How to overcome the fear of failure

Tuesday April 23 2019


By Waceke Omanga

The worst advice ever is to tell someone or to be told not to be afraid.

My four-year-old son is learning how to swim. I took him for his lessons one afternoon and I could already see the apprehension on his face as we approached the swimming pool. I told him not to be afraid.

Well, my soothing words did not work. Of course they wouldn’t. Think about it. At this stage he is unfamiliar with water. He is definitely going to be afraid.

My job is not to save him from being afraid but to help him understand that he will be okay through his discomfort and if he keeps at it, this discomfort will go. One-day swimming is not going to look like the big deal it is today.

Recently, I attended a programme in Dubai for entrepreneurship educators.

Here, I had the pleasure of meeting people who teach and coach entrepreneurs, and a wide variety of topics were covered. However, preparing people to fail (and to deal with the fear of failure) was in my opinion one of the most vibrant discussions.


Just like I realised with my son, I or anybody else cannot tell you not to be afraid. We are afraid of starting businesses, growing businesses, approaching clients, dealing with our money, facing our debt, pursuing different career options, annoying other people, retiring and so on. Sometimes just like my son, we are simply afraid of the unfamiliar.

Other times, the thing we think we are afraid of is not even what we are really afraid of. I watched a Ted- Talk in this class by a gentleman known as Jia Jiang who spoke about his fear of rejection. An incident frozen in his head was when he was a six-year-old boy and was put through something by his class teacher that humiliated him.

The fear he still has today (in his thirties) when he approaches people is that of the six-year-old boy because that is the experience that planted the seed. For many of us, we will also have a background to our fears if we dig deep enough. Somebody may have told you that you would never amount to anything.

Despite evidence thrown at your face to the contrary, you still believe that, and it bogs you down. You may still feel insecure when approaching certain situations or people, and you may have sabotaged yourself along the way. How you deal with your fear may not be ideal, but let yourself off the hook for feeling what you feel.

Our fears are rational to us. They are valid to us. That doesn’t mean we become prisoners of them. Only you can decide that you are not going to succumb to the fear. Many times it means you intentionally put yourself in situations where you have no choice but to master that fear. I don’t let my son leave the swimming pool just because he is afraid.

In fact, his swimming teacher goes to the middle of the pool and releases him so that he has to kick his little legs to get to the edge, and hold the rail. If he tried to do this from the rail itself, it would not work because my son would not let go. In the middle, he simply has no choice but to try. What’s that middle aspect for you? Jia Jiang in this talk, spoke about how he put himself through 100 days of rejection, purposely doing absurd things like asking strangers for money that would get him rejected.

Many times he was rejected and other times pleasantly surprised, but his muscle is definitely stronger, and the six-year-old boy is not controlling him as much. We need to accept that this fear will not go away by itself. You have to find your own version of putting yourself in the middle of the pool, and do it consistently.