So is fear of failure stopping you from achieving your potential? Psychologists state that certain behavioural signs can reveal fear of failure. Experimenting on US children in the 1960s, academics found a major difference in task execution between children that had high “achievement motivation” (High-AMs) and those that had high “fear of failure” (High-FFs). High-AMs focused on the potential rewards of success – viewing failure as a temporary setback – while High-FFs focused on the potential humiliation of failure and, therefore, usually sought to avoid the task altogether.
Yet such avoidance can manifest itself in various forms, sometimes so subtly that the participant remains unaware of the true motives of their behaviour. Below I set out 10 signs that you may have fear of failure – some from personal experience (as a self-declared High-FF), some from the wide body of psychological research on the subject.
Rebelliousness in childhood. In my day they were punks and now it’s the emos. Yet it may go beyond music-based cultures to more serious misdemeanours relevant to the social backdrop of the sufferer, such as being disruptive in classrooms, indulgence in petty vandalism, shop-lifting, smoking – even drugs and self-harming. If otherwise confident it could lead them to become a bully. If insecure, one of the bully’s lieutenants.
Difficulty settling into mainstream activities. This was certainly a major one for me. Despite loving football I was incapable of committing to any formalised team at school or in the village, finding excuses or falling out with coaches. Judo was another one – I declared it boring and pointless but in fact feared failure so sought to avoid such a fate through withdrawal. Cubs – again, I hated it because I feared I’d not win the badges the other kids had festooned on their arms.
Exam stress. Even mild fear of failure can cause exam stress but High-FFs may take avoidance to extremes – feigning illness (or even experiencing the illness), suffering panic attacks or indulging in extreme avoidance behaviour such as giving up or deliberately sabotaging the exam.
Career “dreams”. Extraordinarily, some of the most seemingly-ambitious people may, in reality, be indulging in avoidance-type behaviour. One classic sign is a focus on “wildest dream” career choices such as pop stardom or TV fame. Crucially, the near-impossibility of achieving the dream means they will be kindly judged for being “a trier”, and it may mask their avoidance of realistic but challenging career choices (usually involving qualifications).
Office persona. Such masking can follow the High-FF into the workplace. High-FFs are often the office or shopfloor clown – the joker that everyone likes, despite their lowly status. On the surface at least, being popular is far more important to the High-FF than making progress, although – again – this is usually hiding an inner sense of inadequacy.
Don’t seek promotion. In fact this may go as far as avoiding seeking promotion, even when the obvious candidate. High-FFs will make excuses – perhaps declaring themselves happier among the troops than the officers. This is especially the case when the promotion may be contested. Fearing humiliation, High-FFs can quickly declare themselves out of the contest.
Office feuds. And our view of work is most likely to be negative. High-FFs are often highly critical of the way workplace life is executed – sometimes publicly. They can be part of the moaning canteen gang (even its leader). And such criticisms can be directed at particular individuals – usually ones they fear. Inevitably these divisions and petty rivalries can develop into full-blown and disruptive feuds.
Over sensitive sense of justice. A classic High-FF trait – and definitely one of my major giveaways – is being overly sensitive to real or perceived injustice. Assuming slights or insults are meant and personal, looking (and usually finding) prejudice or favouritism to others (real or otherwise), developing acute paranoia about the intentions of senior management. All are High-FF traits and all are self-fulfilling disasters. In its extreme, this can lead to pilfering and absenteeism and other misbehaviour based on a “why shouldn’t I?” mentality.
Poor luck. High-FFs are convinced they have poor luck. That they are always in the wrong place at the wrong time. Key moments – job interviews perhaps – are blighted by late trains or random illnesses (food poisoning from a banana was one of mine). New jobs or new responsibilities have unexpected external crises visited upon them that the previous incumbent was free of. Challenges appear from nowhere, opportunities disappear – all seemingly beyond our control.
Presentation nerves. This is perhaps an obvious one but one no less harmful for that. Those important moments, requiring a strong performance in front of others, are the very moments we lose our self-confidence: perhaps even developing physical traits such as the shakes, or sweats, or a wobbly voice. I can remember my first radio interview, where I performed so poorly they wondered what had happened to the lucid and confident talker they’d met in the radio-station lobby. I was not invited back.
Robert Kelsey is author of What’s Stopping You? Why Smart People Don’t Always Reach Their Potential and How You Can. Capstone Publishing, £10.99.