Sta Hungry Stay Foolish

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

A blog by Leon Oudejans

Fear of Failure

Recently, a friend made a comment on her fear of failure. A seed for a new blog had been planted. For several days I have been wondering how to address this blog. It is more difficult than I assumed. The difficulties already start with the possible causes: education, evolutionary psychology, male/female differences, and upbringing by parents?? I wasn’t convinced.

A 2013 article in the Greater Good blog gave me some refreshing perspective: “According to UC Berkeley professor Martin Covington, the fear of failure is directly linked to your self-worth, or the belief that you are valuable as a person”.

Self-worth is an interesting starting point. I think it’s safe to say that self-worth is most likely a neutral component at birth. Hence, no evolutionary psychology component. The role of parents in a child’s upbringing may change her/his self-worth from neutral into positive or negative. I suppose education is likely to enlarge an existing image of self-worth. In some cases, education may change one’s self-worth from positive into negative or vice versa.

In a 1984 article on ‘The Self-Worth Theory of Achievement Motivation‘, the same Martin Covington referred to earlier research by John Atkinson (1923-2003): “According to this model, the need for achievement results from a conflict between striving for success, on the one hand, and a disposition to avoid failure, on the other. Atkinson argued that individuals show marked differences in the way they resolve this conflict and that the choice and quality of resolution depend in large part on one’s childhood experiences“. (page 3) Note: bold and italic markings in quote are mine.

The above can even be visualised by making a simple car driving example. In that analogy, success is the speed pedal and failure is the brake pedal. The choice and quality of one’s driving both depend on earlier experiences.

Self-worth is probably the core layer of our personality and only a few people will be granted access to our core during our lifetime. We protect our self-worth by creating perceptions of ourselves towards other people. Others might refer to ‘faces’ or even ‘roles’. Our abilities are a major weapon in creating these perceptions, especially when successful. 

Rephrased in the words of Martin Covington: “The self-worth theory assumes that a central part of all classroom achievement is the need for students to protect their sense of worth or personal value. Perceptions of ability are critical to this self-protective process, since for many students the mere possession of high ability signifies worthiness. Moreover, ability is widely perceived as a major cause of success, and success in turn reflects well on the individual”.

There is an immense difference in how you think or believe about yourself (self-worth) and how you act (or pretend) towards others given your abilities. Essentially, someone may be (very) successful in the eyes of everyone given his/her accomplishments while that same person may feel – and believe – to be unsuccessful as a person. Ultimately, true success – or failure – lies in synchronising perception (others) and reality (self). Self acceptance is the hardest achievement of all.

No More Fear Of Flying (1979) by Gary Brooker
artist, lyrics, video, Wiki-1, Wiki-2

Note: all markings (bolditalic, underlining) by LO unless stated otherwise.


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