How Do You Overcome the Terror of Failing?

I am posting this fantastic article from the latest Changing Course Newsletter – more excellent advice from the “Dreamer In Residence” expert, Valerie Young. Learn more about her company here


That was the question someone asked in a recent survey of Changing Course readers. It was the second time in as many months that someone who was getting ready to start a small business talked about being “terrified” of failing. In neither case were we talking about anyone putting their home up as collateral or sinking their life savings into a venture. In fact, the stakes were relatively low. And all too often this sense of terror at the prospect of failing can be paralyzing.

Every entrepreneur experiences failures on the way to success. I am certainly no exception. While I was still in my corporate job, I decided to produce a line of humorous greeting cards on the side. I spent months drawing each card, surveying my friends to see which ones people liked best, and then invested a couple of thousand of dollars getting them printed. They sold pretty well in small gift stores in San Francisco, Boston, New York, Hartford, Connecticut, and Provincetown, Massachusetts. But about a year into it, I realized that it was the wrong business for me.

Did I spend more money than I made? Yes. But I never felt like a failure. To the contrary, I felt proud of myself for giving it my best shot. I learned a ton about the greeting card business which I’ve been able to share with others considering that same path, and I moved on to my next venture with a much clearer picture of what I was looking for in a livelihood.

No one sets out to fail and certainly no one likes it when they do. But terror? There are things worthy of being terrified about like global warming or a car bomb going off in your neighborhood. Giving something your best shot and finding out that it didn’t work, well, I call that “life.”

If you really want to change course to work for yourself, then you absolutely must readjust your emotional response to failure. This means embracing some fundamental truths about failure that have guided successful people since the first caveman’s spear missed that first wooly mammoth and he picked it up to try again.

To get you started, here are six rules about failure, mistake-making and risk-taking that every entrepreneur needs to understand:

Rule 1: You’ll strike out more often then not.

In baseball a .333 batting average is considered outstanding. If you’re not a baseball fan, what this means is that for every 10 pitches, the batter only has to hit the ball three times to be considered exceptional. Even the legendary Babe Ruth “only” batted .342. The point is, you can be at the top of your game and still strike out more often than not. No one bats 1000, so stop expecting yourself to be the exception.

Rule 2: Failures offer valuable lessons – and opportunities.

Believe it or not, there is lots of good news about failure. Henry Ford understood that, “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.” In engineering, the process of “failure analysis” is based on the recognition that you can learn just as much from studying what went wrong as you can from what went right. It is this understanding that led Thomas Edison to famously remark, “I have not failed. I have successfully discovered 1,200 ideas that don’t work.”

Instead of seeing your flops as evidence of your incompetence, think of them as information you can use to do better next time. Do you need to develop or hone a certain skill? Do you need more practice or a different approach? Do you need to delegate the things you’re not gifted at? What will you do differently next time? What lessons can you glean? The sooner you grasp the learning value following what feels like a setback, the better. The key is to fail forward.

Rule 3: Failure is just a curve in the road.

I know how easy it is to be so discouraged by setbacks that you just give up. But it’s time you start seeing failure for what it is, a curve in the road and not the end of the road. Did you know that Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper job for “lacking ideas”? Or that H. Macy’s store failed seven times before it caught on? Or that Michael Jordan was cut from his junior varsity basketball team? Did they give up? No.

If Abraham Lincoln had taken failure as cause to quit, it would have changed the course of history. In fact he suffered repeated failures on the road to success. After failing as a storekeeper and a farmer, Lincoln decided to run for political office. He failed. Once he finally did get elected to the legislature, he sought the office of speaker and failed. He failed in his first bid for Congress. He failed when he sought the appointment to the United States Land Office. And he failed when he ran for the United States Senate. Despite repeated public failures, Lincoln never saw failure as a reason to give up.

Rule 4: Not taking risks may be the riskiest move of all.

So much of changing course comes down to being able to shift your thinking about what “risk” really means. It worked for Janice Bennett. Whenever people begin with “What if…” right before saying “…it doesn’t work?” Janice would always finish their question with, “…what if it does?” “Now,” says Janice, “is the time for me to [ask myself] not only what could happen to me if I didn’t make the change, but what could happen to me if I DO? Wow, those possibilities are endless. As morbid as it may sound, at my funeral, I want it to be full, to be standing room only, to be overflowing, to know that I made a difference in people’s lives, and I touched them somehow.”

