Gini Dietrich

Why Are Smart People Afraid of Failure

By: Gini Dietrich | February 3, 2016 | 

Why Are People Afraid of Failure By Gini Dietrich

About 10 years ago, I had a business advisor ask me, “You’ve never failed at anything, have you?”

I remember blushing and stammering…of course I have. I’m sure I have. At something.

The truth of the matter is, I hadn’t. Not really.

Sure, I’d made mistakes that could be looked at as failures, but there wasn’t a big, life-changing event to point to.

Even in my advanced creative writing classes in college, my degree advisor would push me to reach into the depth of my soul to write about something that was meaningful and would resonate with people. My writing was too…vanilla.

But even then, I wasn’t mature enough or confident enough to recognize what he meant…nor was I willing to admit anything bad had ever happened to me.

I saw myself as just an average kid with lots of siblings and good grades that afforded me a scholarship to college.

College was easy—too easy. I aced my classes and even stayed ahead of assignments. I have a very vivid memory of sitting in the stairwell of the English department building reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye a full semester before we would read it.

Then I went to work for Fleishman-Hillard where they put me on a pedestal. I mean, really. I had no business doing some of the work I did at age 27. None. And yet…

So I went out on my own in 2005 with an overly-inflated ego, enough confidence to know I wouldn’t fail, and a drive to do the very best work.

Little Mistakes Lead to Bigger Mistakes

And then I failed.

They weren’t big failures. Not at first. They were bigger mistakes that led to failure.

I borrowed way too much money and hired a bunch of staff we didn’t need…and I didn’t properly on-board or train them. There were very talented people running around in circles because I had zero idea how to lead them.

And then it all crashed down.

We all know what happened in 2009, but even then, we started to bounce back a bit.

In 2011, the debt ceiling debate happened and everyone put a halt on spending.

We had agreed to 60-90 day payment terms (dumb, dumb, dumb) with our clients so we were stuck holding about $300,000 in accounts receivables, but no cash in the bank.

I was days from calling a bankruptcy attorney and shutting it all down.

Then we launched Spin Sucks Pro and were so busy building content and the site that we forgot about any marketing or promotion.

And guess what?

No. One. Bought. Anything.

So I had a business that went from 37 employees to just me and two other people. I had this grand idea for a membership-based business that didn’t just flop, but went down in a grand flame. And we had to start all over again.

I had some very dark thoughts at that point in my life. Not only had I failed at all of this, but I was going to fail at life, in general.

Good Students Fear Failure

All of this is why, when I read, “Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators,” it really resonated.

Yesterday, I wrote about Ernest Hemingway and some of his advice for writers (including a killer list of books to read) and Jasper Mulder tweeted me:

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 6.25.21 AM

We joke about it, but it’s true.

A friend posted on Facebook just yesterday that she loved working from home because she did the laundry, made dinner, and even baked some cookies.

After I said I was coming over for cookies, I mentioned she might be doing it wrong.

The Atlantic suggests there is a reason for this:

Most writers were the kids who easily, almost automatically, got As in English class. (There are exceptions, but they often also seem to be exceptions to the general writerly habit of putting off writing as long as possible.) At an early age, when grammar school teachers were struggling to inculcate the lesson that effort was the main key to success in school, these future scribblers gave the obvious lie to this assertion. Where others read haltingly, they were plowing two grades ahead in the reading workbooks. These are the kids who turned in a completed YA novel for their fifth-grade project. It isn’t that they never failed, but at a very early age, they didn’t have to fail much; their natural talents kept them at the head of the class.

Even for me, I remember my high school English teacher (AP, of course) telling my mom that he’d never had a junior choose Ayn Rand for their second semester project.

Type-A overachiever all the way.

But then we go into the real world and, as writers, we’re now competing with the other people who aced English class and suddenly we’re faced not only with a fear of turning in something bad, but in not being able to get anything out of our brains and onto paper.

For the first time ever.

We’re faced with something we’d never had…failure. And not just failure, but the fear of it.

So we procrastinate.

A Growth Mindset

There is, of course, a cure for this. And not just for writing, but for life, in general.

It could be in your career or running a business. It could be in the extracurricular activities you do with your kids. It could be in the way you run your household.

Wherever you struggle—and we all struggle—there is a cure.

It’s called a growth mindset.

Schools, particularly in the U.S., set us up for fixed mindsets, which means there is only one answer or that you believe talent is something you’re born with and it can’t be evolved or changed.

