In his illustrious boxing career, the late and very great Mohamad Ali was recorded as being officially knocked down (that is taking a count) four times.  Once was early in his career when he failed to take Henry Cooper seriously and was sat on his pants by Henry’s famous “ ‘ammer!”  Another time was towards the end of his career when a boxer called Chuck Wepner (famed for his dirty tricks) stood on Ali’s foot and hit him at the same time, sending Ali to the canvas.  Wepner is reported to have gone to his corner wildly celebrating and telling his manager to: “Start the car as they were going to rich and famous”.  Wepner was advised to turn round as Ali was getting up and looked mad and not ready to give up any time soon.  Sure enough, Ali continued to make boxing rings around Wepner before knocking him out in the final round.

This episode is a bizarre footnote to an illustrious sporting career, however it underlines an important point.  Champions are champions because they always get up and go forward from knockdowns.  In short, what ever the situation, role or opportunity the only way to stay in the game is get up.  Setbacks are just that unless we give up.  Anything worth achieving is on the other side of setbacks, knock backs, failures of every kind and the fear of failure.  The pathway to sustained long term success is to treat these experiences as part of the learning process.  A process that can fine tune your character, your skills, your self-understanding and offering into a winning combination.

There are two key components to bringing this all together.  These are:

  • Setting proper measurable goals and following these with passion.
  • Use failure as a learning experience and not a terminal event.

Properly set goals with well-formed outcomes provide both the motivation – the why – and also act a standard against which we can measure and refine our actions.  If we fail to set goals, then we are in effect undermining our efforts before we even start.  With properly set gaols then we can begin to deal with our fear of failure. 

So, what is fear of failure in this context?  I think that we fear failure for three key reasons:



We fear failure because from an early age we are taught to regard failure as disastrous personal event, not as a stepping-stone to eventual success.  We remember being laughed at for failing, not being applauded for trying.

We often misinterpret failure. We see it as an event rather than a process of learning.  As a result, we are crushed by the event, rather drawn forward by seeing how we can do it different next time.

We are often unprepared for failure and therefore find it difficult to deal with, since we do not form an accurate assessment of our goal at the outset and the steps need to get there.

So how successful people handle failure?

Firstly, they do not personalise failure or internalise it.  Failure does not make them think of themselves as talentless, worthless, idiotic, unlovable or anything else that you might that you are in the face of a setback.  Of course, this attitude does not mean that our fall-back position is to blame others or the circumstances in which we find ourselves for what has happened.  It means that we take an objective view of what happened, what we can learn from it and what we can do different next time.

Secondly, successful people regard failure as a temporary learning experience, not as a dead end.  As William Ward noted, failure “is a delay not a defeat.  It is a temporary detour, not a dead-end street.”  Of course, we may need to reset the sat nav. of our behaviour from our experience – driving into the same pot hole or cul de sac is not smart and it is not learning!


Thirdly, they regard each incident on its own merits and not as a perpetual or persistent state.  James Dyson went through 5,126 incidents until he got the ground-breaking vacuum to work.  If we regard failure in this way, then it is easier to break down and understand.  If we think that it never will work, then it won’t and our critical evaluation will be clouded over by this attitude.


 Successful people are always realistic about the task in hand.   If the goal is a massive one, then they prepare accordingly with stage goals and appropriate action steps.  They expect the challenges and risks to be in proportion to the task and they are not deterred by failures when they crop up.  They have a strong “WHY?”. In the case of Dyson, he was not deterred by over 5,000 leaning experiences and 15 years of effort.  One thing is for certain – if we fail to prepare then we are surely preparing to fail.

 Successful people also have a primary focus on their strengths.  It is for this reason that teams are so powerful in achieving success – they are the platform for people to exert their strengths to maximum effect for the good of the team, whilst being supported in their other areas by the other team members.  Failing teams are failing because they have failed to recognise this mutuality.

 Successful people are ignited by their passion.  For this reason, challenges and difficulties are viewed as obstacles that can be overcome rather than as roadblocks to end the journey.  Failures form a pinnacle of learning from which the way forward to final success can be better seen.

Finally, successful people are persistent in the face of challenges.  They don’t give up, they re- think, they ask questions, they relentlessly seek solutions.   They have perspective because they have objectively assessed what they want to achieve, and they have well-formed outcomes to hold them on course for success.

To sum up, the mistake we make is to think of ourselves as the failure.  We are not the failure – the way we tried to do something failed.  Failure is not personal, nor is a pervasive or persistent state.  Instead, it is a process or steppingstone to success.  Failure always feels worse, and things look worse when we are on our knees (possibly unless we are praying!).  Once we are getting up and moving forward then our perspective changes and we regain momentum.

Dealing with the "F" Word

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