The Physician Philosopher Podcast

TPP #11: The Fear of Failure

What if I told you that your fear of failure is holding you back from getting the results that you want? That the only path to success is through failure? Not by avoiding it. Don’t believe me? Keep reading.

Larry Keller

Today’s thought is this: Real progress can only be had, once you move past a fear of failure into embracing failure as a sign of moving forward. Failure really often stops us in our tracks. And so why is that? What is the issue that’s going on there? So let me give you an overview. 

Your View of Failure Can Destory Your Success

Failure often leads to shame, that shame we usually overgeneralize it into who we are and our identity. 

And that is when things get dangerous. The problem here is that many people get stuck and try to do things the right way. People do not want failure in their lives. And the reason for that is because we are afraid of it. 

We don’t want it to be who we are. Where I see this the most is when someone asks me to do some business coaching for them, they want to start a side gig or some version of non clinical income, they don’t know how to get it off the ground. 

And people will get stuck at step number one because they’re so focused on getting it right. Instead of following the mantra of this podcast: Start before you’re ready, Start by starting, Start now, they get stuck.

They don’t ever start at all. And the reason why is because there’s so afraid of getting it wrong. 

As if there’s one decision that’s right and there’s one decision that’s wrong and if they pick the wrong one that is going to be a failure. And when you dig down deep The reason that they want to get it right is because they are afraid of failure, they’re afraid of failing. 

Many physicians, it turns out are perfectionists. We expect to get it right all of the time. And I know this is true because this happened in my own life for a long time, where if I did something right, 99 out of 100 times, I would expect that, but the one time that I didn’t, I would overgeneralize that shame, that failure into my identity.

So I keep using this word overgeneralize. What do I mean? 

What Is Overgeneralization? 

Overgeneralization is actually a cognitive or a thought distortion. This is a way of thinking that is actually flawed. What we do is we overgeneralize one situation, one failure, and then we turn that into who we are, our identity. And we overgeneralize in other areas of our life, too, right? 

When it comes to failure, we overgeneralize that into our identity, like I refuse to be a failure. I’m a doctor, I’m a perfectionist, I can’t get it wrong. And so when we fail, we over generalize that into our identity. And that is super painful. 

That’s the reason why doctors don’t deal well with failure. The problem is that it makes us want to avoid failure in the future. So anything that gives us that feeling, the one time we did why an outcome was bad, we will remember that. And it will change our practice into anecdotal non-evidence based medicine. 

How often have you seen an attending that you worked with in training, who just didn’t do something this one way, because they had that one bad patient outcome, and they were unwilling to experience that ever again? The reason why is because they’re afraid of failing. It makes us want to avoid taking risks.

What You Want to Feel Vs. What You Actually Feel

An exercise that I take people through all the time is where I asked people, “if you had to tell me, what are some feelings that you want to feel?” they will almost always say universally all positive emotions, I want to feel hope and joy and gratitude and love. 

And then when you ask them, “what do you actually experience most days or weeks?” they’ll be like, Oh, well, stress, anxiety, disappointment, and most of them will actually be negative. And so what we want is all positive, what we actually experience is all negative. And that’s pretty silly, right? 

Because we know that human experience is negative and positive, right? Like we can’t avoid negative feelings. 

We recognize that those negative feelings can’t really cause actual harm to us that they’re just a feeling. We can move forward. Even though they’re there, we can move forward, even though we’re scared or anxious, even though we’re afraid or fearful of failing. 

The Solution to the Problem 

So the solution to any negative feeling is not to avoid it. It’s not to drink your way out of it, or overeat or under eat your way out of it by buffering it’s not to resist it, because that almost always leads to a worse feeling. 

It is to allow that human experience both the positive and negative feelings that it provides, and at times to recognize that we not only want to experience those things, but we want to seek them out and failure, it turns out is one of those really powerful things. 

When you realize that discomfort, actually failing, failing forward, this idea of moving forward, despite failure is actually what makes you move forward. Once you release yourself from the fear of failure, and view it as part of the human experience, and as a sign of future success, that’s when the real change happens. 

That is a completely different mindset. You can look at the failure, or you can look at all of the positives and say, how are we learning from this? Are we accomplishing our goal? Are we failing forward?

What If We Wanted to Fail?

What if you said I actually want to fail, not because you didn’t show up? But because you’ve showed up so much and put in so much work that failure is a sign of your success? What if you could flip that script? 

I can tell you as basically the first physician, male physician coach going out into the space in a very broad way, that I am absolutely failing epically all the time. But now I look at that is just such an opportunity for success, because that means that I’m doing my best to help other doctors get the help they need to stop feeling burned out and overwhelmed. 

I have completely flipped the script on failure. It doesn’t make me who I am. I now recognize that failure is a sign of success. I’m failing forward. 

Final Thoughts

When you look at failures as an opportunity to learn as a way that won’t work as a sign of future progress and moving forward, that is when the real power gets released, right when you’re no longer afraid of failure, because you recognize fear, and failure, like those are just feelings and they can’t actually cause any real harm to you. 

That’s when real progress can happen. So today’s thought is this real progress can only be had once you move past a fear of failure into embracing failure as a sign of moving forward.

Download Episode 11 Transcript: The Fear of Failure Download

1 Comment

  1. steveark

    Taking what felt like a great risk changed my life forever. To this day I don’t know how I mustered the courage to risk a huge failure as a teenager but I am incredibly thankful I did. From then on I risked failure many times and failed my share of those. But I knew it wasn’t fatal and learned something every time. Great post, its sad so many people do not learn what you are teaching. But good on you that somebody will look at risk differently because of what you wrote.


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