Just two weeks after Janice shared her big “aha” at the Changing Course Blog, she took her own advice. She took the plunge and signed up for the Outside of the Job Box Career Expert and Small Business Success Idea Consultant Course. I have no doubt that in the process of realizing “endless possibilities” for herself, that Janice’s ability to turn fear into excitement will indeed make a difference in the lives of everyone she touches.

Whenever you try anything new there will always the risk of failure. At the same time, not taking risks is often the riskiest move of all. The reason Michael Jordon says he made so many baskets is because he was willing to take so many shots, explaining, “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Rule 5: It’s not your failures that count, but how you handle them.

Imagine making a major mistake with 1 billion people watching. That’s what Miss USA Crystle Stewart did when she fell during the 2008 Miss Universe pageant. She handled the fiasco by putting on a radiant smile, picking herself up and clapping her hands over her head as if to say, “Let’s have a round of applause.” This was not the first time Stewart had to pick herself up after a failure. It had taken her five tries before being crowned Miss Texas. As you think about launching that entrepreneurial dream, remind yourself that it’s not your failures that count, but how you handle them.

Rule 6: Choose what kind of failures you want to have.

In his commencement address at Macalister College, radio show host and author Garrison Keillor encouraged his audience to “have interesting failures.” Let those words sink in for a moment. Have interesting failures. Not only do you have a choice about how you handle failure, you also have a huge say in what kind of failures to have.

From time to time you’re going to miss the mark. So why just be a failure at parallel parking or balancing your checkbook when you can come in third at the National Jigsaw Puzzle Championships, only write one children’s book, or make it only half way up Mount Everest? The fact that you never fail is proof of only one thing – you never tried.

Every day you get to choose settling over reaching, inaction over action, continuing to live your life the way it is over the life you could have. It really is your choice. As Billie Jean King once said, “Be bold. If you’re going to make an error, make a doozey, and don’t be afraid to hit the ball.”

Rule 7: Make your fear work for you.

It’s one thing to quietly promise yourself that you’re going to push past your fears and finally act on those long buried dreams. It’s quite another thing to announce to the world your intention to write your first chapter, hold your own seminar, figure out how to sell your jewelry, learn a new craft, or whatever it is you’ve been “terrified” of doing. It’s quite another to announce it to the world.

Yet making a public commitment is one of the best ways to ensure that you’ll actually follow through, because now you’ve built in that all important accountability. After all, suddenly other people are watching and waiting. Sure the naysayers are watching and waiting for any setback so they can say, “I told you so.” But if you make a point to tell the “right” people I guarantee they’ll be cheering you on. And guess what? When other people see you taking steps, they’ll be inspired to act too.

That’s because action is contagious! Which is why I’m asking all of the members of the Changing Course Club to add their goals to a “Changing Course in 2009 Pledge list.” It’s a new section of the Club Forum where members get to stand up and publicly state their goal and one action they’ll take to get there and the date they pledge to take that action. And, if they choose, Club Members can sign up to be in a small Tele-Study Group or Dream Team to help one another stay on track. (Not a member? Learn more at

With the New Year comes the opportunity to start anew… to make new choices. Which will you choose – fear or action?

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About the Author

“Turning Interests Into Income” expert, Valerie Young, abandoned her corporate cubicle to become the Dreamer in Residence at offering resources to help you discover your life mission and live it. Her career change tips have been cited in Kiplinger’s, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today Weekend, Woman’s Day, and elsewhere and on-line at MSN, CareerBuilder, and An expert on the Impostor Syndrome, Valerie has spoken on the topic of How to Feel as Bright and Capable as Everyone Seems to Think You Are to such diverse organizations as Daimler Chrysler, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, Harvard, and American Women in Radio and Television.

To read more articles about how to work at what you love without a job go here.

Mary Elizabeth Bradford is the Founder and Executive Director of and and a past executive recruiter. A thought leader in the career services industry for over 20 years, she holds 5 distinct advanced certifications for senior-level resume writing, online branding and executive-level job search coaching (CERM, CMRW, CARW, MCD, NCOPE). She has been seen and heard in major media including Forbes, Time, WSJ, Newsweek and NBC affiliate stations. She holds 2 CDI TORI awards and is a top tier judge for the elite CDI TORI awards for four consecutive years. Mary Elizabeth Bradford’s elite team of award-winning, certified, top executive resume writers, former top executive recruiters, and global HR executives help many of the world’s premier C-suite, board members and thought leaders secure the transitions and compensation packages they want. She works with clients all over the globe.

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