Failure is an inevitable part of students’ lives, but they must learn to overcome the fear of failure.

When in Paulo Coelho’s novel The Alchemist, Santiago, a shepherd boy, says, ‘I have no idea how to turn myself into the wind’, the alchemist replies, ‘There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.’

Once seeded fear of failure sprouts in the brain making it incapable of making decisions. This stagnation ensures that we only meet failure.

Carol Dweck, an eminent psychologist and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, has spent decades studying how people cope with failure. She came up with the idea of mindset when she was sitting in her office studying the result of the latest experiment with one of her graduate students.

The results showed that people who disliked challenges thought that talent was a fixed thing that you were either born with or not. People who relished challenges thought that talent was something you could nourish by doing things you were not good at all. ‘There was this eureka moment,’ recalls Dweck.

She later came up with the terms ‘fixed mindset’ to identify the former group and ‘growth mindset’ for the latter group. If you believe you can develop your talents over time (a growth mindset), you’ll never be paralysed by fear of failure.

If you believe you were born with a certain amount of talent (a fixed mindset), that’s the end of the road for you. A growth mindset benefits us throughout our life. ‘It allows you to take more challenges,’ she says, ‘and you don’t get discouraged by setbacks or find effort undermining.’

We all can learn to change our mindsets and make dramatic stride in our performance. But the process is slow. First, you have to learn that talent is like a muscle which grows stronger through exercise, and then train yourself to master new things. Proverbial practice may not make you perfect but it will certainly improve your performance.

Are you burdened with fear of failure? Write true or false against the following statements whether they are generally like you or not. This is not a diagnostic test; it may help you in finding out the areas you need to work to change.

  1. Failure makes me worried what other people would think about me.
  2. I’m afraid of looking dumb.
  3. I’m uncertain about my ability to avoid failure.
  4. I like to play it safe as I can’t afford to be vulnerable.
  5. I always put off tasks for tomorrow.
  6. I become anxious when not certain.
  7. I live in self-doubt.
  8. I’m afraid of disapproval.
  9. I worry that I won’t do well.
  10. I worry that failure would disappoint people whose opinion I value.

Any true answer suggests that you might like to examine the issue further. But don’t be too hard on yourself. Failure to act correctly is an inevitable part of life; that’s why computer keyboards have delete keys. You can always delete a failure from your memory and start again.

Here’re some of the ways to lose your fear of failure:

Maintain perspective. Take a long-term view of your failures; they are not final. A failure is a single incident; it doesn’t make you incapable of success in the future. Failure is a relative term. Was Vincent von Gogh’s inability to sell more than one painting in his lifetime a failure? If he had fear of failure humanity would have been deprived of the eternal beauty of his nearly 2000 paintings, drawings and sketches.

Think of failure as a learning experience. Put aside old ideas and past efforts and start anew. Visualise your goals; workout your milestones. Develop a strategy – a step-by-step plan that makes sure than your actions lead you towards your objective – and execute it efficiently. Let Thomas Ala Edison inspire you: after experimenting with thousands of different sorts of fibres (including the hair from the beards of some of the men in his laboratory) he at last found the right filament for his newly invented incandescent light bulb. He hadn’t failed thousands of times; he had found thousands of ways that didn’t work. The one that worked brought sunshine into our darkened rooms.

Identify things that are in your control and focus on them. You may not be good at figures (of mathematical type), but if you like to draw you can focus on figures (of curvaceous type). Everyone has talents they are not sure about or even do not know about. Once you know of your unique gift, you know of one thing that is under your control. Just focus on it.

Failure is not defeat and success is not excellence. Plunge right into what you really want to do. It’s better to enjoy partial success than nursing regrets of not doing it at all.

To avoid emotional bruises caused by failure, learn to own the fear. Find trusted people with whom you can discuss your demoralising feelings of shame and disappointment. ‘Bringing these feelings to the surface can help prevent you from expressing them via unconscious efforts to sabotage yourself; and getting reassurance and empathy trusted from others can bolster your feelings of self-worth and minimize the threat of disappointing them,’ advises psychologist Guy Winch, author of Emotional First Aid.

The following advice comes not from a psychologist but from an acclaimed writer of short fiction: ‘When we begin to take our failures non-seriously, it means we are ceasing to be afraid of them,’ writes Katherine Mansfield in ‘A Shot of Laughter’.

Instead, many parents take failure seriously, so seriously that they try to scrub failure from every step of their children’s lives: from rushing breathlessly to swing that nobody gets hurt to doing the children’s homework.

When parent try to engineer failure out of children’s lives, warns Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure, children feel incompetent, incapable, unworthy of trust and utterly dependent. Obviously, these children will never learn that failure packs enormous power, especially when we learn from it.

© Surendra Verma 2016

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