How to Overcome Fear of Failure

One of the most common causes of procrastination is the fear of failure.


Let’s imagine we have a task to do and we feel negative about it for some reason.

That makes it harder to do, but we can make it even harder. Much harder.

We can think that we can’t make a mistake.

Maybe we adopted this attitude from our parents or our teachers in school. Whatever the reason, many of us fear failure and don’t see it as a natural part of the process.

So as we think about the possibility of failing, we make from a simple task a tightrope walk over a deadly chasm.


Who would want to walk across the chasm if every mistake can mean death?

We don’t want to start working because all the negative thoughts about failure and judgment exacerbated our feeling of risk--they made a walk uphill into a tightrope walk. The negative thoughts made us anxious. Our anxiety raises our stress levels and we procrastinate.

We make ourselves into a tightrope walker.

What a tightrope walker believes

If I fail, I’m worthless and destined to die

Everyone fails. We lose money, we lose partners, projects fail… but not all of us react in the same way.

For someone, a failure is a small stumble on the way to success, but for someone else it’s not.

For some of us, it’s a fall off a cliff.


Every small failure turns into proof of inability and worthlessness.

When I fall, I’ll get back on my feet

Everything doesn’t depend on one single performance most of the time.

When you look at the lives of successful people, we see that they failed many, many times.

Legendary investor Ray Dalio at one point lost all his money. Entrepreneur Elon Musk at one point didn’t have enough money for rent. Apple founder Steve Jobs was at one point kicked out of the very company he started!

If these people took those failures as fatal diagnoses of their worthlessness, neither one of them would build billion dollar companies.

They learned from their failures and got back into a ring.

Failures big and small happen all the time. The important part is learning from them (so then they don’t repeat) and taking them in stride.

My performance = my self-worth

As with perfectionists, people who fear failure identify with their work.

New project? If it doesn’t pan out, I’m a failure.

Test in school? If I get an F, I’m an idiot.

If I’m not first, I’m below average.


Failure is not fatal. It happens all the time to all the people.

Failure is not a diagnosis of worthlessness.

My performance is my performance, I can always improve

You’re at a competition and you lose. You’re taking a test and you hand in an empty test with just your name. You make a presentation on the wrong topic.

Happens to everyone. You can’t win every contest and succeed with every project for the rest of your life.

So why not take a particular performance as just one performance at one point in time?

Every product of our effort is a clue whether we’re going in the right direction or not.

Bad performance? Okay, what do we have to change? Good performance? Awesome, let’s go full steam ahead.

How to overcome it: negative visualization

Whenever you feel you’re procrastinating because of the fear of failure, we recommend you to do this exercise:

What really happens if I fail?

People often avoid philosophy because they don’t consider it to be practical, but there are some branches that are useful in everyday life.

For instance, in stoicism there’s a practice ofnegative visualization.

It’s simple: you imagine the worst case scenario you can and then imagine how you’d deal with it.

What if you were fired tomorrow? What would you do? What if you failed all tests this semester? What would you do? What if your computer with your thesis on it burst into flames? What would you do? What if your new project failed miserably and publicly? What would you do?

Imagine it in detail.

The goal of this exercise isn’t to make you depressed. It’s to acknowledge that all those terrible things that float through our consciousness might happen, but they wouldn’t be the end of the world…

Once you describe the fear you have in detail, it’s usually not that scary. And even if it is, negative visualization can help you prepare for these worst case scenarios and stay cool if they ever play out.

What if they kick me out of school?

I could go abroad and teach English. I could help out in a restaurant to save up for a gap year. I could ask friends about any jobs or help that guy I met last week with marketing. I could also start learning more about programming...

It’s so easy to forget all the bad things we dealt with in the past. All the mistakes, mishaps, missteps,... When we think vaguely about failure, it stops us in our tracks. But when we start thinking concretely and prepare for the possibility, we realize it might not be the end of the world after all.

How to do it

  1. If it's small, you can only think about it
  2. If it's a bigger task, write it down (paper or computer - it doesn’t matter)
  3. Ask yourself, what is the worst thing that could happen?
  4. Let your brain work
  5. Name your fears, are they really that bad?

Everything depends on this – or not?

