Objectivity, honest self-assessment, and healthy skepticism are key to remaining true to oneself and keeping in touch with reality. On the other hand, chronic self-doubt and indecisiveness are the worst enemies of success. We must find a balance.
People who avoid or postpone making decisions as a habit are, in fact, choosing not to succeed. Sometimes, waiting for the perfect moment becomes waiting forever. Success is the result of making decisions, taking responsibility for their consequences, learning from them, and moving on to the next challenge in pursuit of a dream. In summary, success becomes a possibility when we take action, ideally thoughtful action, but never too much thinking with no action.
In light of the foregoing, it is important to ask ourselves, what is the origin of indecisiveness? The most common answer is fear of failure. Although true, this proposition can sound a little cliché. So, let us take it one step further.
Fear of Failure Is a Social Fear
Failure in a vacuum causes no fear. If we could fail in a world of no witnesses and no consequences, everyone would be much more daring. The real fear is of its aftermath, that is, shame and guilt. Of course, one could argue that the real fear is bankruptcy. But if I told you no one would ever shame you or guilt you for such a thing and you would be given access to further funding with complete confidence, you might feel less apprehensive about failing.
This fear of shame and guilt is human. We are social beings and, as such, we do take into account how others regard us. When put into perspective, that fear makes us prudent and strategic, but when blown out of proportion, it introduces us to a world of insecurity, self-doubt, and excessive analysis which can be paralyzing.
Making Fear of Failure Manageable by Putting It into Context
As Guy Winch Ph.D. puts it, the primary problem with addressing fear of failure is that it tends to operate on an unconscious level. This is why I created a very simple model to help us distinguish between when fear of failure (i.e., fear of shame and guilt) is making us wise, prudent, and strategic, and when it is paralyzing us. The model outlines both the path of indecisiveness and that of decision-making, so that we can move over to the latter when we see ourselves trapped in the former.
The path of indecisiveness has the following three stages:
- Fear of failure.Fear of failure and its aftermath, guilt and shame, is like a thick fog that blinds our judgment about ourselves and the world. When we focus too much on other people’s opinions, we might find it difficult to even know what we like and dislike, what makes us feel passionate and what bores us. We can be so focused on the way people see us that we avoid exploring our real talents and passions as we might discover that our natural inclinations are outside the scope of what society considers prestigious, worthwhile, traditional, or what have you. Bottom line? The fear of failure and its aftermath could impede us from defining our higher purpose (mission) and our goals (vision) honestly. If this were the case, we would hardly end up doing something that we feel truly passionate about, which, in turn, would make “avoiding failure in the public eye” our main motivator. As a result, we become apprehensive.
- Paralysis by analysis and apprehensive action.Apprehensiveness leads us to oversaturate ourselves with excess information and to overanalyze every single available option. As a result, we will likely fall prey to a syndrome called paralysis by analysis, by which we become blind to the evident virtues of the very options we are considering. And, if we ever muster enough courage to take a step forward and make a decision, we do it with much apprehension still, thus becoming negatively predisposed to our own decision.
- Experiencing Guilt and Shame.Failing at something that we like doing is dramatically less painful than failing at something we do out of obligation and conformity. When we fail at something that we are passionate about, at least we have our journey to cherish. Yet when we clock in and clock out mainly out of conformity, we do not even have a journey to remember fondly. This is why those who are mostly driven by the fear of failure assess their decisions mainly through the lens of avoiding guilt and shame. Interestingly, this attitude prevents them from being as creative as they can in pursuing success, thus making failure considerably more likely.
The path of decision-making, in turn, is significantly different. Here are the three stages of decision-making:
- Motivation. When our judgement is not clouded by fear, we have enough confidence and courage to explore our true passions and talents, thus defining our mission (higher purpose) and vision (specific goals). In turn, we gain further confidence and focus. It is a virtuous cycle that is profoundly motivational. Although the possibility of error remains present, our motivation will be the best antidote to paralysis by analysis and apprehensive action. As humans, we might still experience fear. Nevertheless, by keeping the focus on our mission and vision, we can use that fear as fuel for wisdom, prudence, and strategy, in which case we would make fear work for us.
- Relevant information. Confidence, focus, and motivation are instrumental in differentiating between important information and noise. This translates into simplicity, clarity, and actionable choices. The importance of information is to regulate and channel impulse, but not to stifle action. When we are driven by fear, information becomes the reason not to act. When we are driven by a clear mission and vision, information becomes a tool to act intelligently.
- Responsibility. Responsibility is the ability to accept and learn from both achievement and failure in order to continue to improve. By being honest with ourselves and passionate about we do, we are much more likely to act responsibly. And by being responsible, we rid ourselves of the crippling yoke of guilt and shame.
In conclusion, success rides on our ability to make decisions while being as mindful as possible of ourselves and our surroundings. This way, we can make the necessary preparations before every move and the necessary adjustments thereafter in a continues process of advancement and improvement. That mindfulness, though, must hinge on the ability to make information the source of actionable intel rather than justifiers of fear. At the end of the day, whether we are on one side of that equation or another is a matter of attitude, making success as much an art as it is a science.
Article originally published on Forbes.com.