On Being Afraid of Failure

Can I take a minute to write a personal post on here? This blog is usually all about SEO tactics, but today I’ve been doing some thinking and reflecting.

I come from a family that is really smart and well educated. I mean really smart and really well educated. My father has his PhD in institutional analysis. My mother is working on her second Masters degree, this one as a mathematics specialist. My older brother is in a fully funded MD/PhD program at Baylor College of Medicine, and my younger brother is a genius who will one day be an ambassador or something to a foreign country, helping to keep our country safe.

And I have a Bachelors degree from James Madison University in Virginia (a good state school). I work for the best SEO consultancy in the world, hang out with some awesomely smart people, and am trying to make waves in New York City.

And guess what?

I’m petrified of failure.

I’m scared that I won’t be able to measure up, or that I’m not smart enough to really do well at my job, or that I don’t have what it takes to really speak at SEO conferences and be able to affect change for and in my clients. I worry that I suck at leading projects, and that I’m going to fail again and again and again.

This is why I drive so hard. This is why I work so many hours. This is why I stay up until 4am on a Saturday night crunching data 4 days before the biggest presentation of my life.

I’ve learned a few things by being this way though.

The Lessons I’ve Learned

I’m not the only one who is afraid of failure, though.

Remember, it’s not the fear of failure that is bad, but rather when the fear of failure stops you and keeps you from succeeding.

When I am faced with a new challenge at work, my first thought is “Wow, there is no way I can succeed at that”, even when I know that I can and I will. My natural inclination is to say “No, I don’t want that responsibility” because I am afraid of failure and afraid of looking like an idiot in front of the people whose opinions I care about most.

Every time I find myself thinking this, though, I say to myself:

Man, f*ck that. I know what I’m doing. Let’s do this.

I hate all of the talk around “positivity” and “just being positive” these days. Being positive doesn’t make up for incompetence. Being optimistic and willing to try, though, is the mark of a true winner.

When you want to succeed, you do whatever is in your power to be successful no matter how much it scares you.

Even if you fail, you’re in good company

Every great entrepreneur has had their fair share of failures, or ventures that started out as failures. And I bet you they were afraid to fail as well, which is why they work so hard to prove themselves, often working twice as many hours as the average American, who is overworked as it is!

We’re all afraid of failure in one way or another. Very few of us are afraid to succeed, though there are those out there. We all want to do well, but often we let our fears hold us back.

I’m not going to let this fear stop me though. I’ll let this fear push me forward, and hopefully be able to rein it in someday. But until then, every time my mind tells me “You suck at your job, you’re going to fail”, I’m going to say:

Eff that. I’m going to do it, even if it scares me.


*PS* – Even as I wrote this blog post tonight, I’m afraid to publish it. So I’m publishing anyways. One step at a time.

45 thoughts on “On Being Afraid of Failure

  1. I think anybody who cares about success is afraid of failure. Unless you’re apathetic, they go hand in hand. I try not to think of it as quite so all-or-none, though. Failure is rarely 100%. You accomplish something, you learn something, and most likely you just don’t meet expectations (others or your own). The trick is to figure out whether you dropped the ball or expectations were out of line, and adapt.

    1. Good points Pete, and thanks for the comment. You’re right, it’s not so all-or-nothing, and sometimes a fear of failure can drive us to succeed. I guess the point I hoped to make was that it’s not the fear of failure that is bad, but rather letting that fear actually be a self-fulfilling prophecy and lead to failure. It’s how we overcome it that makes us a winner or a failure.

      I appreciate the wise insights!

  2. Welcome to the club. Most of my work life has been trying to avoid failure as I try to do new things or old things. I’m terrified that I wont be able to lead the changes that must be made in my office before I retire. That I will fail as a dad, that the Cub Scout Pack won’t make it, that . . . I’m still trying to learn to trust God for the results. Sometimes we,have to let God be God, but it is still so easy to try to depend on our own strength. I’m glad He is so patient with us, and that our acceptance by Him is a free gift.

    1. Thanks Dad. So I can blame my fear of failure on you πŸ™‚

      In all seriousness, it is what drives me forward and makes me work so hard. And it is paying off thus far, I guess!

  3. I know where you’re coming from! For me, it takes the fear of failing, and the anger I have after thinking it, to drive me further than I thought possible. What matters the most if doing what makes YOU happy and is satisfying personally and professionally.

    FYI – new to the blog here and loving it.

