“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.