One thing most people fear tremendously–perhaps, at times, more than death itself–is failure.  We think of the horrendous ridicule, the veiled sneers; we think of our lives as we know them being destroyed, and being ostracized by our friends and acquaintances.  We think of losing our jobs…of losing our life savings.

But failure is radically misunderstood by the general public.  It is romanticized and inflamed, likely by those who have not taken many risks in life, or by those who have failed but were unwilling to try again.  In fact, our emotional reactions to failure do not really correlate 1.) the propensity for that failure to occur, and 2.) the actual negative outcome if the failure does occur.

Just think about how much energy people spend worrying about failure.  Think of all the opportunities passed up–by yourself and by others–because of fear of trying.  Now look at the people who have been successful.  It’s easy to laud their accomplishments as inevitable in retrospect.  But do you think that’s what they thought when they were where you are now; just getting started, and charting new territory?

In order to be successful, you need to understand failure as a logical sequence of events, and put less regard on feeling failure as an emotion.  If you want to be adventurous, if you want to blaze a new trail, you have to be able to manage and master failure.

  • Do you fear actual failure, or do you fear the unknown?

You’re at Step 1 in starting a restaurant (writing your idea).  You’ve never started a restaurant before.  You don’t think you know what you are doing.  You already have that queasy feeling in your stomach.  Maybe you think you can’t do it; you think you will fail.  But how can you actually fear failure?  You haven’t even taken a risk yet!  You didn’t even risk taking 5 minutes of your time to write a business plan.  To fear failure implies you actually will do or did do something that could cause detriment to you if it goes poorly.

So your fear of “failure” is actually fear of the unknown.  You have a vague idea of something and you really don’t know what to do.  So, for no other reason than that, you fear failure.

Fear of the unknown is a sad reason to be caught up in worry, because the solution to fear of the unknown is actually pretty easy: go figure it out!  That what you don’t know; seek to know!  Go buy a book on restaurant operations (for bonus points, get it from the library and save the $20).  Talk to a restaurant manager.  Aaaah!  Now you know a thing or two about starting a restaurant.

The point is this: if what’s holding you back is just fear of the unknown, stamp it out now!  Go find something else to worry about (I mean that literally: once you research your idea, then you will come up with specific “reasons” to fear failure).

  • Understand that some failure actually doesn’t matter or is to be expected.

People lump together failure into one big “butterflies in the stomach” type of emotion without giving it much thought.  But there’s actually different “types” of failure: some matter, and some don’t.  If you can actually tell which type of failure you fear, you can better equip yourself to deal with the possibility, and come to an informed decision on your course of action:

  • Expected failure.

Unless your knowledge and experience is infinite, you are bound to fail at some point.  This is especially true when you are getting started with your work.  The problem is just that you need more practice.  You’re beyond what you could read in magazines and on the internet- you will learn your next lesson courtesy of the School of Hard Knocks.

So if you know there are areas you will certainly fail in, why bother worrying?  If you know that first networking meeting will be difficult because you are nervous, just accept the fact, and learn from your failure.

  • Low impact failure.

I think that almost all failure should fit into this category, if you take smart risks and learn from your mistakes (see below).  Low impact failures are those where you recognize “I screwed up”, but it does’t really matter (or it doesn’t derail you).  An optimistic attitude should help you categorize most of your failures as this.

  • Talked-up failure.

This is failure that actually doesn’t actually make a difference, but you worry anyway; for example, making a cold call.  So what if they hang up on you?  You have bigger things to worry about.

  • High impact failure.

This is probably the only actual failure to fear, and it’s the one that you initially pretended all of your other failures were.  Identify risks that could lead to high impact failure, and try to mitigate the possibility of failure by scaling your efforts (see my article called Scaling your efforts)..

  • You don’t fail because of probability.  You fail for a reason.

We’ve all heard anecdotes like “90% of all small businesses fail within the first year”.  I don’t know if that number is true or not.  I’m sure the number is high, even if not 90%.

But if you take the above quotation for its face value, you are being duped.  Do you really think that if you failed, it was because “75% of people who start a restaurant fold within the first six months?”


You failed for a reason, not because of a statistic.  

It’s very, very important to realize this distinction, because anecdotes like the ones above fuel the flame of fear in many would-be entrepreneurs and self-starters.  Any and all business ventures, projects and elections I have ran in that I was not successful: it was for a reason: my team was not good enough; I was not a good enough manager; we didn’t network with the right people….the list goes on.

So you need to feel empowered with yourself.  Don’t feel like your destiny is in the hands of a normal distribution.  If you fail, it will be because of you.  If you succeed, it will be because of you too.

So it’s up to you.

  • Failure only destroys you if you took too much risk.

All of the businesses I have started have been riskless: the only thing the failures have cost me, in total, is time and $50 (filing fee for some legal documents).

That’s a bit different from stories of foreclosure, famine and bankruptcy, isn’t it?

In my businesses, I actually never took that much risk.  I knew I was still learning, and wasn’t willing to bet the farm on something I was not fully certain about.

And I got what I wanted: more experience at a low cost.

If you choose to start a business or undertake a risky venture with little experience and certainty it will pay off, realize that it’s you volunatrily making that decision, not an inevitability.  Maybe it will be the right decision.

Experience and conversation with other entrepreneurs tells me that most entrepreneurs are moderate risk takers; not the all-out gunners as portrayed in popular culture.  Follow their example, scale your efforts, and give yourself an out if it doesn’t work.

  • Fail strategically, and learn from your mistakes.

As a sophomore, I ran for Undergraduate Student Government Vice President of Policy on a ticket with the another VP candidate and the Presidential candidate.  We had a great time: I met hundreds of people, gave lots of speeches, and participated in debates.

We lost the election.

But where are we today?  The presidential candidate is now a law student and a PhD candidate studying synthetic biology.  He is also actively involved in advocating for student issues before the state and federal government.  His candidacy helped boost him and give him credibility.

The girl who ran as the other VP…she was elected as President of her sorority (as I understand, she was one of the sorority’s youngest Presidents).  She will be attending Harvard Law School next year.  Her candidacy helped boost her recognition and credibility, both with fellow students, faculty, and apparently Harvard.

I went on to study in China, learn Chinese, work on starting businesses, and still remain involved in government and poltiics.  The candidacy also helped boost my recognition and appeal to students and faculty.

So we failed…but at the same time, we succeeded.  We failed strategically, since we still gained a lot out of our failure.  We learned, we matured, and we went on to other ventures, ever bolstered by our election experience.

Shouldn’t your failures amount to the same thing?  They should amount to the opening of a new door and a new opportunity.  Rather than being the end of your journey, maybe they are just the beginning.


  • Max Mendoza

    Great post RC!