced to make a speech, I did a terrible job – which only made me dread the next speech even more. It was a vicious cycle.

Then, in the early 1980s, I became editorial director of a newsletter business in South Florida. And suddenly, instead of just sitting behind a desk all day, I found myself in a position where I had to conduct meetings and give presentations at industry functions on a fairly regular basis – something I was ill-prepared to do. So I decided to enroll in a Dale Carnegie program for public speaking.

Somehow, I registered in the wrong course. Instead of focusing on speechmaking, it had a broader goal. And, as I’ve explained before in ETR, that program changed my life. It taught me the importance of goal setting and taking action. But it also, inadvertently, taught me to be more comfortable as a speaker.

My speechmaking skills improved almost accidentally. Every week, we had to read a chapter of Carnegie’s classic book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, and then come to class and make a two-minute presentation about how we were going to put the principle of that chapter to work in our lives.

On Thursday evenings after work, I would drive a half-hour to the place where we met. During that drive, I thought about what I was going to say. It was difficult in the beginning, but each week it got a little easier.

By the end of the 14-week course, I was performing at a near-professional level. I had won several awards in competition, and was routinely rated at the top of the class. The final session was a sort of commencement ceremony. Relatives and friends were allowed to attend, which tripled the size of the audience we had to speak to. Everyone did pretty well, as I remember. I gave the last speech. I was still a little nervous when I got up to the podium, but I had learned a lot by then. So I took a deep breath and did my thing.

I got a strong round of applause. Several people I didn’t even know came up to congratulate me, and one suggested I should become a comedian. I wasn’t foolish enough to take his advice to heart, but it did make me happy to think that I had made so much progress in so little time, starting from practically zero.

How did I conquer my fear of public speaking? The same way that you conquer the fear of anything else.

So… What Are You Afraid Of?

There are entire systems of psychotherapy devoted to curing people of their fears. The most effective are those that gradually expose the phobic person to whatever it is that they’re afraid of. If you feared snakes, for example, the treatment might begin with looking at photographs of snakes. Then, once you were comfortable with that, you might move on to watching videotapes of snakes. And then on to looking at snakes in cages… and then looking at them uncaged but at a distance… and then, gradually, getting closer until you could actually handle them without emotional discomfort.

Likewise, if you were afraid of public speaking the therapy would be to make a very short speech in front of a very small audience and then to gradually expose yourself to longer speeches and bigger audiences until you were comfortable speaking for an hour or more in front of a large number of people.

That was what happened to me. The Dale Carnegie course I took turned out to be a therapeutic program of graduated exposure therapy to public speaking.

Fears of specific things – snakes, public speaking, flying, etc. – can be overcome with gradual exposure. But what about more general fears… like the fear of failing?

To answer that question, we’ve got to figure out what, exactly, we are afraid of when we say we are afraid of failing.

Imagine that you are alone in a quiet room trying to solve a difficult crossword puzzle. You can’t do it.

How do you feel?

Now imagine yourself competing in a national crossword puzzle championship. It is down to four finalists – you and three others. The four of you are standing up on a stage in front of large puzzles with markers in your hand. Six hundred people in the audience and millions more on TV are watching you. The timekeeper gives the signal and you are off, filling out the answers as fast as you can. Before you have finished one-sixth of your puzzle, the first winner is declared. Before you have finished a quarter of it, the second winner is rung in. Now it is just you and one opponent. You are halfway done and feeling hopeful. Then you hear the buzzer. He has finished well ahead of you. You are standing there with your marker in your hand. The other three contestants are smiling.

How do you feel this time?

When I tried this little experiment, I had two distinctly different emotions. Imagining the first scenario made me feel a little angry. Imagining the second one made me feel embarrassed.

In the first scenario, I am just an ordinary puzzle player playing an ordinary game. I fail to accomplish my goal, but I am not embarrassed. In the second scenario, I am a national-caliber puzzle solver. I fail… but in front of a large audience. This adds shame to my anger. And that feels much worse.

So perhaps we can say this about the fear of failing: A big part of what we are afraid of is embarrassment – being shamed in front of other people.

Humiliation and Humility

When embarrassment is extreme, we call it humiliation. If you pass gas at a fancy dinner party, you feel embarrassed. If you spill wine on your hostess’s designer dress, you feel humiliated.

Humiliation is what happens to embarrassment when it is mixed with pride. The prouder you are, the more failure hurts.

Which brings us to our cure for the fear of failure: humility.