    1. Thanks Sarah and welcome to the site! How’d you find me?

      You are absolutely right and it is also the fear coupled with the anger of feeling that way that drives me forward. I appreciate the insight!

  4. Hey John, I was just about to call it a night when I saw your post title. Coincidentally, my brother-in-law just asked me if I was afraid of failure tonight -like 4 hours ago. I don’t know if I’ve ever been asked the question so directly. Anyway, I like your line: “When you want to succeed, you do whatever is in your power to be successful no matter how much it scares you.” Keep making waves in NYC, Brother!

    1. Hey Ben! (I assume Ben Anderson from L’Abri?)
      Thanks for coming by, man. Failure is a weird thing to think about, isn’t it? Failure can definitely be a powerful motivator or a powerful motivation killer.

      What was your answer to his question>

      Good to hear from you!

      1. You assume my identity correctly. My answer was that, speaking in general, I hate failure. And I do not have the desire to make room for failure in my life -though it may be healthy to do so at times. Also, I told him that how one defines failure is extremely important. For example, fear of man–which may define failure as looking stupid–should not hold us back. While fear of moral failure is a more valid concern that appropriately produces caution.

  5. Much respect for sharing personal insights. You’ve probably heard this story before, but when Herman Melville published Moby Dick, it was a critical and commercial failure.

    Everybody hated it, and nobody saw the genius in his writing or his thinking. Moby Dick was a brilliant allegory about what was happening in America just prior to the Civil War.

    Melville died with the label of “failure” hanging over his head and it wasn’t until long after his death that people woke up to realize what a literary genius he was.

    Point being — don’t listen to naysayers, especially that naysayer that lives in our head and tells us we’re going to fail.

    1. David –
      Thanks for this story. I had not heard it, but it is anecdotal of success.

      I love this: “don’t listen to naysayers, especially that naysayer that lives in our head”. Spot on man. Thanks.

  6. Hi John, excellent post!

    While reading this blog, it reminded me of my past and I stayed there till the end of the post! Well, thanks for the excellent post. I really enjoyed it.

  7. Hi John,

    Awesome post – I too can relate to this post in my work, although, as you say I find that the fear of failure somehow motivates me to push ahead. A book I am sure you’re come across that helped me was by Steven Pressfield – The War of Art – excellent book and well worth a read


  8. There was a man who seemed to fail at everything he did.

    A friend asked him: “Do you feel like a failure?”

    And the man replied: “No”.

    “How can that be?” said the friend.

    “Because next time I might succeed” said the man.

    The friend asked: “When will you know whether or not you have been a success?”

    The man replied: “I’ll know on the day I die.”

    Failing does not make us failures.
    We are always potential succeeders.

  9. Awesome post John! At my company, I am one of our senior SEOs but when comparing my knowledge to you and the other big names out there, I realize I don’t know as much as I need to or want to. So I was actually having a similar conversation with one of my co-workers the other day about how I am hindering my ability to obtain more knowledge and experience due to the fact that I am afraid to put my name out there and get shot down (not sure if this made any sense but to summarize, I was having a very similar conversation less than 2 days ago) … good stuff as usual!

    1. Craig –
      Thanks for the comment, man. I am increasingly become convinced that “failure” or our picture of ourselves is so influenced by those around us. You look at myself and the other Distilled guys, I look at people like Tom, Will, Wil R, Rand, Martin MacDonald, etc and feel the same way. Sometimes it is good to take a step back and realize “Wow, I really do know something”.

  10. Hey John! All the great’s fail at first. I’ve been reading it, but you should pick up Poke the Box by Seth Godin. He tackles this exactly!
    Keep failing, accept it, and keep being awesome!

  11. Hey John, good topic, from the perspective of my other half, I’m more of a failure than a winner. I see myself as a winner, as my wins have been the things that have made me money. Like getting the job that I wanted, with my conditions (not all) , I’ve failed many times in the web dev & SEO, but the wins have been awesome to me. I am always learning to fail, just so I can get it right.

    Again great stuff that you put out, I mean it, like I said if you’re in Seattle give me a shout so we can ponder over other failures over a BEER! My treat!

  12. John,

    In my opinion, you’ve just conquered all fear. Your refreshing honesty and ability to admit this in a public manner exudes the fact that you won’t let anything stand in your way… like the old saying goes – “Nothing to fear, but fear itself.” I applaud you and can definitely relate to the “fear factor.” But, as history has shown repeatedly, one failure leads you one step closer to successes. Chalk it up, learn from your mistakes and keep on target. Great post!!!

