Failure: Killer or Catapult?

There are few things more destructive to the human psyche than failure. In fact, the consideration of failure – the thought that failure might possibly occur – can be just as debilitating as the failure itself, as Brian Tracy observed in the Psychology of Selling:


“The fear of failure is the single biggest reason for failure in adult life. It is not failure itself, but the fear of failure, the prospect of failure, the anticipation of failure, that causes you to freeze up and perform at a lower level.”

It is likely the No. 1 killer of performance in most any endeavor. It seems there is simply nothing like failure, or the thought of failure, to crush an individual’s hopes and dreams.

For some, however, the opposite is true: failure is the catapult to performance improvement. Strangely enough, there are those who are motivated by failure, who are inspired by what they learn from failure, and are driven by the opportunity to try again.

The real question is, which one is it for you?

There is so much written about failure, I’m sure it would be difficult to tread new ground, but I am fascinated by the idea that some people can use failure as a springboard to success while others crash and burn, never to try again. And, as enlightening as the following motivational quotes may be, I’m certain it takes more than a couple of success posters to help someone overcome their fear of failing:

“Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.” C.S. Lewis

“When I was young, I observed that nine out of ten things I did were failures. So I did ten times more work.” George Bernard Shaw

“A failure is not always a mistake, it may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying.”  B.F. Skinner

“Our best successes often come after our greatest disappointments.” Henry Ward Beecher

From my perspective, the fear of failure is most often driven by one single issue, the opinions and judgments of others. Those who are crushed by the mere prospect of failure are quite often unduly influenced solely by what others think, or might think. The truth is, the fear of failure is a bit of a misnomer. People aren’t really scared to fail; they are scared of the consequences of failure.

They fear loss. They fear judgment. They fear diminished status. They fear the intense feelings of inadequacy. 

As an example, I’ve witnessed experienced salespeople – even those who have been reasonably successful – completely fall apart in a live role-play situation (a simulated sales call) in front of their peers. But why? Why would the simple act of having someone watch you do your job make you fall apart?

Because we often care way too much about what others think. Others, however, don’t seem to have that problem or they have discovered a way to overcome the problem.

Many years ago, my wife and I – back when we were still dating – were out on a dance floor when she stumbled and fell down. Bam! Right in the middle of the dance floor. At that moment, I figured we would not only be leaving the dance floor but possibly leaving the premises. But I was way wrong. She popped right up with a big smile on her face and kept right on dancing.

Although she was both a gymnast and a talented dancer, she fell down. The odds-makers would’ve had their money on me to tumble, not her, but it didn’t even seem to faze her. I really admired her for that, because I know I would’ve responded quite differently. Why? Because I would’ve been worried about what everyone else thought about it.

Her response? “It happens. No big deal!”

Years later, a buddy and I were playing guitars at a backyard patio party. He stumbled a bit during one song, but he never slowed down, never showed any signs of concern. After the song, I said, “That’s what I worry about, missing a chord or singing the wrong words or something.”

His response? “Who cares? If someone wants to criticize, they can grab an instrument and get up here and play. Or they can find another party. The truth is, a real musician would be encouraging you, not criticizing you.”

Ultimately, failure will define you as a salesperson. If you never get out of the blocks you can’t win. If you stumble on the track and stay down you can’t win. You will never be a sales superstar until you can overcome your fear of failure, whatever its cause.

The fact is, it happens. And it’s no big deal.

Unless you decide it is.

 (Photo Credit: AP)