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Conquer your fear of failure in three easy steps. Oh really?

In a text message, this is where I would insert a cynical emoji. See, I am a checklist girl and I have yet to find a way to checklist myself out of my fears. But, as the gray hairs on my head increase, so does my awareness that my fears fall into two big buckets. The first big bucket contains all of the fears I have conquered. The second big bucket contains the fears I still, like most women, wrestle with daily.

The Conquered Bucket

The conquered bucket holds those fears I have no choice but to face head on. Typically, these fears involve loved ones and their wants, wishes, and needs. From the mundane to the tragic, I can put my fears aside and rise to any occasion to be there for them. This is how the two of us, myself and my fear of heights, found ourselves ziplining above water on the island of Kauaiwith with eyes shut tight screaming for Jesus to save us from falling. This is how, without hesitation, I raced my 7-year old daughter to the hospital when she accidentally ripped her cheek open with a quill pen and needed stitches late at night. This is how I meticulously planned the funerals for, first my father, then my mother and then my husband. Being there for my loved ones always trumps my fears.

The Other Bucket

The other fear bucket—the one I wrestle with regularly—is filled with the exciting opportunities, wonderful possibilities, the good what-ifs, the fun “maybe one day I wills,”all of the stuff that challenges me in ways that could fulfill my dreams and goals rendering me deliriously happy. Yet, I hesitate. I fear the things in this second bucket. And, this struggle irks the heck out of me.

How can I be fearless in the face of adversity but hesitate at the notion of going after the very things that could stretch me in good ways? New jobs, new places, new relationships, new ways of thinking that could potentially be exciting, rewarding, make me wildly successful, bring public acclaim and everyone’s respect?

Why do I hesitate? Why do I not jump in with both feet at the mere mention of a tremendous opportunity that could… CHANGE… MY… LIFE?

If we’re honest, a lot of us lean back instead of leveling up when it comes to great opportunities. We need to “think about it.” Ask others what they think. Write miles long pros and cons lists. Why do we hesitate? Why do we lean back?

Fear of Success

The Jonah Theory may explain it. Dr. Abraham Maslow, best known for his Hierarchy of Needs, also identified a psychological condition, The Jonah Theory, that sabotages our dreams of greatness causing us to choose conformity and mediocrity instead. In the words of Dr. Maslow, “We fear our highest possibilities.” Under the Jonah theory, we fear our own greatness and run away from our own best talents. We fear success!

Trust me, I have decades of deep experience in how to digest the lessons that failure provides. But, when it comes to the pursuit of success, I subconsciously have viewed it as an optional exercise and not a must-do. Not as a necessity like food or shelter.

Maybe I hesitate because it’s safer to talk about the potential of an opportunity—the dream—than to launch and have to own the outcome, which could be failure. If I am pursuing a long-dreamed about and discussed goal, my expectations are at their highest. I fear success because it requires me to bring my best self to the table. I fear that my self-esteem will take a huge hit if I fail. I fear that I will be diminished in the eyes of others. What if the dream’s reality does not live up to its potential? Have I wasted precious years focused on the wrong goal? Is it safer to rest on my laurels?

I get frustrated with my friend, Ann, for the same reason that I am frustrated with myself. She’s a born leader with natural management skills. She’s the one who volunteers to revamp processes and fill any void that exists at her job or with her community groups. Although Ann is willing to serve tirelessly and without formal recognition or pay, when it comes time to officially pursue, say, a promotion or role commensurate with her skills and experience, she just won’t take the leap. Even when asked by her boss to apply for his job, she mulled it over but passed on the opportunity, as she has done many times before. She is concerned about her ability to juggle work plus family, even though she’s done so throughout her career. Ann is depriving herself of the money and perks that come with more prestigious jobs because of her fear of failure.

In spite of having a supportive husband and solid girlfriend group, she cannot say yes to the possibility of success. This is the Jonah Theory in full effect. We get three quarters of the way up Mount Everest but don’t push to plant our heels at the very top. 

I am not critical of my friend because I suffer from the same fear of failure. Frankly, this behavior holds back many accomplished women from rising into roles of greatness. Although I’ve been in the highest levels of leadership in my work and community roles, I did not actively pursue them with all of my energy. After seeing friends and colleagues facing the same challenges seek that next-level transformative success with confident optimism, I feel motivated to not simply wait for opportunities to come my way. Now, I’m ready to go after those chances with every fiber in my being. This may be one instance where comparing myself to others is a good thing.

Maybe the clarion call for us, as women, is to stop deferring our greatness, our success. What gets deferred usually does not get done. For women like me, if it is not on the checklist, it never gets done. So, maybe I was wrong. Maybe this situation does warrant a checklist.

1. Focus on Your Fear Bucket

Reframe fear of failure as an opportunity for success. Change thinking from “I will be mortified if my startup does not get enough funding.” to “I can’t wait to have our launch party after we complete this round of fundraising!” If time commitments are a big fear, always reserve 5% of your capacity for emergencies. Block time on your calendar for personal tasks, especially those that keep you healthy and energized.

2. Embrace Your Greatness

Run towards your best talents, not away from them. Create a checklist where you say yes to everything that is important to you and no to everything else. If your current dream turns out to be a big nothing burger, find another one.

3. Gather Your Rocks

Your rocks are your girlfriend tribe that lifts you up and cheers you on. Create a tribe of women who are pursuing greatness and gain wisdom and strength from each other. If they can do it, you can do it.