How do I stop being scared of failure?

A student wrote to me with this question:

How do I stop being scared of failure? A lot of the times I don’t go for activities/ competitions or even play games with my friends because I’m scared of losing. In my mind, if I don’t win, I’m not good enough. How do I get out of this mindset?

I don’t think it’s helpful to link success and failure with one’s self worth, or to infer if one is good enough based on one’s success or failure. That’s a misunderstanding of the relation between success/failure and the measure of how much one is good enough.

To quote a book I read years ago, “Failure is but a postponed success.”

Why? Because failure is more educational and informative than success, and failure is the means by which we improve and get better at things. In other words, you can’t be good enough until you have learnt how to avoid being bad at something, and you learn about the things to avoid from your failures.

I know many people think that I am very successful. But behind the scenes, these success are borne out of my many spectacular failures. The teaching of my module is a perfect example. I’m able to teach it so much better this semester because of the numerous failings and mistakes I made in the previous semester. Of course, failure is unpleasant. I don’t like it as much as you do, and I sometimes lose sleep over it. But it gives me so much insight to better understand why something didn’t work, and I know what not to do the next semester. It also allows me to can explain and tell others why they shouldn’t do something and what would happen if they were to try that.

Only those who have failed enough times will have this kind of experience and knowledge to offer. The one who succeeds can only say so much about why one should do a particular method, but that person is limited and cannot say what will happen if one were to try otherwise.

So if you were to compare me (and my numerous failures) with someone who succeeded all the way, I have more insights and experiences to share and more value to add than the one who did not encounter failure. Who would you say is better? The one who failed many times, right? There’s more to learn. So this makes me more masterful and better at what I do.

If it helps you feel less scared of failure, one thing I always tell myself is that everything I do is an experimental research, so I am prepared to lose because I want to learn from the experience and understand why it didn’t work. It also reduces the anxieties I have about getting it right the first time. You can’t fail if you wanted to fail to learn, because your failure is your success! Haha!

It’s important to expose yourself to more failures so that you feel less apprehensive about it. And truth be told, games are the best for this. Because you can lose in a fun environment where everyone can laugh and have a good time about it. You can always imagine or role play as someone else, if it helps. If you lose, it’s not you who failed but your role-play character who messed up! And that’s ok!

What do you do when you’ve tried many times but you still fail every single time, even though it’s something that you really like and want to be good at?

A student sent me this question:

What do you do when you’ve tried many times but you still fail every single time, even though it’s something that you really like and want to be good at?

If it’s something you really like and want to be good at, you need to be way more patient with yourself and kinder to yourself. It’s like learning the violin. It’s incredibly painful at the start because everything you do is wrong no matter what you try. But you just have to keep doing to retrain your muscles to learn now movements. Same thing with everything else. So we must be patient and forgiving towards ourselves with each and every failure.

There’s a saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting the same results.

If something fails, it’s important to ask why did it fail and diagnose what precisely went wrong. Saying, “I am not good,” is not a diagnosis. Was there a lack of understanding on your part, or is there a flaw in the method?

These things must be evaluated so you know what not to do in the future. When you can do that, then failure isn’t just failure. Such failures become lessons on what not to do, so that you can do better. Of course, it does help to seek help online, whether it’s YouTube videos or posting on forums/Reddit. It can be difficult to identify the flaws. So we need other people to identify them for us.

Can I ask if there’s ever a time you felt very annoyed but feel like there’s no way to resolve it? How do you calm yourself down? And what do you do after that?

A student asked me:

Can I ask if there’s ever a time you felt very annoyed but feel like there’s no way to resolve it? How do you calm yourself down? And what do you do after that?

Yes, that happens from time to time. It’s important to recognise that there’s a lot of things that we have no control over. What we have is control over ourselves, in how we respond to these things, and that we can be better people in response to such situations.

I normally take a break and do things I enjoy doing like music, watching shows on Netflix, or go out for a walk (walks are the best!). Sometimes I’ll treat myself to a good meal. These things will help a lot.

Sometimes the annoyance is greater because all my plans and effort have come to nothing, or I totally cannot get something I really really wanted. In which case, I’ll give myself a longer time to get my mind off the matter. So I’ll go do other things in the meantime, like indulge in a hobby or work on another project. No point dwelling on the matter when you’re upset. It only makes you more upset. Better to come back when your mind is fresh and you’re calmer about the situation.

