Video Transcript


Overcoming My Fear of Failure

As part of my MBA at Carnegie Mellon University, I enrolled in a Leadership development certificate program. I was given the opportunity to work with an amazing Leadership Coach, (Laura Maxwell). Laura helped me on my journey of "overcoming my fear of failure". As part of the program, I was able to share my story with the dean, professors, and the leadership development center at CMU. Since this is a rather common experience, I wanted to share my story with all of you as well.

This story starts, as many do, in childhood. Growing up in India, there has always been the expectation that everyone gets good scores in tests and succeeds in any initiative they take part in. This identity is ingrained in our society beginning at a very young age. Thus, it became a natural tendency for me to navigate towards opportunities where I had a higher chance of success and ignore opportunities where I might fail.

During my first conversation with Laura as part of my leadership journey, she asked me what aspects of myself I wanted to work on. One thing I had begun noticing was that I lost interest in many projects after starting to work on them. As we talked more, it was becoming obvious that there was a similarity in all of these projects; I was not pushing me outside my comfort zone where I could fail. As we kept peeling away more and more layers of this feeling, we were able to tie it to the environment and the impact my culture had on me. As we had identified the problem, we were ready to jump into the analysis phase.

My first exercise was to introspect and look back at the past few months and analyze all the projects that I could have picked up and which ones I ended up picking. For the ones I didn't pick, I analyzed why I made that choice. There was a common pattern-: all of them had some element that would push me outside my comfort zone and I was afraid that I would fail. Here is just one example of an amazing opportunity that I missed. A good friend of mine in a different department had a recent opening in their team. They were really confident that I would be successful in that role and it would allow both of us to work together again. My subconscious kicked in immediately and I joked off that opportunity and didn't give it a second thought. Doing this analysis helped me identify a blind spot and provided me an opportunity to work on to improve myself. I shared this with Laura who was really supportive and encouraged me for sharing this. She was aware that this was not easy for me and her constant encouragement encouraged me to push further.

Having done this analysis ensured that I keep my eyes open for opportunities in the future. My most recent change is a testament to this change in behavior. My mentor had recently switched teams and I reached out to him to see if there were any openings in his new team that I could apply to. He was really happy that I reached out to him and mentioned that there was indeed a role which he thought I would be a good fit for. He and I started talking about this role and my mind started formulating all the possible reasons in which I will fail in this new role and was trying to push me away from applying for this role. My mind was suggesting to me that taking on this role meant that I would fail. Instead of ignoring those feelings, I acknowledged them and started making a note of all the topics that triggered this fear and was causing me anxiety about this new role. After the meeting, I spent some time introspecting and identifying steps that I can take to reduce my chances of failure in this new team. Doing this exercise reduced my stress level dramatically and my mind started to calm down. I was now able to see --for the first time! -- that I had a shot at this new role and I decided to pursue it. As part of the interview process, I even shared some of the things that were causing me anxiety and my ideas on how to mitigate this. My mentor was impressed with the preparation. The interviews went great and I started at Heroku last October!

I have learned so many new things and there is always something new that I discover every single day. I would often find myself in situations where I had no idea what I was doing. My heart rate would increase and my mind will start worrying. I would then pause and tell myself that I am operating outside my comfort zone here and start looking at the problem as a learning opportunity. After having run into quite a few different types of problems, I am starting to feel confident when presented with a unique problem. Another thing I have started doing now is reaching out to friends and colleagues who had presented me with opportunities in the past. I usually start off with apologizing for not pursuing the opportunity they presented or at a minimum give it a second thought and also share with them this amazing journey I have been on. I also thank them for keeping me in their thoughts when they come across these opportunities and for going out of their way in bringing them to me.

What I gained from this

  1. Understanding the root cause for my fear of failure.
  2. A framework that I can use when I encounter an opportunity that is outside my comfort zone.
  3. Working on interesting problems.
  4. Constantly learning.
  5. Reengaging with friends and strengthening my network.

Have you felt something like this in the past? If so read on:

Understanding your blind spots

  1. Reflect on the last few projects you worked on. Understand the similarities and differences among them. If you actively chose to work on these projects, think about what caused you to pick these projects.
  2. Think about the last few times a potentially crazy opportunity came your way (it could be from a recruiter, from a colleague, your manager etc) and you were 100% confident that it was not for you and immediately moved past it. Keeping an open mind think back on those projects and see if there are any preconceived notions that you might have that made you do that.

Doing these two exercises will hopefully help you understand your triggers and blind spots.

Pushing beyond your comfort zone

Now with your recently acquired super power (aka knowing your blind spots), keep an open eye on any future projects / opportunities that come your way. Stop yourself before you say no. Take a moment to imagine yourself working on the project and go through the thought experiment of all possible events that could take place in the project. Keep a note on what places you thought you succeeded and failed. Ask yourself if you can push yourself to learn and anticipate and resolve the failures in real life? Remember, you don't have to do it all yourself. Do you know someone (maybe a mentor or a friend) that you think are really good at solving those types of problems? Reach out and ask for help! Oh and say yes to that project! You can do it!

Originally published: October 22, 2019

Browse the archives for life or all blogs Subscribe to the RSS feed for life or all blogs.