A person with a growth mindset, on the other hand, welcomes a challenge and enjoys doing things they’re not good at because they know they’ll learn.

Perhaps you’re learning how to read analytics and metrics. Or you’re trying to figure out how content and search engine optimization work hand-in-hand. Or you’re moving beyond media relations to do some really hard, but powerful communications work.

Whatever it may be, you have a growth mindset and fear of failure won’t paralyze you.

Talent can be learned. It can evolve and grow.

If you embrace that, you may still procrastinate (sometimes your desk just needs to be cleaned), but when you do produce the work, it’ll be the kind you’ve always been praised for doing.

Stop allowing fear of failure to paralyze you. Do the hard work. Learn new skills. Take a new class. Be okay with not being the kid in the front row who has all of the answers (no one likes him, anyway).

Change your mindset and the rest will come.

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

  • Ah, now THIS type of content I could read all day. Bravo, miss!

    I remember when I was 11, and I was transferred to a private education school because I was “too smart” for the public elementary school I was attending.

    My mum was over the moon, but I hated it. I didn’t fit. Yes, I was a kid from the projects who was smarter than about 90% of my privileged classmates, but boy did they not like that.

    I went from loving English and History to being the class clown, trying to fit in. But I still didn’t.

    Eventually, my mum had to move to a different town for work, and I was pulled out. I could have stayed in the school as a boarding student, but I dread to think what would have happened had that been the case.

    Long story short, my failure at 11-13 years old had a big impact. I was a little shit for many years, until the Army Cadets and a mix of martial arts showed me respect, loyalty and tenacity. Now, I try and ensure that I encourage my kids to grow exactly as they want, and know that failure is okay and growth is not a short semester in life.

    Time will tell if that’s successful or not.

    Thanks for this post, Gini.

    • My kids are grown, Danny, and I completely agree with teaching your children that failing is ok, then teaching them how to understand why and how to respond.

      • Thanks, Amanda. Our kids are lucky that our local school teaches the Montessori principles, and that makes a huge difference, for sure.

    • And we all know it’s all about you, DB. Um, “was” a little shit? Hmmmm….

      • Yes. Now I’m a bigger shit. Just ask…. wait, are we doing this alphabetically?

  • All people fear failure. Even the not-so-smart ones. I was a massive, complete and utter failure very young in life. I managed to turn it around, but I still fear failure every day. It’s part of what makes me good at my job. Thanks Gini, once again, for your frank honesty. This blog is a great read for my morning commute.

  • So many words I’ll have to respond when I’m at a real keyboard.

    • That was six hours ago, Kate!

      • Yup, and six hours I’ve spent at work when I’m supposed to be part time (for the next two weeks) and… Currently I’m failing at cutting the cord. I’m a sucker. I did come back and start a response, but couldn’t formulate a coherent thought.

        • Wait. I thought you were finished completely. KATE!!!

          • Ugh. Yeah, SURPRISE!

  • Ah Gini, what a great post! As I was reading I was thinking, “I was not that good in English 😮 ” But what perseverance and how you’ve learned over the years to roll with the punches! How can anyone be a success without learning that? (As side note: I learned a while ago that the ability to fix mistakes is what makes one a good knitter – or a good anything I guess!)

    I’ve recently come up against that paralyzing fear of failure. It concerns my second book. The fear was so paralyzing that I got completely stalled on my marketing plan and finally had to throw it all out and begin again. Lesson learned: I have to do it my way and take my chances with that. My new plan is flowing much better than the old one 🙂

    I do love the learning though. Where else but in business and, specifically, online business, can you enjoy such a constant learning curve? It never ends and that keeps life interesting!


      I totally, totally agree with you that life is much more interesting today than even 10 years ago. We DO have a great opportunity to constantly learn. I love that.

      And congrats on your second book!!

  • I am supposed to be writing a blog post for a COO right now but was simply too tempted to read your blog post first. Well, not really first, maybe third or fourth…

    Fear of failure is certainly part of it. And maybe the fact that the actual writing–not the planning, researching, interviewing–can be hard work, and sometimes with little to show for the effort. Especially nowadays. I write, I pour myself into a great blog post, and blip, it’s gone. That’s not fear as much as it is disappointment, I guess.

    You’re right about a growth mindset helping conquer a fear of failure. Really, I’m not sure how a writer survives without a growth mindset. I have to learn something new daily, especially since my clients represent everything from higher ed to fire suppression. (Go ahead, ask me about the power of twin agents in rugged mining environments.) If a growth mindset isn’t enough to solve procrastination, deadlines definitely are!