When I’m calm about the matter, I’ll resign myself to the fact that I can’t control that situation. I’ll assess what I have no control, and what I have control over. And then I’ll ask myself whether I can still find an alternative way to get what I want. And if I can’t achieve what I want, I’ll plan out how to make the best of the new situation. Sometimes, it takes courage to say, “I shall not pursue this anymore.” This is also a fine and legitimate option. And then I’ll figure out what else I’d like to do with my time.

This advice was very abstract, but I hope it helps.

Why do people who are 17 or 18 years old get into relationships if the chances they can last is unlikely?

A student wrote to me, asking:

Why do people who are 17 or 18 years old get into relationships if the chances they can last is unlikely?

If you think about it, there are many relationships that don’t actually last regardless of age. So why zoom in to those years? The same can be said about any other age.

The real question is why do something if you know it’s likely to fail? Some people use this line of thought to justify not getting married because of the likelihood of failure. We might as well be asking: Why bother living if we know we’re going to die?

The point is that it’s about the experience. Not all experiences are good, and not all experiences are bad. But all these experiences teach us many things about life: what we really want, who we really are, etc.

Of course, being in a relationship at too young an age can lead to more hurts due to a lack of maturity and experience in knowing how to handle difficulties, conflicts, and hurts. Nonetheless, that doesn’t stop people from trying, and from learning from their experiences, whether good or bad.

At the start of the relationship, my ex had many worries, and she said, “What if we break up? What’s the point in being together?”

My answer was that at least we would have had the experience – the joys, the sorrows, the happy memories, and even the sad memories – that would define us, that would mark a chapter in our lives. These are never wasted time together.

And if we have to go our separate ways, we’ll then say, “Thank you for the time together. Thank you for the happy memories, and the sad memories. Thank you for the laughter and the tears. Thank you the experience. And more importantly, thank you for sharing this chapter of your life with me.” And then we’ll move on to a new chapter, with a new adventure and a new story to tell.

How do you overcome fear of uncertainties, and the shame and guilt of past failures?

A student asked:

How do you overcome (1) fear of uncertainties, and (2) the shame and guilt of past failures?

The first step to overcome fear of uncertainties is to recognise that a lot of things in life are not linear. If you didn’t get X now, it doesn’t mean that you can’t do Y in the future. The doors of opportunity for Y may present itself later on.

The second step to overcome fear of uncertainties is to carry out this thing called Risk Mitigation. We know that uncertainties exist. We know that we don’t like some of the consequences. And we know that some things are beyond our control. So what can we do so that we don’t end up in the worst case scenario? For starters, have a backup plan. Heck, come up with multiple backup plans. E.g. What do I do if my thesis topic turns out false? Then write about why it didn’t turn out the way you intended! There we go, a backup plan! All is not lost.

Psychologically, when you have backup plans, the pressure to get X right reduces because you know you can fall back on the backup. This is helpful because we often crumble under high stakes pressure. So the backup plan also helps in making you feel less stressed about the situation, thereby allowing you to perform better.

Now, there’s a whole literature about risk mitigation strategies that go beyond backup plans. They cover things like how to accept risk, avoid risk, control risk, monitor risk, and more. It’s too lengthy to cover it here, which was why I started with a simple concept of the backup plan. Go Google and read up more about risk mitigation, and master that as a skill. Once you know how to manage and mitigate risks, your fear of uncertainties will reduce greatly.

As for overcoming the shame and guilt of past failures, we have to recognise that a lot of it is in our heads. We are prisoners of our minds. And it’s important to remember that how we feel and perceive our failures is not how other people feel and perceive them. In fact, most people don’t remember the stupid things we do, or the incredible failures we’ve committed. I’ve said many embarrassing things and done a lot of stupid things to other people. I used to live in fear that these things will come back and haunt me. But 10 years later, nobody remembers them. This also includes the people whom I hurt or upset in the past. It never ceases to amaze me how forgiving (or forgetful) people are. You must do something of evil villain proportions to be remembered for those misdeeds. Most of us aren’t even close to that. So people will be forgiving, and we just have to be a bit thick skinned about it and just pretend it didn’t happen. You’ll be amazed at the degree of magnanimity and graciousness that most people are capable of. So… Don’t be afraid!