Business Journal

Are You Haunted by a Fear of Failure?

by Gallup

Obstacles to building your strengths (part 2), originally excerpted from Now, Discover Your Strengths

Although now out of print, Now, Discover Your Strengths launched a worldwide strengths revolution. Since the book's release in 2001, Gallup has continued to dedicate countless hours to developing our strengths science, the brainchild of the late Don Clifton, the Father of Strengths Psychology. Part of that investment resulted in a refined upgrade of the original assessment for discovering your strengths that you can now find in StrengthsFinder 2.0.

Because failing is never fun, some of us choose not to risk it. But in the context of the challenges of strong living, this fear of failure becomes particularly resilient and difficult to dislodge.

All failures are not created equal. Some are fairly easy to digest, usually those where we can explain away the failure without tarnishing our self-image. It may sound a little different in kindergarten ("Hey, I wasn't ready!") than it does in the working world ("I'm afraid that's not my specialty"), but the principle is the same. When the cause of the failure seems to have nothing to do with who we really are, we can accept it.

But some failures stick in our throat and lodge there. Of this kind the most persistent and the most damaging are those times when we pick out one of our strengths, stake a claim, go all out, and yet still fail. The anguish that accompanies this kind of failure can be acute. Do you remember the scene in the film Chariots of Fire where the runner Abrahams turns to his girlfriend after losing a race for which he had prepared diligently and in a stunned whisper confesses, "I just don't think I can run any faster"?

Whether we are competitive like Abrahams or judge ourselves against our own standards, our sense of failure is most pervasive whenever we reach down, call upon our strengths, and they are found wanting. Despite society's well-intentioned advice to "try, try again," at times like these we can start to feel a little desperate. "I identified a talent, cultivated it into a strength, claimed it, practiced it, and still failed! So where do I turn now?"

An added twist to this fear of a strength-based failure is that society reserves its most delighted ridicule for those who claim strengths and then fail. Think of Donald Trump's highly public brush with bankruptcy in the early 1990s. Think of Richard Branson's struggles to launch Virgin Cola. There are probably very few of us who, hand on heart, can say that we did not take just a smidgen of pleasure in seeing such grand claims fall short. Our baser instincts encourage us to take pleasure in another's misfortunes; unfortunately, the pleasure seems to increase in direct proportion to the other person's ego. The bigger his ego, the greater our pleasure in his failure.

For both of these reasons, then, many of us avoid the exposure of building on our strengths. Instead, we stay in the workroom patching up the cracks. It is diligent, it is humble, and society respects it. Unfortunately, as we just described, patching up your weaknesses will never lead you to excellence. So what should you do? How can you overcome this potent fear of strength-based failure?

Well, more than likely you will never entirely dissolve either your fear of your own failure or your small pleasure in other people's. Both seem to be ingrained in those aspects of human nature many of us share. By examining them up close, however, you can at least demystify them to such an extent that neither stops you from building on your strengths.

Let's start with the ego problem. Is it egotistical to spend your life building on your strengths? Everything we know from our research says that it isn't. Building on your strengths and egotism are not the same thing. Egotism is when you make claims to excellence, but your claims aren't tied to anything substantive. This blustering, "big hat, no cattle" approach to life is ripe for ridicule.

But building on your strengths isn't necessarily about ego. It is about responsibility. You should not take pride in your natural talents any more than you should take pride in your sex, race, or the color of your hair. Your natural talents are gifts from God or accidents of birth, depending on the articles of your faith. Either way, you had nothing to do with them. However, you have a great deal to do with fashioning them into strengths. It is your opportunity to take your natural talents and transform them through focus and practice and learning into consistent near perfect performances.

From this point of view, to avoid your strengths and to focus on your weaknesses isn't a sign of diligent humility. It is almost irresponsible. By contrast the most responsible, the most challenging, and, in the sense of being true to yourself, the most honorable thing to do is face up to the strength potential inherent in your talents and then find ways to realize it.

Might you fail? Yes, you might. Building a strong life means that you allow performance to be the final judge of your strengths. Performance, properly measured, is implacable and unforgiving, and without doubt there will be times when your claims of strength are judged unfavorably.

So what? Really, what is the worst that could happen? So you identify a talent, cultivate it into a strength, and fail to perform up to your expectations. Yes, it hurts, but it shouldn't undermine you completely. It is a chance to learn and to incorporate this learning into your next performance, and your next. And what if these next performances still fail to meet your standards? Well, it hurts some more. But it should also tell you something: You might be searching for your strengths in the wrong places. Despite the hurt, you are at least freed up to redirect your search more productively. As the wit W. C. Fields advised: "If at first you don't succeed, try again. Then quit. There is no point making a fool of yourself."

This advice is easy to give and difficult to put into practice, but as you build your strengths, sometimes making great progress, sometimes slipping back, take comfort from the fact that this is how a strong life is supposed to be lived. This process -- act, learn, refine, act, learn, refine -- clumsy though it may be, is the essence of strong living. Strong living asks you to be bold, to be perceptive, to listen for performance feedback from the outside world, and, above all, to keep investigating your strengths despite the many influences pulling you away from them. Again, Carl Jung captured the spirit of it best when he said, "Fidelity to the law of your own being is . . . an act of high courage flung in the face of life."

A word of warning: Be on the lookout for the one menacing danger that can undermine you: delusion. This occurs when you keep acting, keep failing, and don't realize it. You think that you have a strength in public speaking, yet you don't realize the audience is zoning out. Or you imagine yourself a superstar salesperson, yet never wonder why nobody buys. Or you see yourself as the greatest manager of people since Vince Lombardi, yet never notice that your employees steer clear of you as you patrol the hallways. Or, most dangerous of all, you dimly register your poor performances, yet somehow seem to find a million reasons why it has nothing to do with you. Delusion plus denial is a lethal combination.

If you are thus afflicted, nothing in this book will cure you. All we can tell you is that the person you are doing the most harm to is yourself. The philosopher Baruch Spinoza said that "to be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life." You may disagree with his emphasis, but surely one of the goals of your life is to discover and apply your strengths. If your senses are numbed with delusion and denial, you will stop looking for these true strengths and wind up living a second-rate version of someone else's life rather than a world-class version of your own.

Next week: Perhaps it's your true self you fear.


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