“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
For years, I was haunted by a fear of failure. I spent my early adulthood as a professional French hornist, playing in chamber-music ensembles and orchestras. Classical music is a perilous business, relying on absolute precision. Playing the French horn, prone as it is to missing notes, is a virtual high-wire act in every concert. I could go from hero to goat within a few mistakes during a solo. I lived in dread, and it made my life and work misery.
Fear of failure is not just a problem for French hornists. Looking bad in front of others is arguably the most common dread people face. This explains why, for example, researchers have found that public speaking is college students’ most common fear; some scholars have famously asserted that people fear it even more than death. And dread about failing doesn’t just afflict the young or inexperienced: According to a 2018 survey conducted by Norwest Venture Partners, 90 percent of CEOs “admit fear of failure keeps them up at night more than any other concern.”
This particular brand of anxiety appears to be on the rise. According to the World Bank, the percentage of American adults who see good opportunities to start a business but indicate that fear of failure would prevent them from doing so has been increasing for the past two decades. It is approaching the world median, in spite of the fact that the U.S. has long prided itself on being a land of intrepid entrepreneurs.
There are a few possible explanations for this increase. Social media threatens to make every slip-up an extinction-level event, socially and professionally. Meanwhile, a generation of overprotective Baby Boomer parents have shielded their Millennial and Gen Z kids from the small risks and failures that build the emotional fortitude required to withstand the inevitable, larger failures of adulthood.
To the extent that this trend extinguishes entrepreneurial behavior, it’s bad enough for our future. But I am less worried about the effect on start-up enterprises than on the enterprise of building happy lives. Fear of failure can have surprisingly harsh consequences for our well-being. For some, it can lead to debilitating anxiety and depression, a diagnosable malady called atychiphobia. But even before it reaches that point, it can steer us away from life’s joyful, fulfilling adventures, by discouraging us from taking risks and trying new things.
The fear of failure has a number of sources, not all of which are obvious. At first thought, it might seem like it is the dread of some known, bad outcome. For example, I might be afraid to give a presentation for my boss because if I fail, I won’t get a promotion, with clear implications for my career.
But the fear of failure seems to actually be about unknown outcomes, at least for those who are most anxious. In one recent study conducted at University College London, psychologists devised an experiment in which participants had to decide between a series of gambles with guaranteed rewards and a set of bets with potentially higher wins and losses. Based on this, they found that people who suffered from anxiety were the most unable to estimate the best probable reward, which is consistent with earlier research. The implication of this risk aversion is that if you are particularly anxious about failing, it’s the uncertainty about whether you will do so that bothers you more than the actual consequences.
Researchers have also found that people who strongly fear failure have a composite of two personality characteristics: low achievement orientation (that is, they don’t take much pleasure from accomplishments and meeting goals) and high test anxiety (a fear of not performing well at a crucial moment). In other words, they’re motivated less by the possibility of winning and gaining something of value, and more by their anxiety about the possibility of messing up. Those are some of the same personality traits that drive perfectionism, and can show up in low achievers and high achievers alike.
In fact, perfectionism and the fear of failure go hand in hand: They lead you to believe that success isn’t about doing something good, but about not doing something bad. If you suffer from a fear of failure, you’ll know exactly what I mean. Where striving for success should be an exciting journey toward an amazing destination—as the climber George Mallory said, to ascend the mountain “because it’s there”—it feels instead like an exhausting slog, with all your energy focused on not tumbling over a cliff.
Surprisingly, people who fear failure do not need to extinguish the fear itself—to become more fearless—in order to make themselves happier. Instead, the best way to tame a fear of failure is to hone courage. Stanley Rachman, a psychologist, showed this in his research in the 1980s and then in the following decades on people in dangerous professions, such as paratroopers and bomb defusers. They too tended to fear failure—and messing up in such cases might be dire indeed. But they were able to tap into reserves of courage to act anyway. As Rachman argues, fearlessness is abnormal, and even dangerous, because it leads to foolish risk taking and bad leadership. Courage, on the other hand, helps you to balance prudence and resolve, even if the only thing you’re defusing is an office conflict.
