Our Obsessive Fear of Failure

One of my favorite theologians is a man named N.T. Wright. He writes a lot on the “afterlife” and what may happen when we die. At the beginning of one of his books, he makes a point about how our view of the afterlife affects how we live today. In other words, what we believe about what happens after we die completely frames how we live and behave today.

I bring this up because I have this overwhelming sense that it says something about what founders believe about failure. Meaning, I think that what we believe happens when our companies die says a lot about how we behave today, too.

And companies fail often. We know this. Out of all companies started in the United States in 2014, some 44% of them went out of business by the end of their fifth year. And some of Steve Blank’s most epic research shows that as much as 90% of startups fail when it comes to high-scaling startups, specifically.

Still, somehow, even knowing that most companies fail, what is it that we believe about ourselves when it happens?

  • That other people will think we won’t run a company well in the future.
  • That other people will think we just couldn’t “hack it.”
  • That we won’t get another chance at building a company.
  • That we’re terrible, awful leaders who can’t—and shouldn’t—run anything.
  • Or, that we’ll always be known as a failure.

Know what that list is? A list of fears about how we perceive that others will perceive us when we fail. And, we turn “the company failed” into “I’m a failure.”

I can hear a therapist somewhere saying, “You feel like this means you won’t ever be acknowledged, understood, or loved.”

So, these vicious beliefs about what will happen when our companies die completely shape our behavior today, now, in the present. We avoid failure at all costs. We don’t start a business in the first place. Or, we do, but we constantly act out of fear or insecurity. We’re risk-averse. And we get fearful of the thought that we might never be trusted, liked, or taken seriously again.

What’s Really Going on Here

When I look at what we think will happen when our companies fail, I see two things happening:

An identity rooted in being a successful CEO.
Overly identifying with your work is so normal. But, the pressure can get even more intense and you can take on a lot of your role as who you are and not just what you do today when you’re the leader of a company. Meaning, if you fail, it feels like your identity will be crushed. You’ll no longer be viewed positively by others because “who you are in the world,” up until the moment of failure, was someone known by others as a successful CEO. This is equally devious when you actually are successful. I mean, how many founders do you hear talking about how many exits they’ve had or how well their companies are doing? As though their success tells us something about who they are and how great they are. They are, of course, bragging because their core identity is built around looking successful to the world.

If your whole identity is rooted in being a “successful CEO,” then the second that identity disappears, so does your value to the world. But what if your identity was rooted in other things? Like the friendships you have in the world that will stay with you even if you have an unbelievable failure? Or the family that will stay with you even after the failure? Or the activities you could continue to do regardless of how your company performs?

A Lack of a Strong “Why”
The startup world is absolutely riddled with an ethic around financial “success” as the only real, achievable type of success. We so often lack a better reason for doing what we’re doing than making more money, getting more exits, or any other comparable metric that has something to do with financial accomplishment.

But if a founder is focused on financial success as the only metric for success, they’re only going to march themselves and their company toward that goal. They’ll chase financial gains above everything else. But, there are so many other metrics for success—thousands, truly. Like “lives impacted” or “jobs created” or “problems solved.” But the whole point here is that if you’re just focused on not failing, you won’t build your company around any of these real, world-changing metrics for success—metrics that are truly interesting and fun to work towards. And, if your company “fails,” you’ll miss the other, live-giving metrics that were actually incredibly successful in the process.

Changing the Tapes

So, if we think about what N.T. Wright said about the afterlife, about how our view of failure will define how we act today, shifting those views can completely reframe why and how we engage in running businesses today. If we have a healthy view of what failure truly looks like, we’ll act in much more positive ways.

My biggest lesson lately is this: If you have a primary identity outside of running a successful company and are focused on other metrics for success beyond just “business financial” outcomes, you will be amazed at what happens.

You’ll feel the freedom to take more risks. You won’t feel like you’re beholden to this company not failing. You’ll be more relaxed. When you’re not constantly worried about going out of business, it’s a lot less stress to carry. You’ll have more fun. You and your team will actually feel much less of a pull to defend yourself from everything that could make you fail. You’ll make better decisions. You’ll actually think about growth instead of just staying in business.

And you’ll actually have a better business, in general. If you’re not just thinking about failure, you’ll be much more focused on the present, what you’re accomplishing and experiencing today, and excited for how it might eventually affect your company, your life, and the lives of the people you work with—whether you stay in business or not.