Are you willing to do what it takes to overcome what challenges you? When confronted with a difficult challenge, do you let your fears about coming up short stop you from taking any action at all?
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Which do you fear most? Success or failure? Could it be that what holds you back in life is more about your fear of success than it is about your fear of failure? Before we can dig into the fear of success side of the equation, we need to address the more commonly thought-about fear of failure.

Just about everyone has hurdles in life, some more pronounced than others. Regardless of your situation or circumstance, the question remains: are you willing to do what it takes to overcome what challenges you? When confronted with a difficult challenge, do you let your fears about coming up short stop you from taking any action at all?

As you consider what you are going to do about your circumstances, you might want to consider this old fear of success vs. fear of failure argument. In today's piece, we will focus on the failure aspect.

In the past couple of weeks, we have been delving into the question about what holds you back in life. We began with a piece on how people use excuses to, well, excuse their lack of progress. The following week, we looked into some basics on how to overcome challenges and the role of clarity in moving forward. Last week's article asked you to consider that arguing for how right you are in various situations can often turn out to be arguing for your limitations.

Building on these questions, let's return to that fundamental question: what is holding you back? Is it your lack of vision? Are you afraid to succeed? How does your fear of failure get in your way?

These arguments should be familiar; people have been kicking around fear of failure vs. fear of success for some time. Just because the idea is old doesn't mean it lacks currency. If you're facing challenging times and need to find a way up and out, then you might want to consider that the first obstacle most likely lies with you and your own thoughts about lies ahead.

Failure Begets Criticism

Most of us know the failure-begets-criticism story. You try something, it doesn't work out as planned and then the critics jump all over you. The critics could be anyone from your mom reminding you I-told-you-so kinds of things to your boss wanting you to "take a risk" but really not wanting you to risk anything.

In my business consulting practice, I have seen this kind of take-a-risk-but-you-better-succeed thinking all over the place, from aerospace to pharmaceuticals to retail to mom-and-pop operations. Somehow, we seem to know that "nothing ventured, nothing gained" is true, and yet we don't have the stomach for the downside possibility.

I recently read an article in The Wall Street Journal about the role of risk and failure in creating large-scale success. Dr. Regina Dugan, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), spoke quite eloquently about how fear of failure can limit success. In response to a question about how fear of failure can limit innovation, Dr. Dugan said:

It's understood that for us to have those really big wins, we're going to have failures as part of that. Failure isn't the problem. It's the fear of failure that's the limiting factor there. We have to push through. We say at Darpa, you can't lose your nerve for the big failure, because the nerve you need for the big success is the exact same nerve -- until the moment you know which one it's going to be. Not before.

Founded in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik, as a way to create and prevent strategic surprise, DARPA is the agency that gave us stealth fighters, GPS and the Internet, amongst other now-everyday technologies. You may find it interesting to hear how one of the most advanced scientific think tanks in the world approaches success, failure and the role of far-reaching vision by watching this video. (The specific reference about encouraging or allowing people to fail begins at the 3:20 mark.)

Could it be that you are holding yourself back out of the fear of failure? Are the prospects of another round of criticism from family, friends or co-workers preventing you from taking the risks that might help you improve? If so, Dr. Dugan's thoughts about how failure and success are paired with one another may be enlightening for you.

The odd thing about fear of failure is that so many of us have failed so many times -- or at least we have declared our efforts to be failures. Of course, there are all kinds of willing allies in the declaration of failure, from parents and teachers to friends and business associates. "That will never work" often comes right on the heels of an idea about advancing, followed closely by I-told-you-so critiques at the first sign of slippage.

You probably know the story about Edison going through over 1,000 combinations of gas and filament before he found a light bulb that would last. After the light bulb began to be distributed, the science editor of a preeminent national publication asked him how it felt to have failed so many times. Incredulous at the question, Edison responded with the simple fact that he had succeeded in producing the incandescent bulb. When the editor persisted, Edison framed the problem of getting to a working light bulb as one that had over 1,000 steps along the way. Had he thought of each step along the way as yet another failure, we might still be working by candlelight. Thank goodness Edison did not have the science editor as his mentor!

Are you more like Edison, holding a vision of a workable outcome, doing the work required and finding that persistence is a big part of the process? Or are you more like the science editor, willing to call missteps along the way "failure"?

On the other side of the equation, the fear of success might also be operative in holding you back. This one is pretty counterintuitive. What on Earth could be wrong with succeeding? The answer depends on what success looks like, what expectations are likely to ensue and who might be offended by your success. This is the question we will take up next week.

In the meantime, what do you want out of life, and why? What have you told yourself about taking the risks necessary to create what you want? How have others "supported" you in declaring failure? What have you found useful in overcoming obstacles, and in creating your own version of success in life?

I'd love to hear from you, so please leave a comment here or drop me an email at

If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life, and on how you can take a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, download a free chapter from Russell's new book, "Workarounds That Work."

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about his work by visiting his website at You can contact him by email at