Barrier To Success: Fear Of Failure

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I’ve been feeling very unsatisfied with myself recently. Initially I thought it was pure laziness (which I’m sure still plays a part), but in fact I think it is the fear of failure. There are so many ideas that I haven’t tried or put off because ‘I wasn’t ready’ or ‘It probably wouldn’t have worked’. Screw that. All successful people have had spectacular failures and are not ashamed of them at all.

This realization was partially inspired by listening to Steve Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford. You can see the entire transcript here, the iTunes audio here, and a partial video here. No matter what your feelings on Apple (or Stanfurd ;P), Jobs is a great speaker and I think listening to the whole thing is the best way to experience it.

I liked the whole thing, but here is my favorite quote (again, it’s best to listen to it from Jobs rather than read it):

My third story is about death.

When I was 17 I read a quote that went something like “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “no” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important thing I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life, because almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

(He goes on to talk about his cancer diagnosis.)

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma ? which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Sure, it’s a bit frou-frou and cliche. But it sure takes the edge off asking that cute girl out to coffee, or moving forward with that money-making idea you’ve been toying with, eh?

Don’t take the whole ‘live each day as if it were your last’ too literally. I guarantee if it was really Steve Jobs’ last day on Earth, he wouldn’t be talking to a bunch of college kids in a black polyester smock!

He’s just trying to put things in perspective, and help us overcome our natural fear of failure.

You can’t tell me there hasn’t been something you haven’t tried because you were afraid purely of the stigma of failure or rejection. Try out for the basketball team? Ask for a free refill on your soda when they give you all ice? Apply to Harvard? Look for a better job? Ask a man out on a date? Ask for a pay raise?

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  1. Wow! Although it is not money related post, but I have to say this is one of the best posts I have read for a while.
    Without the right attitude, it is hard to achieve anything, money included…
    What makes a success so great is becasue of all the failures. And each failure teaches us one little lesson so eventually, we can avoid all the mistakes and reach the destination. So if we fall, we learn why we fall, get up and try it again with a new twist..

    Great post!!

  2. Susannah says

    I really think you need to put yourself on a schedule. What it really seems you lack is self-discipline. Just IMO, and sorry if it sounds too harsh. I am the same way, but I’ve decided to cut myself some slack until both my kids (one is already a year and 1/2, the other we’re trying for now) are potty-trained (by then, they’re a little easier to deal with).

  3. I don’t disagree, Susannah. It’s not harsh at all. I do lack self-discipline. That’s my next Barrier to Success topic – Time Management.

  4. I never really agreed with the whole idea of living life as if each day was one’s last. If one lives each day as if it was his last, one (probably) doesn’t concern himself with making money, getting an education, pursuing long term goals, etc. Instead, one only thinks about pursuing immediate trivial satisfaction, and immedate trivial satisfaction – more often than not – is really just a time waster in the greater scheme of life.

    So… don’t live each day as if it was your last. Plan, schedule, and execute your ideas. Yeah, it’s so much harder, but life is more than catchy motivational phrases.

  5. You know, I was just thinking about this same thing this afternoon on my way home. I realized that I’ve got a couple good ideas, but I’m lacking the drive to take a chance on them, mostly because I’m afraid of the risk…

    Great post. I need motivation to “Just Do It!”


  6. bigmouth says

    I personally think that you have this blog and drawing a lot of attention itself is a small success already. On the other hand, what is a success really? I know some folks that are living in very ordinary life but appear to be calm and happy. Some others tend to be goal driven and restless on pursuing all the material goals. They don’t appear to be happy, or in other words, they appear to be unhappy most the time. But I never think to be “happy” is the ultimate goal they really hopedful. “Unhappy” is just a by-product on their quest on the way of certain successes…

  7. don’t forget the antithesis – many a stupid idea/result has begun with “it’s now or never!”

    sure, you’re bound to die sometime, and it could be soon, but you don’t want to do something now to screw up the rest of the time you have.

    motivational speaking is great, so is being realistic – find the sweet spot in the middle, and make sure your decisions are the right ones.

  8. Anonymous says

    Has anyone seen the the scene from the “The simpsons” where homer tries to live every day like it is his last. The first thing he does does is screams “Oh God! Why me ! I’m so young”.

    All these corny motivational speeches should be taken with a big bag of salt.

    One one’s last day, one need not bother with saving money, job, following law.

    That’ll quickly lead to misery and you would soon wish it was your last day.

  9. thanks anonymous – now THAT is a sensible post 😉

  10. Harrison says

    FEAR = False Evidence Appear Real

    People fear because in their mind they think that the worst may appear if he take any actions. So this will block them and finally they fail in their life.

    Actually we know all the theories that we must overcome our fearless to take action and success. However, the problems are I many people still struggle with “FEAR” even they know they must overcome the FEAR. So practical and theory is different!

  11. I’m retired, and enjoy your blog.

    Give yourself some slack. I can tell you that you are quite self disciplined to do this each and every day.

    Very much enjoyed the Steve Jobs talk.

  12. bigmouth says

    I am more interested to listen to someone like Steve Jobs when he was fired the 2nd time and there are much public resentment towards his way of doing business and way of treating people…

    I want to see his state of mind then rather than when he surpassed it and came back on top. When he illustrate his emotion in retrospect, it may be fully altered to the real truth.

  13. jigsaw1975 says


    I just resigned from my job as I have a personal belief that I can offer so much more to the world. The last 1 month has been frustrating looking for new jobs as people are not appreciative of my capabilities. I was a superstar at my previous job. In a single year, I personally brought in over $1 million dollars in revenues to my former company.

    I am the type of person who gets very offended when someone turns me down for a job I am interviewing because I always feel that I am the best candidate.

    Reading your article, gives me motivation to perhaps look into the possibility once again of opening my own business… still unsure about it because it may take $100K investment.

  14. Wow, anonymous, talk about taking it literally and totally missing the point.

    Indeed, I believe that people should be living each day to the fullest. While yes, it does suck to fail in front of others, especially your peers, it really sucks when you are your own worst failure.

    The worst that can happen is that the girl says no, you get rejected to Harvard, or you lose some money. Looking at it that way, there’s no reason for you NOT to take action.

  15. Fear Of Failure: Barrier to stupid misadventures

  16. DebtBlog says

    FOCUS. It’s all about setting objectives and staying focused upon them until you achieve them. Look at your goals, now, while you’re thinking about it. Formulate a plan to achieve them. Now for the hardest part; execute your success plan. Stay focused and always drive toward your goal. You’ll proabaly have to tweak your plan now and then, but STAY WITH IT.

    Most people never achieve success because the haven’t the driver and perseverence to do so. One last thing – Work smart, not so hard. No sense in trying to chop down the tree with a dull axe. Take the time to sharpen it.

  17. Exercise keeps me on track to accomplish what I need to during the day. That’s my $.02

  18. Thank you MM. I’ll expand on that:

    It’s not ALL about fear of failure when you’re discussing ‘breaking out.’ There’s one other, important element that you need to consider:


    Does the biz idea you have sound like fun now? What about when it becomes actual, endless WORK? Is there enough upside to justify that new WORK you’ve chosen?

  19. Jonathan — Luv the blog, dude, and thanks for the link to the Jobs speech. Like the Good Book says, “Man does not live by bread alone.” Props to those that listen to that inner voice and are true to themselves. Now … let’s get on with making some dough!

  20. Sabin Speiser says

    Inspiring post. Cogent remark:

    “People fear because in their mind they think that the worst may appear if they take any actions. So this will block them and finally they fail in their life.”

    This is the crux of the paralysis that leads to failure.

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