I’m guilty of pride myself. I’m proud of my writing, for example, and the success I’ve had in business. So I have to keep reminding myself to be humble about those things. But I am not proud of everything I do. I take no pride in my ability to dance or to sing or to speak foreign languages because I do those things so badly. And because my ego isn’t involved, I am not embarrassed to ask stupid questions, to show myself as a beginner, and ultimately to fail again and again as I attempt to master those skills.

The truth is, when I started out in business I wasn’t very good at that either. Again, that made it possible for me to ask lots of questions, look stupid, and make mistakes… which accelerated my learning curve.

The Secret of Accelerated Failure

That last observation bring us to an important principle of success. At ETR, we call it “the secret of accelerated failure.”

The principle of accelerated failure is this: To develop any complex skill, you must be willing to make mistakes and endure failures. The faster you can make those mistakes and suffer those failures, the quicker you will master the skill.

We teach this secret to our managers. We encourage them to allow their employees to fail. Not to fail stupidly. Not to make the same mistakes over and over again. But to feel free to fail at something so long as it was done in the pursuit of knowledge.

If you play golf or practice Jiu Jitsu, you know this to be true. If you tense up and focus on not avoiding mistakes, you will learn very slowly. If you relax, let the mistakes happen, and learn from them, you will advance quickly.

It starts with being humble. Humble enough to accept the fact that when you begin anything new you are likely to do it poorly.

Humility Is Nature’s First Gift

Pride prevents us from admitting we are incompetent. But we are all incompetent when we’re learning.

Think of how a baby learns to walk. He begins by crawling and then advances to “forward falling” (as my brother calls it), and then to walking like a little drunk, and finally to walking masterfully. Babies don’t feel shame because they are not proud. There is a reason that pride does not invade the human psyche until six or seven years of age. There is simply too much to learn before then. If toddlers had pride, it would take them years or even decades to walk and talk properly.

Humility is a much underrated virtue. It provides us with at least three significant advantages:

  • It makes us more endearing. Humble people – especially accomplished individuals who remain humble – are well liked.
  • It makes it easier to get cooperation. Humble people get more cooperation from others because they don’t try to force strong-minded people to accept their ideas.
  • It makes it easier and faster to learn. Humble people are able to ask questions, make mistakes, and experience failure without embarrassment. This attracts good people to them who want to help. Humble people get the best teachers and get the most from their teachers.

If Humility Is the Solution, How Does a Proud Person Become Humble?

Now we are coming to the most important part of this discussion – a practical plan for defeating the fear of failure. Here’s how you can do it:

1. Begin by accepting the truth. You are a good person, but that doesn’t mean you are naturally good at everything. Look in the mirror and think about the skill you want to accomplish. Say out loud, “I accept the fact that right now I am incompetent at (name the skill).” Repeat this exercise until it doesn’t hurt.

2. Admit your incompetence to an indifferent audience. Once you can say it in front of a mirror, say it in front of a living human being. Begin by admitting your incompetence to someone who doesn’t care. Admit to your Spanish teacher that you are incompetent at public speaking. Admit to your public speaking coach that you are incompetent at speaking Spanish. Repeat this exercise until you can do it with grace and good humor.

3. Admit your incompetence to a judgmental audience. Admit that you are no good at languages to your Spanish teacher. Admit that you have two left feet to your dance instructor. Do this not once, but every time you make a mistake or fail in some way. Do it with grace and good humor. As pop psychologists say, “own” the feeling.

4. Admit your incompetence to someone who can punish you. This is the ultimate test. The next time you volunteer for a difficult assignment at work, admit to your boss that you might fail before you succeed. Do it with grace and good humor and you will be amazed at the result. Your boss won’t can you on the spot. (Unless he is really incompetent.) Rather, he will admire you for your humility. After all, he knows you are not yet competent. All he wants is your commitment to carry on until you are.

At Agora Inc. and at ETR, our most productive and successful executives are very comfortable about saying, “I’m going to try such and such. I’ll probably screw it up completely. But if I eventually succeed… just think what good will come of it!”

That’s what you want for your company. That’s what you want for yourself. Defeat your fear of failure by being happy and even eager to try and fail until you finally succeed. That’s how Edison invented the light bulb. That’s how Michael Jordan, a very mediocre basketball player in high school, became the greatest hoops player of all time. They weren’t afraid of failure. You shouldn’t be either.

[Ed. Note: Admitting that you might fail at a goal is the first step toward achieving it. The second step is to find a mentor who can give you techniques and motivation to move forward. We’ve got just such a mentor for you. Learn the details here.]

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[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]