We sometimes think that our situation is one big dead-end.

We might have a job we depend on and be unable to do what we want because it would mean losing it.

Or we might have one big project we’re working on that would sink us deep into debt if it didn’t pan out.

The problem with scenarios like this is that they put tremendous pressure on us.

And we try to ease it off by procrastinating.

If we have one thing to do and its failure would mean the end of the world, every step we’re unsure of becomes a tightrope walk.

One email or a blank page of a document turn into the possibility of apocalypse.

Who wouldn’t be stressed in a situation like that?

What if we could ease the pressure a little?

How to overcome it: Plan B and Z?

Plan B and plan Z show us that we often have a choice when it comes to our future.

When we see that we have many options open to us at any given point in time, failure loses a lot of its gravitas.

Let’s look at plan B and Z.

Plan B 
= what you’d do if plan A didn’t work out, using the skills and knowledge you have

Plan Z 
= what you’d do if everything went terribly wrong

Say your plan A is studying computer science and helping out at some company with design.

Plan B options:

Plan B is a slight change of direction.

Plan Z is a sudden, radical change.

Plan Z - when sh*t hits the fan

What if everything went horribly wrong? What if you couldn't use your plan B for some reason?

What would be your plan Z - the last refuge?

For example, what if you were a programmer and had a brain injury or that would make you unfit for mental work? You could still stock shelves in a supermarket or be a barista.

Or you could be a business owner and suddenly went bankrupt. You could probably become a consultant and teach what you learned (not what got you into trouble, understandably).

No one wants to use plan Z, but it’s good to have it ready in the back of your mind.

“Well, if everything goes to hell, I can always _____.”

Knowing our plan Z allows us to understand that the world isn’t going to end if our current efforts fail.

What’s your plan B and plan Z?

2-3 sentences are all it takes. It’s worth taking 5-10 minutes to get a greater peace of mind.

Plan B





Plan Z





How to overcome fear: is it worth it?

Elon Musk estimated the odds of his success with SpaceX to be about 40 %.

Jeff Bezos thought Amazon had about 30 % chance of succeeding.

How then could they make the decision to start? How come they didn't worry and dwell on those odds? How could Musk invest millions of his own money into SpaceX?

Because it was worth it.

Fear is only one side of the equation. Depression, regret, sadness,.. those are on the other side.

For Musk, the other side of the equation was profound sadness. If humanity couldn't go to Mars, that would be depressing to him on a fundamental level.

For Bezos, it was regret that helped him overcome his fear. He read that the Internet was growing 2300 % a year. That seemed like a great opportunity. But he already had a great job in New York, how could he leave it and start from scratch something risky?

Regret minimization framework

When I'm 80 and looking back on my life, would I regret not taking this opportunity?

That is what Jeff Bezos asked himself. He calls this theregret minimization framework. If he didn't start Amazon, he knew he would have spent the rest of his life thinking about "What if I had started that internet company?"

Musk would probably spend a lot of time thinking about how he could have been a space pioneer if he didn't start SpaceX.

We regret what we didn't do more than what we did do. Not asking that girl out, not asking for a raise in that meeting, not spending more time with one's grandparents,...

You can overcome fear of failure by understanding that you'd regret not doing the thing you want to do for 50 / 60 / 70 years. That's a lot of haunting regret.

Is the thing you fear worth it?


Failure is not fatal, it’s a stepping stone

Failures, mishaps, personal embarrassments,... they aren’t the end of the world even though it may seem like it at the moment.

Failure in the right direction is a good thing.

Exercises like negative visualization or plan B and Z help us prepare for potential catastrophes and also dispel unnecessary fear.

And don’t forget, we can always improve.


When you find yourself procrastinating because of the fear of failure and you realize it, try:

Negative visualization

Think about the worst-case scenario. Imagine it vividly. What's really the worst case?

Plan B and Z

Think what your plan B would be if you failed with A. How could you make a living then? And if sh*t hits the fan, create a contingency plan (plan Z). What would you do if everything fails?

Regret minimization framework

Ask yourself:
When I'm 80 and looking back on my life, would I regret not taking this opportunity?

Use your fear of regretting something for the rest of your life to overcome fear of failure and make the leap.

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