Fear and Failure

By Engr. Carlos V. Cornejo

Here’s a wonderful story on how to overcome our fears from the former US Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell from his best-selling book, “It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership”. It talks about fear especially the fear of failure and how we can learn to embrace those failures.

“I probably learned as much from failures and my naysayers as from my supporting rabbis. Failure comes with experience. I recall a few years ago speaking at an elite and very highly structured Japanese high school. The kids were from good families and mostly very bright. After my remarks, designated kids from the honor roll lined up to ask me questions typed out on cards and fully vetted by their teachers. After the first couple of questions, I turned away from the line and invited questions from anyone in the audience, with my eyes particularly focused on the back rows, where I used to try to sit. One girl about thirteen years old raised her hand, and I called on her. ‘Are you ever afraid?’ she asked. ‘I am afraid every day,’ she continued. ‘I am afraid to fail.’ How brave she was to ask that question in public in a very structured Japanese high school. Yes, I told her. I’m afraid of something every day, and I fail at something every day. Fear and failure are always present. Accept them as part of life and learn how to manage these realities. Be scared, but keep going. Being scared is usually transient. It will pass. If you fail, fix the causes and keep going. The room was deadly silent. Every one of the young high achievers had the same question in their mind, even if they were too scared to put voice to it.”

Two lessons we can learn from this story.  One is overcoming our fears and failures and second, the highly structured Japanese schools.  Gen. Colin Powell had the perfect reply to the young girl’s question.  Fear and failure will always be present in our lives.  They are like germs and viruses; they will always be present in our environment.  To overcome germs and viruses, we will just have to make our bodies healthy and strong so that when we get in contact with them our built-up defenses can repel these toxic organisms and not make us sick.  The same thing with fear and failure, they will always be our companions in life, but it’s our inner attitude towards them that matters.  Gen. Colin Powell went on to say, “Fear is a normal human emotion. It is not in itself a killer. We can learn to be aware when fear grips us, and can train to operate through and in spite of fear. If, on the other hand, we don’t understand that fear is normal and has to be controlled and overcome, it will paralyze us and stop us in our tracks. We will no longer think clearly or analyze rationally. We prepare for it and control it; we never let it control us.”

The second lesson is the highly structured Japanese school which basically means it is a school of cutthroat competition among students.  The students are expected to outperform each other, and if you don’t come out on top, you could be a failure or at least you would think you are.  And this I thought is the reason why that young girl asked that question because she just found herself under a lot of pressure to perform well and the same thing goes with her classmates.  This kind of school system is good on one hand such as producing top-notch world class students. But on the other hand, it could also destroy the psychological make-up of these fragile young people, if they could not perform as much as they would have wanted to.  Thus, you won’t be surprised to hear some Asian students killing themselves for their grades.  The lesson here is balance and moderation.  We should demand scholastic achievements from students (especially here in the Philippines where assessments from educational bodies abroad have given us a failing grade for our overall quality of education for quite some time now) but at the same time parents and teachers should give them assuring support and assistance in case they fail.  Students should be told that it is ok to fail as long as they have given it their best and they should not give up on their failures as Gen. Colin Powell has taught us.