Alan Weissberger General

Abolishing the Fear of Failure- Do What You’re Afraid to Do!


On June 26th, Stanford Education & Psychology Professor John D. Krumboltz told a sold out Commonwealth Club-Silicon Valley audience to “stop being afraid of failure. Learn to accept and even enjoy it,” he said in his opening remarks. Prof Krumboltz is the co-author of the book, Fail Fast, Fail Often- How Losing Can Help You Win.  It was Oprah Winfrey’s favorite book for 2014.

The highlights of his short talk, along with answers to a few questions from the moderator (Alison van Diggelen) are summarized in this article. The points noted are relevant to start-up companies, entrepreneurs, job seekers, and people of all ages in managing their personal lives.

Key Messages from Prof. Krumboltz:

  • Don’t be afraid to fail. It’s how you feel about failure that matters.
  • Do what you are afraid of. Don’t let someone talk you out of doing that which you are afraid of.
  • Make failure a low cost proposition.
  • Learn from failures as well as successes.
  • If you learn something from trying, you did not fail.
  • What if you are rejected or criticized for failing? “People that reject or criticize you are NOT those you’d want to be with anyway.” Common Goals we should strive for:
    • Help others so that they don’t fail. [A film clip of Portland Trailblazers coach Mo Cheeks helping a 12 year old girl who had temporarily forgotten the words to the National Anthem was cited as an example of this.]
    • Learn to create more meaningful, satisfying lives. [Happy and successful people spend less time planning and more time acting. They get out into the world, try new things, and make mistakes, and in doing so, they benefit from unexpected experiences and opportunities.]
    • Listen to others concerns, then help them take the appropriate action(s). Recognize that people often need your help and with that, they can be successful.
    • Get people to take actions likely to generate unplanned opportunities.
    • Do what you fear and you will overcome that fear. Don’t just talk or read about it. Do it! “If it’s to be, it’s up to me.” he said.
    • Overcome unrealistic fears. [Prof. didn’t say how to do this]

Fears of Taking Risks when looking for a job:

  • Applicant is perceived to be over qualified.
  • If I fail (to get the job), others might refuse to talk to me.
  • Even if fear comes true (and you don’t get the job), you are no worse off.


Try to get over procrastination or avoidance of doing what you fear. Instead, go out and try it. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Focus on opportunities, not problems.

Selected Q & A:

1.  When is it OK to “call it quits” after numerous failures?

Answer: It’s OK to quit, but then try something else. Learn from your failure(s).

2.  When is it too soon to try again after a huge failure? [The question actually asked: “When is it too soon to get back on the horse after you’ve fallen off it several times?”].

The Professor didn’t answer this question. Instead, he recounted a horseback riding incident from his youth. He also reminisced about asking a 15 year old girl for a kiss when he was 14. That was a big risk for him at the time. She said that if they were to kiss, she was afraid they’d never stop. Even though, they didn’t kiss, the young John felt joyful and cherished that moment for the rest of his life.

Excerpt from the book Fail Fast- Fail Often:

Failing quickly in order to learn fast—or what Silicon Valley entrepreneurs commonly call failing forward—is at the heart of many innovative businesses. The idea is to push ahead with a product as soon as possible to gather feedback and learn about opportunities and constraints so that you can take the next step.

This mind-set is at the heart of the brilliant work of Pixar Animation Studios. When Ed Catmull, the cofounder and president of Pixar, describes Pixar’s creative work, he says it involves a process of going from “suck” to “non-suck.” The moviemaking process begins with rough story boards where a few good ideas are buried amid tons of half-baked concepts and outright stinkers. The animation team then works its way through thousands of corrections and revisions before they arrive at a final cut. By giving themselves permission to fail again and again, animators weed out the bad ideas as quickly as possible and get to the place where real work can occur.

As Andrew Stanton, the director of Finding Nemo and WALL-E , describes, “My strategy has always been: Be wrong as fast as we can. Which basically means, we’re gonna screw up, let’s just admit that. Let’s not be afraid of that. But let’s do it as fast as we can so we can get to the answer. You can’t get to adulthood before you go through puberty. I won’t get it right the first time, but I will get it wrong really soon, really quickly.”

Giving yourself permission to make a mess of things is particularly important if you do any sort of creative work. (We should note that all people are creative—which is to say that they live in the real world, form ideas, come up with solutions to problems, have dreams, and forge their own path; your own life is your ultimate creation.)

Author Alan Weissberger

By Alan Weissberger

Alan Weissberger is a renowned researcher in the telecommunications field. Having consulted for telcos, equipment manufacturers, semiconductor companies, large end users, venture capitalists and market research firms, we are fortunate to have his critical eye examining new technologies.

7 replies on “Abolishing the Fear of Failure- Do What You’re Afraid to Do!”

Alan, one of your best postings to date. This one has been invaluable to me as the founder of one startup.

MP. Thanks for your comment. I’ve emailed the Professor requesting clarification for the questions he didn’t answer. Will post his reply when and if I receive it. Hope others enjoyed this article.
All best, Alan

Alan, Good one and a very atypical post in this forum. I think most of us can appreciate Dr. Krumboltz’s speech.
There is a very key and practical point which needs repeating. “Make failure a low cost proposition”. In other words, if you fail make sure you can afford it! Often, not so easy to practice!!
I can add another one. Appreciate the people who encounter one too many failure. We, collectively and somewhat unfortunately, only remember the ones who have hit one big home run.

Reply from Prof. Krumboltz in response to my ? of when to “get back on the horse” after you’ve fallen off. The analogy is to someone who’s been laid off, been unjustly fired, or been employed by a start-up company that went belly up. In that case, when do you start searching for another job in the same field?

Dear Alan

Thanks for your thoughtful question and the article summarizing my talk. So you ask when to get back on the horse after falling off. There is no simple answer to that question. However, the metaphor is useful. If you are terrified of horses after that one experience, it might be valuable to find a well-trained horse which could walk slowly. Alterative actions need to be evaluated carefully, lessons learned from past failures re-considered, and then try again with what seems to be the best alternative at the lowest cost. Doing nothing is the worst decision. John

When to jump back in after failure is not an easy decision and requires careful consideration!

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