Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Overcoming Fear of Failure

So why do people resist change? One could spend a lifetime trying to answer that question! In the next several blog entries I plan to tackle some of the most common reasons a person resists change. My musings will be based on what I've seen in others and what I have faced myself.

The first (and I believe the most prevalent) reason people resist change is fear of failure. We live in a culture that values success often above all else, especially professional success. Just reflect, what is the most common question someone asks when first meeting you? "What do you do?" Imagine answering that question with "I used to be an executive with a large firm, but I screwed up too many important things and wound up getting fired." Would that cut a conversation short? Would it quickly end the inquiry into professional success? I can remember being asked that question so many times during a period where I was unemployed, and remember just how self-conscious I felt in trying to answer it in a way that retained my dignity. Nobody wants to be a failure.

Yet there are a few things about failure that are important to remember. First, failure is an event, not a person. A person is not a failure. A person does things that don't succeed, and hopefully they learn from those things and become a wiser person for them. I know it is well known, but I continue to be inspired by Abraham Lincoln's story of repeated failures and persistence. Here are a few key ups and downs in the life of Abe Lincoln:

1831 – Failed in business
1832 – Defeated for legislature
1833 – Again failed in business
1834 – Elected to legislature
1835 – Sweetheart died
1836 – Had a nervous breakdown
1838 – Defeated for speaker
1840 – Defeated for elector
1843 – Defeated for Congress
1846 – Elected for Congress
1848 – Defeated for Congress
1855 – Defeated for Senate
1856 – Defeated for Vice-President
1858 – Defeated for Senate

So what kept Abraham Lincoln from giving up? First of all it was strong moral character. He believed in a Sovereign that controlled the circumstances of his life. He believed he could make a difference. This enabled him to fail forward, to get back up and try again, to take risks in business and politics knowing that the worst failure of all would be to stop trying!
Abraham Lincoln went on to be the greatest President in US history, saving the Union from the worst crisis in our 230 year history. Something you may not know is that Lincoln embraced change in spite of a fear of failure that nipped at his heels until the day he died. Below is a picture of the actual contents of Abraham Lincoln's pockets the night he was assassinated.
Among these articles was a newspaper clipping. It was worn and tattered, and had obviously been read, folded, unfolded, and read again numerous times. What was in this article that was so important to Lincoln that it didn't leave his possession until the night he died? Here is a scan of that very article from the national archives. It is an endorsement of Lincoln by British reformer John Bright. You may want to take the time to read it in its entirety, but let me highlight one section that is especially relevant to our discussion here. In the article Bright states "To some of his countrymen there may appear to have been errors in his course. It would be strange indeed if, in the midst of difficulties so stupendous and so unexpected, any administration or any ruler should wholly avoid mistakes...we see in it an honest endeavor faithfully to do the work of his great office." How encouraging this must have been to a man who was under relentless attack from all quarters! It is no small wonder why such a ray of encouragement would have found a place in his breast pocket, where it lay until he took his last breath.
Being an agent and leader of change doesn't take a super hero. The path will be wrought with fear and anxiety. We will fail sometimes. We will doubt and sometimes wonder if the easy path of resistance to change wouldn't have spared us some pain and failure. But lives like Lincoln's should encourage us to press on, to not give up, to embrace change and find encouragement where we can. May his story be an encouragement to you, and I hope it will be an illustration that will encourage those who are resisting change out of a fear of failure.

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