    1. Thanks Kelly, and thanks for stopping by! You’re right, each failure leads us closer to success. I take great comfort in stories like Tony Hsieh’s, who has succeeded a lot but has failed as well. If we learn from those failures, then we’ll learn.

      As my mother once told me, “Those who do not know history are destined to repeat it.” My 10 year old self responded, “You didn’t make that up, did you?”

  13. Hey John,
    Thanks for sharing this post. These are the type of posts that let people connect with you on a deeper level than just “SEO expert”.

    I think your main thought here is, “Fear is ok, and sometimes can be a good motivator, as long as it doesn’t get in the way”.

    The thing about failure is that it’s based on goals. If you have no set goals, you can’t fail. Now I’m not suggesting you get rid of your goals, but I would suggest evaluating what your goals are and why you set them in the first place.

    What really matters in life? Does speaking at conferences really matter? Does dominating in SEO really matter? If so, will that end really bring you lasting happiness?

    I really believe that we are happiest when fulfilling our purpose in life. Once you understand what that is, you can set the appropriate goals and work towards it. Only then can you evaluate the importance of failure and success.

    If you don’t have the right goals in place, what does it matter if you fail or succeed. Neither will bring happiness.

    1. Dan –
      Man, thanks so much for these wise words. This is something that Distilled has been working on with all of us in the company, to evaluate what our goals are (and part of that is figuring them out in the first place!) and then how we are going to work towards those.

      “Finding purpose” can be a pretty nebulous thing, and it takes a lot of introspection, and I don’t think we’ll ever fully figure it out, but you are right that we need to head in that direction. If we at least have goals, then we can measure our progress and some may call this “happiness”. I’d definitely agree that it is part.

      Thank you.

  14. Hey cubicle buddy!

    Loved this post. Had my first real brush with failure in college and then shortly afterwards, at my first real job. At the time, it was incredibly painful, especially when you work your behind off and don’t feel like the effort is propelling you anywhere. In retrospect, the pain was worth it because without those experiences, I would never have moved to NYC and more importantly, never been a part of this tremendous SEO community. Sometimes failure is a sign of a directional shift and isn’t until years later, that you become thankful for these failures. And realistically, we all learn more from our failures than our successes. This isn’t to say that I am (or anyone for that matter) is looking forward to the next failure, but knowing what to expect makes it slightly more bearable. Best of luck and even if there will be failures, I know for you, there will be many more successes. Like our boss says, fail often and fail fast. πŸ™‚

  15. John,

    Fear of failure drives us to be our very best selves. Your a prime example of someone leveraging that fear in order to go above and beyond the expectations of those around you. At the end of the day a little fear is a good thing and keeps you grounded. Cheers to the insight and those of us who’ve been there. Excellent post and keep pushing!

  16. Hey John,

    Superbly written, emotional post. Successful people always need something to drive them on. I similarly work hard because I want to be up to scratch. Keep working and you will get where you want to be!


  17. Phew…..Good to know I’m not the only one in their late twenties terrified of failure/disappointing mom.

  18. Fear is in our nature, and if we won’t feel fear we won’t be human.
    And fearing of failure… That can lead us to wiser decisions. The important, then, is to always be able to overcome it, and go knowing that also if we fail we will learn something.
    If not. If we stay quiet and do not take action, we will end complaining and feeling miserable… Which is worst than any failure.

    1. And thanks for everyone’s comments about the matter. Isn’t it great how we have the Internet to encourage each other like this? I don’t often see SEOers admit to a fear of failure. I always read stuff on what they’re working on, what they’re testing, and what was successful. But it’s nice to know the obvious: we’re human.

  19. All I typed into google was ‘I’m afraid I won’t be able to get a decent job’ and this page popped up. I never knew people could be so outspoken with their fears, so honest. I fear everyday that I’m not smart enough, not confident enough to stand out in the legal market, and as a result I’ll fail my partner who I hope to propose to, and the children I hope we have one day.

    Reading your blog and the many comments, I realise that fear can drive me rather than drag me down, and the anger I feel when I think I might fail those dearest to me ‘will’ make me succeed. I see this because of the honesty people have shown on here and I both thank and applaud them for it. But thank you John for getting the ball rolling.

    P.s – I fear failure and I’m not even out of university yet.


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