How To Overcome The Fear Of Failing

Do you fear failure? And because you fear failure do you never begin anything?

Perhaps you don’t even allow yourself the opportunity to try…because if you try hard and it doesn’t work then you’ll really feel like a failure.

Does this fear of taking action hold you back and sap away at your soul?

“What happens if I quit my job and can’t find another job?”

“What happens if I start a business and it fails?”  

“What happens if I ask the girl out and she rejects me?”

“What happens if I try to lose 20 lbs and only lose 10 lbs?”

We all experience the crippling overwhelm of fear. Which means it’s perfectly healthy.

Here’s a lesson for you that you can employ immediately: If you want to increase your rate of success, you must increase your rate of failure.

That means that I want you to fail and I want you to fail more often. Starting now.

Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player, had the following to say:

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

In other words, Jordan became the greatest basketball player of all time because he invested in his failures. He invested in his mistakes. He studied his losses, his missed shots, his errors in judgment. He practiced those situations, over and over again. He put in the effort because he was fearless of the result. He knew that you increase your rate of success if you increase your rate of failure.

So he put in the work. The rest speaks for itself.

When you feel paralyzed with fear or indecision, I invite you to ask yourself the following question. And I mean REALLY ask yourself:

“What’s the worst that can happen?”

You’ll see that there’s nothing on the other side of fear…just real life. The only thing that’ll be different is that you’ll have done something different. And that’s empowering.  

Let me share a little story…

When I became a SportsCenter anchor on ESPN, it wasn’t because I had a natural talent for being in front of the camera. In fact, before my first live appearance on SportsCenter, I’d never been on camera in a professional setting before!

As a kid, my mother brought home a video camera during one summer holiday. It was about 1990. She was a teacher and had access to the equipment since it wasn’t being used. My two younger brothers, Edward and Tristan, and I spent all holiday scripting fake news stories and recording them. I remember thinking to myself at the time, “One day I want to host my own TV show. I want to be in front of a camera and be a TV anchor.”

Twenty years later I was no closer to that dream. I still had no TV experience.

Randomly, a friend of mine reached out and told me he knew that ESPN was looking for an international anchor for its hit show, SportsCenter.

I reached out to the producer and managed to convince him to give me an audition. I was relentless. I knew what I wanted. I was fearless. And it worked. Then in quick succession I flew over to Bristol, Connecticut, put on my suit and tie and found myself sitting behind the iconic SportsCenter desk.

All I can remember are the blurred impressions of lights and cameras, the teleprompter person walking over and putting the earpiece in my ear, the director in another part of the studio talking to me in the earpiece…I could barely pay attention I was so nervous. “All I want you to do is just read the words in the teleprompter and speak into the camera,” the director said.   

Then fear came over me. Intense, self-loathing fear. The fear of failing.

“What happens if, after 20 years of wishing, I mess up this audition and completely flop?”

Then I experienced the other side of fear: “Or what if I really nail this and actually SUCCEED? That’d be worse! What if I get the gig but don’t live up to my own standards, or what if people start criticizing me?”

With all those voices in my head…let’s just say, I BOMBED.

I remember walking across the soundstage, watching the tape with the producer, and being told to go home.

Then the light turned on. Immediately, I knew I had to act. It was that flight or fight impulse. I had two choices:

  1. I could fly back home to Los Angeles, completely distraught and with my tail between my legs.
  2. Or I could ask for a second chance.

Both sounded terrifying. That’s when I asked myself, “What’s the worst that can happen?”

So I asked for a second chance.

The producer looked at me, probably out of sympathy, and told me to come back the next day at 3pm.

Sure enough, after countless hours of practice, I felt AWESOME. I was absolutely confident that I’d crush it the next day.

Which was true, until I sat down again at the iconic SportsCenter desk. The lights, the cameras, the assistant, the earpiece…

I felt utter panic and the stinging slap of humiliation.

The director was in my ear again: “Okay, James. Ready to begin in 5…4…3…2…”

Right before I was supposed to speak, I cut him off and asked for a minute to compose myself. In that minute I repeated, meditated almost, “What’s the worst that can happen?” Over and over again. Then I told myself, “Just do it like you’re pretending with your brothers in 1990.”

The rest is history, as they say.

“Good evening everyone, welcome to SportsCenter. James Swanwick here. Here to take you into the weekend with a smörgåsbord of sports. Let’s start with the NFL.”

And thus began my career as an ESPN anchor!

Look at the cereal box smile!

We all experience fear. We all live with fear. But what’s the worst that can happen? Ask yourself. If you just do it anyway, you’ll be surprised…not only will you survive but you’ll thrive. The outcome is meaningless. It’s that you did it that counts.

So just do it.

What’s the worst that can happen?  


James Swanwick

Australian-American entrepreneur & business coach. Founder of Swanwick Sleep, 30 Day No Alcohol Challenge, Host of the James Swanwick Show podcast, former SportsCenter anchor on ESPN.