Free Your Mind From Thoughts About Catastrophes

I recently wrote about the Zeigarnik-Effect and how we can use it to our advantage to (finally) get some peace of mind.

Today I want to dive into the idea of selective forgetfulness in a very specific context: Fear of failure, and the paralyzing effects it can have on us.

When we plan something new, we are often anxious. What if we mess up? What if everything goes wrong and it's all my fault? For many of us, the thought about failure and its consequences take up a lot of our mental capacity. This kind of pre-occupation with failure can be debilitating - and the more we think about it, the bigger the failure and its consequences become.

Is there a way we can free our thinking, while acknowledging the fact that things can go wrong, and that failure will have consequences?

One powerful question you can ask yourself or someone else is:

What's the worst thing that can happen, and can you handle that?

The question came up in a brilliant workshop facilitated by the equally brilliant Daniel Stillman, and I encourage you to watch the recording if you have the time.

Write down the worst possible outcome if things go wrong.

There. Now you have it right in front of you. Can you handle that?

If not, alter your plans. Modify your course of action in such a way that failure becomes just that tiny bit less devastating. And then try again.

Or, on the other hand, if you do think you handle the worst thing that can happen - so take a leap of faith, and accept failing an option. You can, because you know you'll be able with the fallout if things go wrong.

Thinking about this manageable consequences of failure will still make you uncomfortable, but chances are seeing them written out will make them look much less daunting. But if you're really afraid of failing, even if the consequences appear to be managable, it might be that the problem is not failure, but your fear of failure (kakorrhaphiophobia - I'm not making this up!).

Start looking for evidence that your environment is not safe. If there is no failure culture, and making mistakes will get you punished, failure itself is something that needs to be avoided at all cost.

If your environment is actually lacking in psychological safety, writing down possible consequences of failure can be a productive way forward: You can use this information to do a Pre-Mortem with all relevant stakeholders to make everyone aware of the risks the planned action bring, and get them to understand what's at stake.

And once your project is done - don't forget to check your answer to the question. Did something go wrong? Did the worst case materialize? And were you able to handle it?

You'll be surprised by our tendency to catastrophize things that haven't happened yet, but we're afraid of.

Published 2022~12~20