How to Overcome the Fear of Failure to Succeed

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Discipline Equals Freedom" by Jocko Willink. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are you scared of making mistakes? Are you wondering how to overcome your fear of failure?

In Discipline Equals Freedom, Jocko Willink explains that an obstacle to not pursuing your goals is the fear of failure. This fear can stop you from achieving success and growing as a person.

Continue reading to learn how to overcome a fear of failure.

Overcome Your Fear of Failure

Maybe you fear applying for your dream job because you’re afraid you’ll botch the interview. Or perhaps you’ve been reluctant to ask the person you like out on a date for fear of rejection. These excuses, though they may be reasonable, can prevent you from applying discipline to become the best candidate for your dream job or a supportive, stable partner for the person you desire to be with.

Willink claims that fearing failure can stop you from acting at all. His solution to learning how to overcome a fear of failure: fear stagnation more than failure. Imagine in days, weeks, or years from now, being no closer to your goal or the best version of yourself, Willink says. Let the fear of all of this wasted time and potential spur you into action.

Understand Your Fear of Failure

Willink explains that fearing failure can keep you from pursuing your goals, but what causes your fear of failure?

Fear of failure is worry about foreseen consequences of not succeeding at our goals. Research shows that the consequences of failure that we fear most are embarrassment, inadequacy, being stuck, becoming irrelevant, and suffering material losses.

As Willink says, one of the potential results of fearing failure is that it can cause you not to act toward your goals at all. One psychologist describes this negative effect as a low-risk, low-reward life. Living this way limits our potential achievements and happiness. Further consequences of fearing failure include negative physical and mental symptoms like fatigue and dissatisfaction with life.

Building on Willink’s solution to fear stagnation more than failure, consider using this “time travel” thought exercise to remedy your fear of failure. With this exercise, you’ll imagine the future consequences of your actions now to make better decisions for your future self.

Decide to Succeed

The next obstacle to self-discipline is feeling inadequate because of genetic or environmental challenges. Willink asserts that, through discipline, you can adapt and overcome predispositions to live the life you decide for yourself. Maybe you don’t think you’re tall enough or you don’t come from the right kind of background for a certain goal. However, having these predispositions doesn’t mean you can’t succeed. Willink says he has seen people from many walks of life succeed in the military and business—he argues they succeeded because they decided to. The decision to succeed manifests as many decisions along the way, like deciding who you hang out with and deciding to work and study hard. 

Besides Willink’s anecdotal evidence, consider stories of people overcoming predispositions to achieve success. For example, Dustin Pedroia is a former MLB baseball player who was considered too short at 5 feet 9 inches to succeed in professional baseball. Despite his physical limitations, he worked hard and went on to earn the American League’s most valuable player award, as well as multiple World Series championships with the Boston Red Sox.

(Shortform note: Willink’s point that success is a choice rather than a matter of uncontrollable factors suggests that self-belief and adaptability can lead to success. Along with establishing self-belief—which is important for success—try capitalizing on your strengths to overcome your weaknesses. To do this, write a list of your strengths and weaknesses, then group your weaknesses with strengths that you think could compensate for them. When you encounter situations that challenge one or more of your weaknesses, try to apply one of your related strengths to the situation.)

A Note on Self-Sabotage

Even if you agree with Willink’s point that success is a choice, maybe you fear success and intentionally sabotage your progress to avoid it. Willink says that if you intentionally fail because you think you’re afraid of success, you’re actually doing this because you fear the work it takes to succeed. Therefore, Willink claims self-sabotage is laziness.

(Shortform note: Willink claims self-sabotage is actually your fear of the work it takes to succeed, but experts say there are other reasons you might fear success. For example, maybe you fear the new level of responsibility or public criticism that a job promotion at your company would entail. To overcome these fears, try approaching the element of success you fear in gradual steps. For example, if you fear taking on more responsibility at work, gradually increase your responsibility by incorporating one small responsibility into your duties at a time, rather than inheriting an entirely new role with all its weight at once.)

How to Overcome the Fear of Failure to Succeed

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Jocko Willink's "Discipline Equals Freedom" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Discipline Equals Freedom summary:

  • Lessons and the philosophy of discipline from a Navy SEAL
  • The importance of daily habits like waking up early and putting off breaks
  • How self-sabotage actually stems from laziness

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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