Fear of failing leads to underperformance

The problem with fear of failure is that it’s completely rational.

By R. Russell Rhinehart

The young girl gymnast must learn to do a cartwheel on the balance beam. The beam is about head height to her, and only four inches wide. It is high and narrow—and hard; and the monster on the beam is invisible. It wants to push her off-balance, to make her fall.

When you fall, your legs or ribs hit the beam on the way down, and get scraped and bruised. And then you'll hit the floor. That will twist ankles, knees, fingers, wrists and elbows, and bruise the head, face and all sorts of other places. You’ll hurt. The injured parts won’t work, and you won’t be able to do things for a few days. And, the bruises and scrapes will show in school tomorrow.

Of course, there is no real monster on the beam. But, something wants to make you fall, and the outcome is awful.

It’s bad enough walking along the beam with nothing to hold onto, and the abyss far below on either side. But it’s much worse upside down, on your hands, in the middle of a cartwheel.

To protect herself from being injured in the trick, she wants to look at the floor, not the hard beam. This will let her see where to put her feet to land safely on the floor. But, this means she isn't looking at the beam and can't guide her feet to land on the beam. So, her feet miss the beam, she falls, and scrapes her legs and bangs her ribs on the way down.

Or, to protect herself from being injured, midway through the cartwheel, she crunches down close to the beam. That way, she won’t fall so far. But, that means that she doesn’t stretch her arms and torso, which means that her long legs can’t place her feet under her center of gravity to be able to stand up and complete the cartwheel. So, she is caught, crunched over, with weight on one hand and one foot, falls off balance, and whomps on the floor.

Or, to be sure to land on her feet, not her head, she dangles her feet off to the side instead of keeping her center of gravity over the beam. But of course, this makes her fall.

The fear of the awful result of falling causes her to take protections to temper the undesired outcome. She looks at the floor, or she stays crunched low. But, to do a cartwheel, you need to look at the beam, stay over the bad thing, and extend arms and torso to be as high as possible.

Fear of falling leads to falling. The more you protect yourself from the awfulness, the more likely it will happen. If you're seeking to protect yourself from the awfulness, you are not paying attention to what is needed to succeed in the activity.

Fear prevents humans from doing what they could, becoming what they can, or venturing into someplace that leads to actualization.

Certainly, doing the cartwheel takes preparation, and the development of proper technique. “No fear” in a person without skill will not lead to success in cartwheels. You can’t be stupid about your skills. “Fools jump in where angels fear to tread.” “Look before you leap.” Those are all valid admonishments.

But, when you know you can do it, you can do it. When you have demonstrated all of the skills in practice, you can do it.

We are all afraid of the awfulness that might happen. For some, it’s in making presentations. For others, it's writing. It could be in facing difficult conversations, within the complexity of pipes, in proposing a design, in letting something slip through the cracks, in mathematical modeling.

We need patient coaches who know the mechanisms, and can help us develop the skills, behaviors, perceptions and self-confidence that lead to proper technique, achievement and success. We need coaching that can move us the next level of what is possible for us as individuals.

Recognize how fear leads to underperformance. Coach each other to acquire all of the fundamental skills, and to have the personal self-confidence to do it right.

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