Oswald Letter

Don’t let fear of failure stop you from taking risks

Man Watching through window blindsby Dan Oswald

I guess we’re all afraid of something. When we were kids, we might have been afraid of the dark or monsters under the bed. As adults, those fears often seem bigger or more real. We may have a fear of heights, the outdoors, or even failure.

The problem is that fear puts limitations on our lives. As children, it might be that we’re afraid to get out of bed in the night because of the dark or monsters we imagine are under the bed. We are limited to that little space, an area less than 4’x7’.

And as adults, both the fears and the limitations get bigger. A fear of heights may lead people to avoid Ferris wheels, tall buildings, or bridges—literally causing them to keep their feet planted firmly on the ground where they feel safe. A fear of the outdoors might cause people to spend their entire lives inside. No walks in the park, no camping, and possibly no commuting—which means the fear is limiting job choices.

But the fear of failure, that’s the big one. It’s a fear that afflicts all of us at one time or another—or maybe more often than we’d like to admit. But like every other fear, the fear of failure puts limitations on us. And when we are afraid of failing, the limitations can be extraordinary.

It happens to all of us all the time. We work hard for something, and when we finally get it, we aren’t sure how to handle it because we’re afraid we might lose it. Our behavior changes. We become risk-averse. The actions and attitudes that helped us get what we wanted suddenly seem too risky. It might seem counterintuitive, but suddenly we stop doing the things that helped us get ahead.

A person works hard, puts in long hours, and takes a couple of risks that turn out really well and land her a big promotion. Now she’s the boss and really likes her new job and responsibilities. She continues to work hard, but those risks that helped her get noticed and land the promotion now seem too risky. She’s afraid she might try something that won’t work out and will make her look bad in her new role. Instead of doing the things that got her ahead, now she’s playing it safe. And the results she gets reflect her new risk-averse attitude.

It’s easy to risk everything when you have nothing (or very little) to lose. Pascal’s Wager is an argument about risk and reward developed by French philosopher, mathematician, and physicist Blaise Pascal. He argued that a rational person should live as though God exists. The basis for his argument is that if one lives believing in God, and God does exist, then the person gains eternal life and avoids eternal damnation—a gain of infinite proportions. He further argued that if a person lived as though God exists and was wrong, then his loss was finite—he would have missed out on some worldly pleasures, but that probably was all. As Pascal argued, it’s easy to take the risk when there’s not much to lose.

So, consider for a moment what you’re afraid of. Are you avoiding risks you took in the past that paid dividends for you? Do you feel like you have too much to lose to continue taking those risks? What is it you’re afraid of losing?

What risks have you stopped taking because of your fear of loss? Do you really need to be afraid of those risks? Maybe they’re more like the monsters under your bed when you were a kid. They seem very real and scary, but in reality, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Then imagine what’s possible when you stop being scared and start taking those risks again.