Fear of Failure

After attending the Scottish Insider SME Conference last week, it gave me a lot of food for thought. The speakers (who you can learn more about here https://www.insidersmeconference.co.uk/) included Ivan McKee, Neil Francis, Rachel Jones, Vicky Brock and the panel was just as exciting with Alan Mahon, Scott Weir and Jazz Bains. Since ‘inspirational’ is a word we tend to throw around quite a lot, I like to use it sparingly.


providing or showing creative or spiritual inspiration.

But in this case, I think we can all truly agree, that each and every one of these speakers were just that.

Something that particularly stood out to me was the common theme of failure that our Scottish entrepreneurs often refer to. Over the last week, I have really reflected on this concept, and realised how often I let the fear of failure stop me from doing things. The night before the conference I got the sudden fear that my communication skills would suddenly fail me around highly esteemed professionals. I didn’t go on a jog last week due the crippling fear that I would have to stop after 5 minutes due to not having done it for so long. I know I’m not alone on this. Next Halloween, forget dressing up as Vampires or Donald Trump, because it turns out that failure is more unsettling to Americans (31%) than eight-legged creepy crawlers (30%) (Linkagoal, 2015).

Failure is the new Boogie Monster, with Millennials more likely than any other age group to have a fear of failure (Linkagoal, 2015). It even has it’s own name, Atychiphobia is the irrational and persistent fear of failing.

I think Scotland is great nation, and organisations such as Entrepreneurial Scotland and Scotland CAN DO are perfect examples of the potential of Scotland to be a world-leading entrepreneurial society. We are bursting with ambitious, motivated and some of the most friendly people on the earth (no statistic to back this up but I have every faith. Have you ever been to Glasgow?), so how can we continue to fuel this entrepreneurial spirit to allow us to really maximise our potential as a nation?

Despite the Curriculum for Excellence allowing a far greater flexibility within our schools, I still think we are bred to fear failure. In primary school, I was never recognised for putting on a different voice for every character when I was reading to the class, but was only recognised when I passed my level D and E at the same time in English (I’m not bragging, but it was a great moment), just as I was recognised for being a little behind with my numeracy. It’s difficult not to bring in aspects of Sociology, but it is a common fact that children are often celebrated for their different forms of capital. As defined by Bordieu (1986), institutionalised cultural capital refers to educational attainment. We are socialised to embody the values and behaviours that society rewards. For example, in many societies, those with a doctorate degree are valued more than those with no degree at all. Having worked in retail since I was 16, I have had many occasions where people talk down to me, perhaps because they are having a bad day or perhaps because they don’t regard me as a value to society. I was making an online order for a lady once when I asked ‘Is it Miss, Ms. or Mrs?’ to which she snapped ‘It’s DOCTOR, actually’ (I learnt my lesson – it is wiser to simply ask for a title). The point is, we reward those who fit with what society deems as ‘valued’. And that often means people who do not fail, who are perfect (does perfection even exist?) and only strive for constant success.

I believe in Scotland, we have managed to somewhat breakaway from these rather outdated ideas of success, and this is proven through our success as an entrepreneurial nation. However, I still think there is a lot of room in schools and early education particularly to champion those who think outside of the box, and who perhaps don’t do things only as the Curriculum deems suitable. Embracing creativity, and not punishing people when they fail but asking them what lessons they have learnt is far more valuable.

Away from the Sociological tangent, and more into an academic one, a study done by Caraway and Tucker (2003) showed that fear of failure was paramount to school engagement in high schools students.

Fear of failure refers to the motivation to avoid failure because of the possibility of experiencing shame or embarrassment. Individuals who doubt their capabilities and experience high levels of fear of failure are less likely to set and work toward goals, thus giving them no opportunities to increase levels of self-efficacy.

With fear of failure being recognised as one of the biggest hurdles of achievement, we all need to look to the entrepreneurs of our society, who have often made their biggest successes out of the lessons from their failures.

In Women In Business (2016), Gina Soleil wrote “Isn’t failure the exact purpose of life? We’ve all been bred to strive for success, attain perfection, sacrifice our dreams for obligation and ‘win,’ but we forget failure is a necessary part of success.” So, let’s all embrace failure. Let’s not think of it as the monster under our beds, but instead as the imaginary friend.

As Vicky Brock said “Failure is the companion of progress”.

Let’s champion it.


Linkagoal (2015) What scares us most: spiders or failing? Linkagoal’s Fear Factor Index clears the cobwebs https://blog.linkagoal.com/2015/10/research-reveals-fear-of-failure-has-us-all-shaking-in-our-boots-this-halloween-1-in-3-admit-they-are-terrified-of-failure

Bourdieu, P. (1986) The forms of capital. In Richardson, J. (ed.) Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. New York: Greenwood.

Caraway, K. et al., 2003. Self‐efficacy, goal orientation, and fear of failure as predictors of school engagement in high school students. Psychology in the Schools, 40(4), pp.417–427

Women in Business (2016) Why are we so afraid of FAILURE even when we know it’s a fact of life? Vol. 68 Issue 2, p19-21. 3p.

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