Kelly Poulson
Coach. Career Navigator. Ass Kicker. Dog mom.

When I scoped out the dictionary for a definition of failure, I found the following: "a lack of success; a falling short; a state of inability to perform a normal function."

It’s no wonder why failure has such a negative connotation. Throughout popular culture, we're taught that success is good and that failure is bad, despite the fact that failing is a part of life. Being afraid of failure is normal. Children, athletes and successful people from all walks of life fail on a regular basis. But it's not about the mistakes that we make, it's about how we overcome fear of failure.

My guess is I’m not alone in having a fear of failure; it is a challenge many of us face regularly. I’m happy to admit my fears, but I won’t let them get in the way of what I want. Being afraid of failing is one thing. Letting that fear of failure get in the way of your progress is another. Fortunately, fears are conquerable if you’re willing to go for it and do the work.

What do I mean by “the work”? These three things:

1. Do it anyway.

One of the best ways to get over your fear of failure (or atychiphobia, if you prefer a more clinic term) is to do whatever scares you the most; a little exposure therapy, if you will. Though I believe it is the best way, it is certainly not the easiest. You'll need to find the motivation to take risks and get out of your comfort zone. If you think you’re underqualified for that recently vacated job and are too scared to throw your hat in the ring, apply for the job anyway! Overcome the fear and let the hiring manager decide if you’re the right person for the job or not.

Don’t cut yourself off at the pass without giving an opportunity a shot simply because you have doubts. Doubts are there to encourage us to think through our actions, but they don't mean those doubts are valid or that we have to play it safe. Do you have an off-the-wall idea you’d love to share in a brainstorm, but are you also afraid the team might laugh at you? Speak up. By focusing on perfectionism instead of finding the confidence to be heard, you miss out on the team potentially loving that idea and bringing it to life, along with you getting all the kudos that come with that. If they laugh at you, you’ll feel weird for a few minutes. It’s not the end of the world. You'll develop the mental toughness to get over it.

We like to limit ourselves. Tell ourselves horror stories about what might happen if we put ourselves out there. Those stories are just believable enough to prevent us from trying or going after what we want. Unfortunately, we miss out on a lot of opportunities this way.

2. Remind yourself.

You’re capable of anything when you put your mind to it. Career success isn’t just impacted by things that you do while at work, pushing yourself outside of work can be equally impactful to your career.

Try new things outside of the workplace that you’re a little bit afraid of. Conquering a fear of karaoke might give you the guts to offer to lead that next presentation at the office. Exposing your plain palate to a new kind of cuisine could be the beginning of conquering your other fears. Attempting new endeavors is scary for a lot of us, but the awesome feeling that comes with the success at trying a new thing can carry over into other parts of our lives. It's that feeling that makes conquering your fears (and your fear of rejection) totally worth the risk. Overcoming fears helps us to build confidence and increase the willingness to attempt it again and again.

3. Get up and learn.

Sometimes, you will fall flat on your face. It happens to all of us at some point. The true challenge is how you choose to respond when it occurs.

Let’s say there’s a new project at work that you’re dying to take lead on. You’ve got your doubts, but you work up the confidence and tell your boss that you want that role on the team. Despite listing out your strengths, experience and how much the project means to you, your boss hands it to your colleague and says that they don’t feel you’re up to the task. Oof.

It hurts. You feel slighted. You feel silly. Maybe angry. But what you do next really determines who you are. You could become bitter, be snarky with your colleague, badmouth your boss and maybe start looking for something new. Or, you could thank them for the consideration and ask questions about what it is that you need to do differently to be considered for the next opportunity. Make it clear that you’re eager to take on more and want to hear that feedback in order to learn and grow.

We all want to be successful, or at least viewed as successful by our peers. We have life goals, career goals, dreams and efforts that we put time into and don’t want to miss out on. By not fully putting ourselves out there and chasing those goals, we’re less likely to achieve them. By telling the world about them and going for it, we run the risk of looking silly or being rejected if we don’t achieve our goals.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t? Let’s see about that. I think it’s time to go out there, be brave and face those fears head-on. You never know where you’ll end up. It may be somewhere magical.


Kelly is a human resources pro and coach who helps people find and achieve what they want career-wise and beyond. Coaching, training, recruiting – if you name it in the world of HR, she's done it in a variety of industries. Her advice has been featured on The Muse, Career Contessa, Levo, Workology, among others. Learn more by scoping her out at