executive coaching


How to never fail

As an Executive Coach I work with lots of start-up leaders. Many of them are constantly living in fear of failure. And for good reason. These founders are trying to create something that doesn’t yet exist. They’re constantly months or even weeks from running out of money, and they face a lot of skepticism from investors as well as pressure from competitors who may have more resources. On top of that, many founders are relatively young and mostly unproven (founders of color and women experience even greater roadblocks).

Given all this, the fear of failure looms large for many entrepreneurs. Everyone experiences fear. For many of us, this fear is so strong that it stops us from taking the risk to try our idea or dream.

Fail forward…But only if you succeed

Companies that hold themselves as bastions of creativity and innovation have wrestled with this dilemma for decades. What it boils down to is: how do we encourage risk taking and experimentation while still ensuring results?

Facebook’s motto of move quickly and break things, the hyper popular increase in design thinking and its basic premise of prototyping, and the concept that has been advocated by various companies of “failing forward” are all attempts to get people to move past the fear of failure so they may be their best creative selves.

But these tend to be mantras that carry with them the implicit caveat “as long as you succeed” and they don’t really address what people are most worried about: the stigma that failure has in our society. To fail is to be less than, to have lost it all. It is not just an action of to fail, but an identification with being a failure.

Antidotes to Fear of Failure

I encourage leaders I work with to stay focused on these 3 antidotes to the fear (and even the possible reality) of failure. These are grounded in the perspective that the individual is bigger than the project, initiative, company they are working on.

 1.Focus on personal growth

Are you growing personally and professionally? Are you learning about yourself and others? Are you gaining new skills that will benefit you as you continue along your journey, on your next endeavor? If you are then don’t worry so much about the short term outcomes.

Psychologist Carol Dweck talks about the Growth Mindset versus the fixed mindset. The fixed mindset is all about outcomes — did I win or lose, did I hit my target or not. The Growth Mindset is more about the curiosity of engaging in interesting challenges and the fulfillment that comes from trying to figure things out.

2. Focus on impact

Impact is the effect you’re having or change you’re making in your community of choice. If you’re making an impact – or at least trying to – it alleviates the pressure of success or failure based on metrics that are much more flimsy in terms of what they really say about you. Focusing on impact helps you keep in touch with the bigger picture of what you are doing and less susceptible to the ups and downs one experiences in any venture. Working towards anything will come with inevitable challenges, but staying focused on why you’re doing what you’re doing, the difference you want to make, will keep you grounded. So you have to define what impact or change you are trying to make and for what community and make sure it’s sufficiently meaningful to withstand the challenges you face. 

3. Cultivate meaningful relationships

No matter what is happening, you can always focus on creating deeper connections with the people around you, your colleagues, partners, investors, etc. When all is said and done, these relationships are often the most fulfilling part of everything we’re spending our time doing. And who knows how relationships you foster now may come in handy down the road.

Make Yourself Fail-Proof

The fear of failure in our culture is pervasive. It holds people back and causes unhealthy stress. As long as you’re keeping your focus on these three simple but powerful principles you can never really fail.

So make yourself fail-proof by ensuring that you’re growing and learning in whatever you’re doing, you’re having or attempting to have the impact you desire, and, you’re paying attention to the relationships you have the opportunity to develop along the way.

Living Your Best Life is a new blog series aiming to answer the question, How can I live my best life? This twelve-month series explores this question through the topics of productivity, leadership, motivation, psychology, family, wellness, and society.