Fear of failure has a name: atychiphobia. Who knew? While that phobia is a rare, debilitating anxiety with serious mental and physical repercussions, many of us have a reluctance to take risks that might result in what we perceive to be a loss of respect, status, or careers. We also worry about spending time and money on something that doesn’t succeed, but those are only proxies for self-esteem. The problem is that without risk-taking and the failures that inevitably come with that, nothing truly new and innovative is created.

Regina Dugan, former Director of DARPA and now with Google, says in a TED presentation (See below.):

Scientists and engineers defy the impossible and refuse to fear failure…when you remove the fear of failure impossible things suddenly become possible…ask yourself this question, “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?”…we cannot both fear failure and make amazing new things.


Where would we be without airplanes, manned rockets into space, and the internet? Yet these inventions were the result of many prior failures. Dugan argues that risk-taking and failure are simply part of the inventive process.

One of the major barriers to risk-taking in organizations is leadership. Whether real or imagined, we worry that we will be judged harshly by leaders who want to hear only about successes. Many leaders intentionally and unintentionally send the message that failure is not tolerated. An exception to this kind of leader is Kyle Zimmer, head of First Book. In an interview with Adam Bryant of the New York Times, she talks about looking for the experience of failure in the people she hires. She says:

We want people who have tried things, and have failed, and have risen above it. Those indicators that you’re a builder are profoundly important. Because if you’re bright, and you’re a builder, and you’ve overcome the winds that blow against anybody trying to build anything, a lot of other things fall away, like defensiveness.

I’ll say, “Have you ever started anything? From the time you were little, did you invent anything? An organization? Did you start a club?” Then I’ll ask, “What was the hardest part of that? What about failure? Talk to me about failure.” I think that is really important, because if you’re pushing, you’re going to fail. If you’re pushing in whatever you’re doing, you’re going to fail way more than you succeed. It’s that old saying: “You can fail without ever succeeding, but you can’t succeed without ever failing.”

The culture we live in teaches us to fear failure, and I think that’s a huge mistake. When I look back over the history of our organization, the times we’ve been most creative were a result of the pressure of a failure or near failure.

Taking a risk without asking for feedback about the innovation is what should be feared. That truly would be a waste of time and money. Alison Provost, CEO of touchstorm.com, in 30SECONDMBA, talks about the importance of listening to your customers when trying something new. She says:

Ideas don't have to be perfect before you take them to the marketplace. In fact, the true process of innovation is the opposite of that. That essentially, you have your idea and you take it to the marketplace, and you sit with customers and you say, 'This is it.' And they say, 'No, we don't want it quite like that; we want it different than that.' And you adjust it. And you take it back to the office, and back to your folks, who then have to change the product and adjust as you go. And that's the nature of innovating. It's really the fundamental nature of creativity. It's moving in incremental bits to something that is market ready and market worthy. 

It’s not failure that’s the problem. That comes with the territory. The problem is failing to collect information about the innovation or not using data to make improvements and increase the likelihood of success in the future. If we are going to create new businesses and solve the most serious problems that we face as a society, we must continue to try things that have a high likelihood of failure. And we must evaluate what we do and learn from the information.