Fear of failure – friend or foe?
Mag. Daniela Pfabigan is expert in neuropsychology; Photo credit: Daniela Pfabigan
More than 90 percent of tech startups fail. Sounds familiar? Most likely so. This statistic often hangs like a dark cloud over the heads of many young entrepreneurs. Yes, the future of most (tech) startups in uncertain; yes, many of them fear even the slightest prospect of failure; and yes, many of them do fail. Yet, as it turns out, the fear of failure itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Daniela M. Pfabigan, research associate at the Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Unit of the University of Vienna, explains why.
The brain and the stress response
When faced with failure, be it even the mere possibility of it, the human brain initiates what is known as a stress response. “The brain tries to prepare the person to deal with the prospect of failure, and one way to do so is by starting a stress response,” Pfabigan says. What this response does is lead to a state where the person’s “attention is focused, the whole body is alert, with the idea that with this [physiological reaction], he or she might perform better.”
In other words, an initial stress response triggered by the fear of failure is actually beneficial, as it physically prepares a person to perform at their best in the particular situation. For instance, “[…] because of this preparation, you’re thinking faster,” Pfabigan says. Memory retrieval, too, is working significantly better. One question, however, needs an answer:
Why do we fear failure in the first place?
[definition title=”About Daniela Pfabigan” text=”The Austrian studied Psychology at the University of Vienna, and later completed her clinical training with focus on neuropsychology. She finished her PhD on neuronal correlates of decision making in 2011. Currently, she is a research associate at the Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Unit, Faculty of Psychology, University of Vienna. Her research focuses on neuronal correlates of performance monitoring and contextual factors influencing it.”]
To find out, “it is best to start with some evolutionary explanations,” Pfabigan says. “Back in the Stone Age, when people were faced with failure, it was a life-threatening situation.” Simply put, people could not afford to fail, because the alternative to failure was death. “I think the initial evolutionary means was to induce this stress response, […] which has evolved to help us save ourselves from life-threatening situations.”
Today, failure is for the most part (and thankfully) not life threatening. Yet, what the majority of people often face is social evaluation, says Pfabigan. That is to say, people’s actions and decisions are almost constantly under scrutiny, whether by close friends, professional contacts or complete strangers. In the world of entrepreneurship, things are no different.
For a startup person, the prospect of their business failing is one of those situations, in which their social image is under threat. Consequently, the fear of failure is expected to lead to a stress response.
“Whenever you experience this fear [or stress] response, it is always accompanied with some negative affect so this focusing of attention and being prepared for anything has some costs – and these costs [lead to] not feeling very well,” Pfabigan explains. What is important is that “this fear response should be short-lived, [meaning that] when the ‘life-threatening’ situation has resolved itself, you should feel well again.” With entrepreneurs having to constantly push their startups forward, however, the social evaluation fear is quite constant, says Pfabigan.
Social and other pressures on entrepreneurs
Back in the Stone Age, when people were faced with failure, it was a life-threatening situation.
Speaking of social perceptions, Pfabigan raises an obvious, yet important point: No two people would react the same way to a stressful situation. “One important thing is that some people are more anxious about social evaluation, and in particular negative social evaluation, whereas others don’t care that much about what people think of them,” Pfabigan says. It may be the case, Pfabigan ponders, that because entrepreneurs work on their own business ideas and are committed to making them a success, they may not be that concerned with social evaluation. This, however, is not something that can be generalized, she adds.
Commitment is often startup entrepreneurs’ second nature. Yet, in this commitment, they often tend to take on more than they can handle. If you’re a techie and you come up with a great tech idea, you would also need to know how to run the business. In Pfabigan’s words: “You have expertise in one particular field, […] but then you also have the pressure of other things, which you don’t know so much about.”
The pressures continue to pile up, as entrepreneurs become dependent on people other than themselves. “If you invest all your personal money in a startup and it doesn’t work out, then you’re left with nothing,” Pfabigan says. Yet, “if you’ve convinced other people to invest in you and [your business], then, again, you have the social pressure of those people who are depending on you.” Learning to manage such pressures early on is crucial, especially among startups, where the stakes are often quite high.
‘Choking under pressure’
Neuroscience research has observed that in high-stake situations […] two different processes might be at work.
High stakes are a key factor in how well people deal with pressure and the fear of failure. “Neuroscience research has observed that in high-stake situations, in which you have not yet acquired those high stakes but you have the prospect of them, two different processes might be at work, and the interaction of these two might lead to performance decrements,” Pfabigan says.
What Pfabigan refers to is the phenomenon known as “choking under pressure”, which often occurs as a result of over-analysing performance in high-stake situations.
On the one hand, Pfabigan explains, in such instances people tend to focus their attention almost exclusively on one specific aspect of the task at hand. On the other, they experience a state of high internal arousal, where they develop an emotional response of what could or would happen should they acquire the high stakes. “This gets them in an unbalanced state of high arousal and focused attention. The interaction of these two processes might, at least in some people, lead to performance decrements,” she sums up.
Learning to deal with the fear of failure
When you switch to another aspect of your project, the project will go forward and not be completely stuck because of the one thing that is not working.
Starting a company is undoubtedly no easy task, with many things to be done and many others hanging in the balance. To avoid getting swallowed up by the amounts of work from the get-go, Pfabigan advises to:
- make lists of all the things you need to do;
- write down your worries, and what you think might go wrong.
Creating such an overview can help anticipate problems, and take actions to solve them in time. To add to that, startup entrepreneurs should also learn to work through tasks and potential difficulties as efficiently as possible:
- if you get stuck on a problem, leave it on the side and find a distraction.
How, you may ask? Move to another aspect of your startup. “When you switch to another aspect of your project, the project will go forward and not be completely stuck because of the one thing that is not working,” she says. Lastly, Pfabigan points out the need to:
- understand what the stress response really does and means.
Entrepreneurs should be aware that the stress response, forcing the body to tense up and the heart rate to go up, is completely normal and should be seen a physiological preparation for the upcoming stress-inducing situation. “People should know that their body is not working against them, but with and for them,” Pfabigan emphasizes.
At the end of the day, it is all about knowledge: The knowledge that when faced with the fear of failure, you can leverage the reactions that your brain initiates, and use them to turn a negative feeling into a positive result.