I'm a Loser a.k.a. Fear of Failure

Atychiphobia (from the Greek phóbos, meaning “fear” or “morbid fear,” and atyches meaning “unfortunate”) is the abnormal, unwarranted and persistent fear of failure.

Risto Pakarinen, 31.01.2013


Other than love, nothing has inspired poets, writers and other artists as much as failure – how to tackle it and how to live with it. Failure is an integral part of the human experience.

After all, to err is human.

The important point is not that we feel fear, but how we deal with it. John Atkinson introduced the concept of “fear of failure” in a paper published in 1966. In one study, he asked children to throw hoops around a peg. The farther they threw them, the greater reward they received. Atkinson observed that the kids had two different reactions. Some tried to maximize the reward, while others either went quite close to the peg to minimize the risk of failure or they positioned themselves so far away from the peg as to make hitting it practically impossible, thus setting themselves up for failure.

To Cope With Fear

Another way to cope with the fear of failure is to avoid competition altogether, like an ostrich burying its head in the sand when fear strikes.

But we needn’t react this way. After all, not even ostriches actually do – that’s a myth. In fact, they dig holes in the ground to make nests for their eggs.

“What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty but failure,” said J.K. Rowling, the author of the wildly successful Harry Potter books, in her commencement speech to Harvard graduates in 2008.

She was a single parent living on welfare. Her marriage had failed and her dreams of becoming a writer shattered.

Rowling said that failure meant stripping away the inessential. She stopped pretending to herself that she was anything other than what she was, and was then able to focus all her energy on finishing the only work that mattered to her. “I was set free because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive. I still had a daughter whom I adored, an old typewriter, and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

To Live With Fear

Learning to live with the fear of failure and humiliation, of losing face, is something you can practice. Renowned psychotherapist, Albert Ellis, was a shy teenager who forced himself to talk to a hundred women in one month. He failed to get a date – but he overcame his fear of being rejected by women.

Ellis instructed Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote, a book on the advantages of negative thinking, to go to the New York City subway and yell out the name of each station.

“I did it in London instead, and people did look at me like I was crazy.” Burkeman said it wasn’t fun, but it reduced his anxieties to a manageable level. “I realized it really wasn’t the end of the world.”

Some people fight a fear of failure by setting detailed goals for each week, month, and year.

“If we can see failure as part of the learning process – as a point along the path towards our true goals – just maybe failure won’t seem so humiliating,” writes Robert Kelsey, author of What’s Stopping You?

Then again, Burkeman points out that overpursuing goals is not good, either. In his studies of successful entrepreneurs he found that if you are comfortable enough with the lack of direction to act regardless, you will be open to far more fruitful opportunities in the long run.

The Flipside of the "Fear of Failure"

The flipside of the "fear of failure" is the “hope for success.” Hope and her talent was what Rowling had when she sat down in an Edinburgh café and wrote, “Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

The finished manuscript was rejected by the first dozen or so publishers to whom she submitted it, but we all know how the story of her perseverance and refusal to fail ended.

Failure is our constant companion. We just need to learn to live with it. 

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” wrote Samuel Beckett in Worstward Ho in 1983.

That surely wasn’t his first draft.

PROFILE MAGAZINE 1/2013 page 4

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