A few years back, I argued spiritedly with a wiser friend about the most powerful force on earth. I believed it was love and he believed it was fear. In the years that have passed, I have come to totally agree with him. If anything, I am tempted to get more specific and say that the most powerful force on earth is the fear of failure.
The power and ubiquity of this emotion never ceases to amaze me. It shows itself in literally every aspect of our lives –
– At home, we see it with parents who put enormous pressure on their children, with parents who always need to be right, and with parents who refuse to share their own failures with their kids. As a consequence, we see kids grow up with similar traits and insecurities – they constantly worry about whether their projects will work, they feel the need to seek approval for every decision they make, and they shy away from responsibility for the outcomes of the decision. And, we see both parents and children abhor risk and steer clear of projects that might not work.
– At work, we see it in colleagues who refuse to share credit, who bully each other and display passive aggressiveness, who would rather see someone else’s project fail than take up responsibility for a project themselves, who would rather criticize than cheer, who would rather play the politics rather than play on merit, who maximize a short term gain, and who refuse to worry about the collective and the cause. Work becomes about self preservation – “networking” with the right people, staying clear of projects that are risky, and attempting to latch onto projects that are going well so they get a share of the credit.
– In society, we see the fear of failure in community leaders and politicians who refuse to accept anything but the status quo, who fear everything they don’t understand, who fall prey to lobbyists and bribes also keen to preserve the status quo, who wage wars and seek to divide on the pretext of religion, creed, nationality, and color, and who refuse to let anyone outside their circle access to privilege.
I am convinced that the very worst in human nature has everything to do with the fear of failure. When I put together a 2×2 on how insecurity and self awareness drive behavior, I realize I made a mistake.
Fear of failure pervades the insecurity zone. With increasing self awareness, we just become aware of the fear of failure – aware enough to hopefully do something about it. With increasing self awareness, we will perhaps realize that our fears are just irrational, that we ought to exist for causes bigger than self preservation, that we do make the world better when we put ourselves out there, try, and fail.
Self awareness is our only hope..