    • Another topic I’ll be writing about soon is journaling. They say when you do that—for yourself and not in the form of a blog or other writing—it helps with both the fear of failure and the disappointment you describe. It’s an interesting topic, for sure.

      I was helping Corina with some content for a client just now and I played a game of Words with Friends, I checked my FB messenger, and even sent a couple of emails. We’re not immune!

      • That’s really interesting. I’ve been regularly journaling recently with prompts to help explore various thoughts, ideas, and intentions. I feel a difference in my mindset, but I hadn’t attributed it to the journaling at all. I think it’s more than that because there was another motivation that got me started, but I can see how it’s helping reinforce it daily so I don’t get sucked into the vacuum of fear.

        • The experts would say the mindset shift IS the journaling, Karen! That’s super cool.

      • I sucked at practicing journaling but had no choice after my bday when I received a journal from my husband AND one from my daughter. Guess who is journaling? Yes, to both you and Karen. It is a safe place for idea exploration. I keep one for daily thoughts and blog posts and the other specifically for developing my YA novel. I used to handwrite all my blog posts, because the physical act of handwriting (i.e. scribbling, in my case), helped me build my piece. With all of the arrows, scratched out words, circles, and stars, it really did look like I was “writing drunk” as Hemingway supposedly said. I recommend spiral notebooks for that kind of journaling. I restrain myself too much when writing in the pretty journals.

        • In her book, Ashley Judd talked about how they made her write by hand extensively as part of rehab. It had to do with the physical/mind/spirit connection. It sounded arduous but I think she considered it an important (and effective) part of her recovery.

  • BRILLIANT post. And whatever you were writing in college, this one sure as heck resonated with me.

  • What a fantastic post, Gini!!

    When I was in school (gifted program/AP classes – the whole bit), we used to say our motto was “procrastinate later”. One of the gifted program teachers thought it was a good idea to teach the gifted students she taught that they were more prone to procrastination. So, we all basically decided that procrastination was totally okay (which isn’t exactly wrong) and figured out how to manipulate teachers so we could do the bare minimum for the maximum result. I feel like my education prior to university was basically handed to me on a silver platter. It was harder in uni (music school is seriously intense), but I absolutely loved it. I’ve only recently figured out that I keep working to recapture that feeling in the work I do everywhere I go.

    I’ve been thinking about this so much in the past year – specifically, the question of what I would do if I knew I couldn’t fail. I think I’ve mostly figured it out and I’ve been really reaching for it. It’s scary, making me work really, really hard (in a good way), and I’m not letting the fear get to me. It’s there, and probably always will be, but I’d rather let it be a motivator than incite paralysis. The best part is I’m putting the right value on what I do without fear of rejection. Even if the rejection happens, at least I know I’ve been true to myself first.

    • “It’s scary, making me work really, really hard (in a good way), and I’m not letting the fear get to me.” YOU GO! I want to get a glimpse into what you’re doing. I’m so proud of you!

  • I just don’t know where to begin with commenting on this. But a run calls and the FIL is on the roam so let me try: This is something with which I struggle ALL THE TIME. I end up reading a lot of “failure is critical” content in my work with Lead Change and it’s true (that we have to “let” ourselves fail in order to succeed) but there’s a difference between the kind of failure that has to happen for a process to be refined (I think they called it “fail fast” at one of the labs we visited at NASA) and the kind that eats away at our self esteem constantly, even when everyone in the external world sees you as a success. // I think the thing that I have trouble getting past is that principle that “a person’s past history predicts their future.” I think it takes feedback (candid, direct, honest, painful feedback) to help someone really break the patterns that have detracted from their ability to succeed. Coaching and tenacity on the part of the coachee. I think I need a coach. (I probably could have said that first and dispensed with all this other verbiage LOL).

    • I enjoy all your verbiage.

      • Well thank you, Amanda! Verbiage lovers unite. Verbiage is what we do when we’re not watching Netflix, right? 🙂

    • It also takes an immense amount of self-awareness to break the cycle. Even though I said I saw myself as sort of vanilla—and I did—the truth is I had a pretty hard childhood. I just didn’t know it at the time. So I think you can break cycles with all sorts of tenacity, self-awareness, and YES coaching.

      • Yes. You are right. Thank you for this post — judging by the comments, many of us needed to hear that today.

