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Fear Of Failure And How To Overcome It

Worry gives a small thing a big shadow. — Swedish proverb

Several months ago I put up an informal poll here to inquire what gets most in your way of success in the ADR business. The overwhelmingly most frequent response was “fear of failure.”

I’ve been reading about fear and worry since I saw those responses and today have a post which I hope will be a good resource for those of you who find it’s getting in the way of your practice-building.

What’s is worry’s relation to fear? “Worry is a special form of fear,” says Edward Hallowell in a Psychology Today article. “It is what humans do with simple fear once it reaches the part of their brain called the cerebral cortex. We make fear complex, adding anticipation, memory, imagination, and emotion.”

Why we fear and worry

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is one that spoke to me in some way because of my doctoral work in human behavior change, my studies of the neuroscience of conflict behavior, and my interest in your responses:

  • Our biology: Our brains are wired to fear first and reflect second. “We’re biologically programmed to do this, to protect ourselves. And when you don’t have all the facts you will over- or underreact to a risk, based on your instincts” says David Ropeik of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis.

  • Interest in greater sureness: According to Robert Leahy, PhD and author of The Worry Cure: Seven Steps to Stop Worry from Stopping You, “Worriers hope to gain a feeling of sureness. They want to avoid disappointment or staunch a problem before it gets out of control.”

  • Low self esteem: “Rather than attribute their successes to their lovableness, competence or skills, worriers may say, ‘Well, I was lucky that time.’ Or ‘It’s only because I worked 10 times harder than anyone else.’ That kind of thinking leaves you feeling inadequate, whatever you accomplish,” says Alexander Rich, a consultant at the Department of Mental Health Law and Policy at the University of South Florida.

  • Mistaken belief we control more of our life than we do. Says Leahy, “If you always think, What did I do wrong? you’re probably giving yourself too much credit.”

  • Our brains get stuck. Notes Hallowell, “Why does the worrier go on worrying? His mind has, in effect, gone into a spasm, a grip that can’t relax and accept good news. He is suffering a kind of ‘brain burn,’ because his system is continually pumping out a huge bolus of adrenaline under high pressure.” He goes on to compare worrying to gnawing on old bones, unable to stop asking what if…?

  • Risk of status loss. Status is associated with where we and others see ourselves positioned with respect to those around us. Says David Rock in Psychology Today, “Your brain maintains complex maps for the ‘pecking order’ of the people surrounding you…The threat response from a perceived drop in status can take on a life of its own, lasting for years.” Rock thinks self-esteem is best understood through the lens of status.

What to do, what to do

The key is in action, says Dr. Ellen Weber, CEO of the MITA International Brain Based Center (and my Twitter friend).

Here, drawn from the resources suggested to me and in some cases written by Stephanie West-Allen, Ellen F. Weber, and Robyn McMaster (my gratitude to the three of you!), are concrete actions to help you past your fear of failure in your mediation work and practice-building:

  1. Retrain your brain. Hallowell recommends monitoring the automatic thoughts associated with your worry or fear, examine them for their error in logic, and consciously choose a more useful thought. I can speak personally about the benefits of retraining one’s surprisingly flexible brain, as that’s part of the year-long marriage experiment my husband and I have been up to and which I’ve been writing about in The Year 20 Reboot.

  2. In smaller and ever-increasing doses, do the thing you fear. If you’ve ever seen the hilarious film What About Bob?, you’ll appreciate the idea of baby steps that gradually give you courage to take bigger steps. In mediation marketing and practice-building, this translates into taking one small action daily. I do first in the morning the thing I’m least excited by, then reward myself with all the other things I love doing in my work.

  3. Replace your brain’s catastrophizing with the answer to this important question I first saw posed by Tim Ferriss in The 4-Hour Workweek: If you chase your dreams and fall flat on your face, worst-case scenario, how long will it take you to recover? Ferriss proposes that you do more than casually answer the question and draft a recovery roadmap for yourself, tucked away for anytime you need it. I did a version of this when I left my college VP job in 1997. I gave myself two years (about how long I calculated my savings would comfortably allow me no income at all) and knew that if I failed, no university president in the world would look askance at me doing conflict resolution work for two years should I need a higher ed job again!

  4. Find a single doable solution to whatever business-building problem is heightening your fear. Doable, as in something you can and will do to address it. Says Weber, “People who live in stress do so when there is loss of control accompanied by anxiety for the future. Fears often trigger stress for people who focus more on past mistakes than on future opportunities…where infinite potential becomes more a state of mind. Suggest just one doable solution to one problem you face, for instance, and you literally rewire parts of your brain for the next winning solution.”

  5. Find your special status niche. Rock suggests, “You can elevate your status by finding a way to feel smarter / funnier / healthier / richer / more righteous / more organized / fitter / stronger or by beating other people at just about anything at all. The key is to find a ‘niche’ where you feel you are ‘above’ others.” Now there’s about as good a reason to narrow your market niche as one I’ve ever seen!

  6. Play against yourself. Rock also says, “You can harness the power of the thrill of ‘beating the other guy’ by making that other guy (or girl) you, without hurting anyone in the process. To play against yourself gives you the chance to feel ever-increasing status, without threatening others.” One practice-building translation of that approach: Play against yourself by writing better quality blog posts. Attend networking gatherings with a really clear goal and walk away having connected better with others than ever before. You get the idea.

  7. Do your homework. Ropeik says there are many examples where people are more or less fearful than the facts suggest they ought to be. ‘When people are over- or under-afraid, based on what the statistics suggest they ought to be of any given risk, they make bad choices.” How real is the the likelihood of failure in the ADR business world? At first blush, it looks incredibly high – the road is littered, after all, with the remains of failed mediation practices and we’ve all heard the failure stories again and again. Here’s the thing, though: I don’t think they’re legitimate failures to measure yourself against because most of the mediators I know who’ve failed never really gave it a full shot to begin with. I don’t think the road is paved with the bodies of failed mediators. I think the road is paved with the bodies of mediators who kind-of-sort-of-hoped-to-maybe-someday-get-serious about being business owners.

Ok, your turn: What ways have you overcome fears and worries of potential failure?


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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