Josh Kaufman

Bestselling Author, Business & Self-Education

Kakorrhaphiophobia: Persistent, All-Consuming Fear of Failure

"Our doubts are traitors,
And make us lose the good we oft might win
By fearing to attempt."

William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

Here's a new word for you…

Kakorrhaphiophobia is an abnormal, persistent, irrational fear of failure. In clinical cases, it's debilitating: the fear of even the most subtle failure or defeat is so intense that it restricts a person from doing anything at all.

Kakorrhaphiophobia is the most extreme version of what we all experience when we decide to acquire a new skill: doubt, uncertainty, anxiety about our capabilities, and fear of what others will think:

  • "What if I fail?"
  • "What if I look bad?"
  • "What if others think I'm stupid?"
  • "What if others think I'm not very good?"
  • "What if others aren't impressed with what I can do?"

Please Don't Look At Me

Have you ever wondered why everyone is willing to talk about the things they can do well, but are almost never willing to discuss the things they're trying to learn how to do, but can't yet do very well?

Have you ever noticed that, if you can get someone to show you what they're learning, they almost always begin with an apology, and speak in an embarrassed tone of voice, regardless of how skilled they are or how much they've practiced?

That's why.

One of the primary reasons I wrote The First 20 Hours was to break the general silence that surrounds the early stages of skill acquisition. Researchers and authors who cover skill acquisition almost universally prefer to speak in terms of "mastery": an amorphous topic that's aspirational and often inspiring, but seldom helpful when it comes to using the research to level up your own skills.

I prefer to focus on the useful part: how to actually go about acquiring new skills. Not hand-wavy theory: nuts-and-bolts practice.

Everyone who decides to learn how to do something new struggles at first, and being a beginner is never easy. Most people give up too soon for the wrong reasons, or feel bad about giving up for the right reasons. Millions of people avoid starting at all out of a misguided fear that others will think less of them if they try.

Here's the great thing about irrational fears: you can often diffuse them simply by paying conscious attention to them. So let's dance with our irrational fear of failure for a moment…

What if you fail?

Well, what does "failing" mean? Unless it's something permanent like death or disability, it's probably not that big of a deal, and even major risks can be prevented with a little advance planning.

Even if you don't get everything you want, almost no effort is a complete waste: you'll have many interesting experiences, be able to do new things, and have a few new stories to tell. That's not so bad.

What if you look bad?

Look bad to whom? Do they matter? Should you care?

The people who matter most (including family, close friends, and colleagues) will very seldom think poorly of you for trying something new or improving yourself in general. They may not understand at first, and they may feel concerned about you for reasons of their own, but that's not a good reason to avoid trying at all.

Also, the vast majority of the skill acquisition process happens in private. It's common to talk about skills in the context of public performance, but that's not where skill is developed. You get better working in private, day-by-day, without notice or fanfare.

The real audience that matters here is yourself: can you turn off the self-criticism long enough to sit down and practice well? That's what counts.

What if others think I'm stupid?

First: you'd be surprised how little most people think of you at all. They're not being uncharitable or apathetic: they're just busy worrying about their own stuff most of the time.

And if someone notices your effort and thinks less of you? Those people aren't worth worrying about. If someone decides to be that uncharitable, why limit yourself just to impress them?

Trolls, haters, and pigeons 1 certainly exist - for proof, take a look at the 1-star reviews I earned for The First 20 Hours by being willing to talk frankly about being a beginner, not an expert. Several people were "not impressed," to put it mildly.

Here's the thing: what other people think doesn't matter when it comes to developing skill. Are you going to let some random malcontent prevent you from being able to do what you want to be able to do?

What if others think I'm not very good?

Is that a tragedy? Is that a permanent sentence of eternal un-coolness?

Everyone who develops any level of skill in anything went through a period where they weren't very good at all. It's an unavoidable part of the process. The people who persist through that period, and keep practicing in a smart way, are the ones that develop impressive skills.

How long will that period last? It depends on what you're doing, how much you practice, and how smart your practice strategy is. The best news is that the practice strategies that work best in the beginning phases of skill acquisition work best during all phases of the process.

Fundamentals are fundamentals.

Fear Not Trying

Being scared of failing prevents most of us from noticing the truth: if you practice in a smart way, pay close attention to how you're performing, and adjust your strategy as you progress, you'll improve. Simple as that. Fear of "failing" is an illusion: a toxic mix of self-consciousness, fuzzy objectives, and all-or-nothing thinking.

Here's something that's worth being fearful of: not trying. Ignoring the desire. Avoiding the uncertainty and effort. Abdicating your responsibility to improve your own knowledge and capabilities.

Don't fear failure. Fear not trying at all.

  1. A "pigeon" is a colorful term for a person who swoops in, craps all over everything, then leaves. 

Published: October 31, 2014 Last updated: October 31, 2014

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