The good news is that all three of these drivers—an aversion to uncertainty, an attachment to the appearance of perfection, and a lack of courage—are qualities most of us would rather rid ourselves of. Facing the fear of failure is more than just dealing with a problem; it is an opportunity to grow in virtue. You can start this growth with three practices.
1. Focus on the present.
I once had a conversation with an oncologist about what it’s like to give people a dire, late-stage-cancer diagnosis. He said that some of his patients—people with a particular need to control tightly all parts of their lives—would immediately go home and start researching their prognosis on the internet. He would counsel them not to do this, because it would only make them sick with worry.
Instead, he told them, start each day with this mantra: “I do not know what will happen next week or next year. But I know I have the gift of this day, and I will not waste it.” He said it helped not just their outlook about the disease but also their overall approach to life. I recommend this same refrain to anyone suffering from a fear of failure. Own the unknown future through gratitude for the known present, and watch your happiness rise, as you enjoy what you have in front of you.
2. Visualize courage.
Remember that one of the most common fears of failure involves public speaking. Even the thought of giving a speech in front of a group makes some people panic. The solution to this problem is simple: exposure. That doesn’t mean you need to haul a soapbox to your town square every day; just simulating a speech environment using virtual reality has been shown to lower people’s fear significantly.
Anyone can use this idea, even without strapping on a VR simulator, through simple concentrated imagination. Instead of avoiding the source of your fear even in your own mind, spend time each day visualizing scary scenarios, including possible failures. Picture yourself acting with courage, despite the fear. I did this extensively early in my teaching career, imagining everything from the prosaic (forgetting my notes) to the absurd (realizing after an hour-long lecture that my fly was unzipped the whole time—something that subsequently happened in real life). I soon found that I was, in fact, more courageous in front of the class as a result.
3. Litanize humility.
In Dante’s Divine Comedy, Satan is depicted as a victim of his terrible pride by being frozen from the waist down—fixed and in agony—in ice of his own making. Fear of failure and perfectionism are like that prideful sea of ice, freezing you in place with thoughts of what others will think of you—or, worse, what you will think of yourself—if you do not succeed at something.
There is a solution that follows Dante’s Catholic sensibility, but that in reality need not be religious at all. An early-20th-century Spanish cardinal, Rafael Merry del Val y Zulueta, composed a beautiful prayer called the “Litany of Humility.” The prayer does not ask that we be spared humiliation, but that we be given the grace to deal with the fear: “From the fear of being humiliated, / Deliver me, O Jesus.” It continues: Deliver me from the fear of being despised. From the fear of suffering rebukes. From the fear of being calumniated. From the fear of being forgotten. And from the fear of being ridiculed.
Make your own version of the litany of humility, religious or not, and recite it each night. Even if the items seem ridiculous to you (“From the fear of messing up my PowerPoint presentation, deliver me”), if you want relief, you have to state your desire. Only then will your fear cease to be a phantom menace and instead become concrete—and thus conquerable.
If all of the above strategies seem too time consuming, there is one last, tried-and-true method to develop courage in the face of failure: fail. And then, survive what the dark unknown truly holds. That is what eventually cured me.
As I started by telling you, my music career was made miserable by my terror of mistakes. But at least my mouth was occupied with the instrument, so I didn’t have to speak publicly—that really freaked me out. Both those fears came together one fateful day at a chamber-music concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. I was slotted to give a short speech—maybe two minutes—about a piece my ensemble was to play. I stepped out of my chair and walked to the front of the stage, shaking in fear. Then I lost my footing, and literally fell into the audience. Decades later, I can still see it happening, in slow motion. As the audience gasped, I jumped up, my horn badly damaged and my arm injured, and shouted, ridiculously and implausibly, “I’m okay, folks!”
Years later, I look back on that experience and laugh. But it wasn’t just funny—it was an incredible gift. Since scoring a perfect 10 in humiliation that day, I care very little about looking ridiculous. I take more risks and show my personality in ways I don’t think I would otherwise. Failure set me free.