  • This a fantastic post. Thank you for telling it like it is.

    Before and during high-school I was told repeatedly by my teachers that I can’d write, therefore I shouldn’t. I loved to write. I was writing in my journal at home short fiction stories, I was reading everything I could. I can still remember our librarian’s face (we had only one library in my home-town) when I went to borrow yet another book after only two days! She used to ask me if I was really reading the books!

    But, because everyone believed I couldn’t write, I went down that road and believed it myself. So I stopped writing, but couldn’t give up reading.

    I focused on the other side which didn’t need creativity (so they said): math and grammar. I liked solving problems, I liked finding solutions, but I was also longing to do those assignments my colleagues in writing classes had.

    Fast forward years later, after getting a degree in Finance I chose to finally listen to my soul and went for a master in PR, got to work in PR and here I am.

    I face fear of failure every day. There is a constant voice in my head that when least expected says: “You’re not good enough.” First I panic and then, I’ll say: I’ll show you! and go do the work.

    I would probably be happier if this voice wouldn’t exist, but I am working every day to shut it down.

    Yes, it’s about mindset, something they don’t teach you in schools, not even when you start your first job.

    And usually when you set your mind to something, work for it, you make it happen. Yes, it’s that simple, not easy, but simple.

    • Teachers can be the worst teachers of all. Not every one, but enough of them to make a [negative] difference.

      I don’t 100% blame them, either. I truly believe the best teachers are the ones that become such for the love of the job, as opposed to the fact it’s a job. And Governments need to do better at recognizing – and rewarding – the teachers of our kids.

      The problem is when you get teachers like the one you use as an example.
      How dare she tell a child she can’t write. Instead of saying “you can’t”, how about saying “find out if you can”? Different words, different outcome.

      I’ll happily go to school and share some harsh words if my kids ever came home and said, “My teacher says I can’t.” Unless it’s illegal, you can to anything.


      • Rant warranted. So glad you found your way back, Corina!

        • Thank you Paula.

          You know what they say: You can’t stay unhappy for too long. You need to take action. 🙂

      • I agree Danny. I believe teachers and doctors should choose these professions out of dedication and passion for the greater good. Yes, Governments need to take action in this respect. Health and education should be their first priority. You have nothing as a nation, without health and education.

        As for my teachers, well, Romania was a new ex-communist country at that time, and no matter what others say communism hurts people, it keeps them from growing and developing, it makes them shortsighted and content with their status quo. I don’t blame them, they adjusted to the system. But if my future kid(s) would have to deal with something like that in school, well that would be a big problem, cause I will not stop.

        Of course not all of them were like that. Passionate people were raising above everybody else and ultimately left the country.

        That’s why I am so grateful for living in these times (and country) with access to so much information, where things like mindfulness, find your passion are starting to spread more and more.

    • It’s so strange that someone would tell you you couldn’t write. Look at how well you’ve proven them wrong! (And I hate to agree with Danny, but he’s right about some teachers not being so great.) BUT… your problem-solving skills and your finance degree make you VERY good at what you do today. It’s hard to find people who can do both the right- and left-brained work. Of course, you don’t sleep so that helps…

  • I’m almost afraid to comment here because there’s so much competition for the best one. 😉 Many of us can relate to part of your post, Gini and on so many levels. Time for some of us to get off the pot.

    • For the best comment? I think Danny thinks he wins that…every time.

  • Gini, what a brilliant post. That’s all I can muster.

    • I suppose I’ll be nicer to you than I am to Laura when that is all she can muster. And say thank you!

  • Bill Dorman

    See what happens when you are smart? Fortunately, I haven’t had to deal with that.

    Fear of failure; how about comfort of laziness?

    From where I started I have done much better than ok; however, I know I could have done much more and part of that is getting in a comfort zone and fear of something I suppose is what kept me from going higher.

    We all have to make choices and even though it has probably been painful and many a sleepless night for you, I certainly admire your willingness to step off that ledge even if it didn’t mean money in your pocket. I mean, at least you have the fame part, right?…:)

    If I were a betting man, I’d still put my money on you to win…and that’s the truth.

    • You are one of my most favorite people on earth, Dorman. I’d say you’ve been pretty darn successful…at least in not falling off your bike.

  • Bill Dorman

    I’m reading Presence: bringing your boldest self to the biggest challenges by Amy Cuddy. I’m making a comeback…:).

    I’d still take a bullet for you.

    • And I for you.

    • Looking forward to hearing what you think about the book, Bill. I’ve seen Amy posting about the launch on Twitter.

      • Bill Dorman

        I’m 1/2 way through, as I’m reading I keep thinking of the people I would like to give this book too. What she says makes a lot of sense and there are times in my life where w/out intentionally incorporating what she writes about, it did change me for the better. I think the more ‘what ifs’ you can eliminate in your life the more fulfilled you will be.

  • Berrak

    School was WAY too easy for me – even after I moved to the U.S. and had to deal with being an immigrant and outsider. I didn’t have to try too hard, and when I had to give up my scholarship to start working full-time, I think that I gave up a part of myself.

    That part was my confidence. I just kept falling further and further behind, and to this day, I look at my papers from the first couple of years of college and think “I WAS SMART. WHAT HAPPENED?”

    I’m slowly getting that confidence back, but I don’t think it’ll ever be the same.

    • Ha! You’re still smart! I mean, Google AND Starbucks? Enough said.

    • Ha! I know this all too well. I keep wondering what happened to my brain. 🙂

  • Ok, I’m back and attempting to put together my thoughts…
    I think this post covers two things: fear of failure and how that fear manifests itself, which will be different for most people.
    I read somewhere, a long time ago, a statement to the effect of “you shouldn’t be afraid of failure, because if you’re afraid of failure you won’t let yourself fail.” My immediate response to that is: Yes, and if I don’t ever _start_ the thing I could fail at, then I technically won’t fail, but I also won’t have done anything.
    I was one of those kids who pretty much coasted through school. I wasn’t the straight-A type, but did well enough that there wasn’t ever concern about college, etc. College was a little more rocky, but survivable and then I launched into the “real world”. Yeah, like you say, there’s a wake up call.
    So, it comes to this: In this weird progression I’ve been making towards self-employment, I will very clearly catch myself being “comfortable” in my day job and think “why would I give this up?” I’m clearly good at it and could keep plugging this widget into that sprocket for many years. Except… I’m pretty bored with making the widget-sprocket connection. And, while boredom isn’t the number one reason you should move on, it’s certainly a sign that something isn’t right. So, I can see my fear manifesting itself in comfort. Don’t stray. Don’t rock the boat. What if, what if, what if… It’s really hard to make yourself comfortable being uncomfortable when you’ve been able to coast for a while, even when being uncomfortable is the best thing you could be doing at that moment.
    I feel I’m rambling a bit so I’m going to leave this “as is” for now. 🙂

    • For the love of all things eyeballs – line breaks, Kate, line breaks! 😉

      The comfort zone is definitely one of the biggest stumbling blocks. Like you say, why give up something that gives you a certain standard of living and doesn’t test you too much?

      But then isn’t the most fun had usually when you step out comfort zones?
      Scary rides at the fairground, horror movies instead of romcoms, etc.

      Besides, widgets will always be there a-waitin’! 🙂

      • Hey, the pre-Postmatic, line breaks were automatic. Sheesh. 😉

        • Yes, and it messed everything up, because no-one works like that. Silly Livefyre. 🙂

          • Exactly! Livefyre has me trained all one way and now it’s different. Curse you, change! Why can’t you let me be comfortable!? 😏

      • Funny.

        This dropped into my inbox this morning.

        • That’s pretty cool – is that a daily thing? And, yes, great quote.

          • Yes, she sends them out daily. Always different, but similar in tone. Some resonate, some don’t, but it’s a nice little morning “attitude fix”.

    • Yeah, you clearly don’t like change, as evidenced by your fight against Postmatic! LOL!

      • Change is fine! If it’s done right. 😉 Postmatic just needs some finessing.

        Besides you have more issues with it than I do, methinks.

  • So invigorating reading this, Gini. My mantra has always been “dive into the deep end; you’ll either learn to swim or… But you will learn either way.” I will definitely share this with my Curry College COM students and advisees. Thanks!

    • That was my dad’s mantra in the real swimming pool when we were little. My mom didn’t love it so much.

  • I can TOTALLY relate. Great post, Gini!

    • Oh man. You’re right in the middle of your book launch. It’s totally NORMAL to feel overwhelmed during launch. Keep going!

  • Yet another reason YOU are my peeps, you really are. This will stick w/ me a long time and someday, we’ll have a long overdue chat over wine and cheese!

    • I need to get down to see you. It’s been way too long.