The Single Biggest Obstacle to Your Success is…

by Tom Koulopoulos

The Single Biggest Obstacle to Your Success is...

Unlearning this peculiar behavior is the key to unlocking the potential of your dreams.

Entrepreneurship is like climbing Everest; you can make all the excuses you want about not having the skills, the endurance, or the equipment, but many people who have all of these still don’t even make it to base camp. Here’s why.

What if I told you that there was one thing about every entrepreneur I’ve ever met that was an absolute prerequisite to making that climb, would you do it? Stupid question, of course you would! But this one thing isn’t a skill you learn, instead it’s one that most of us have to unlearn.

I thought of this yesterday when someone asked me, “To what do you attribute your success?” It was a casual conversation and I didn’t feel the need to respond in any detail, so I just brushed it off, smiled politely, and said something relatively unassuming, “Good timing and a bit of luck.” But as I went about my day, the question kept coming back to me.

“You can make all the excuses you want about not having the skills, the endurance, or the equipment, but many people have all of that and still don’t even make it to base camp.”

Just like you, I’ve always been competitive, committed, and passionate. I’ve built a large portfolio of business skills. I’ve worked harder and slept less than many people. But let’s be real, there’s nothing exceptional about any of that. That’s all just table stakes for entrepreneurship. There is something more that’s needed.

Unlearning Fear

That’s when it dawned on me. It isn’t one particular skill or competency that drives success, it’s actually the lack of something which otherwise paralyzes the vast majority of people, namely the fear of failure. That peculiar type of fear is absent in the psychology of the entrepreneurs I’ve known.

Keep in mind that I’m not talking about the lack of all fear. Fear that is founded in reality and hardwired in our neurochemistry is there for the benefit of self-preservation. You need fear to survive; it helps you navigate the obstacles you are sure to encounter as you enter the future. But fear of failure is a different sort of fear. It is not a fear that helps you navigate the unknown, it is a fear that prevents you from taking the journey into the unknown to begin with.

And here’s the kicker, fear of failure is a learned response that we acquire very early in life. Scientists who study how the brain works have even given it a name, Atychiphobia. Amazingly, most of the brain’s energy is actually dedicated to processing fear, finding its patterns, and responding to them quickly and decisively. So, when we associate fear with failure, we create an incredibly constrained view of what is possible, not because we have actually weighed the benefits and risks of taking on a challenge, but instead because we simply have a perception that the risk is too great to even attempt it.

“But fear of failure is a different sort of fear. It is not a fear that helps you navigate the unknown, it is a fear that prevents you from taking the journey into the unknown to begin with.”

Management guru Peter Drucker once told me that the defining characteristic of all entrepreneurs was not that they were risk takers or gamblers but that they saw risk differently than everyone else. The risk of failure does not stop them from plowing a path into the future because in their minds the value of the journey and what they might achieve always outweighs the risks and overtakes their fear of failure. It’s not that they are fearless or dismiss failure but that they are more than willing to pay that price.

Breaking the Connection

So, how do you develop a lack of a fear of failure? It’s actually pretty simple. Rather than pulling away from your fear you move towards it by finding something that is so core to who you are or what you want that it is worth the risk and discomfort. It’s so compelling that you begin to associate the fear with the positive outcomes of your actions rather than the irrational perceived negative outcomes. You’re not erasing fear, just eliminating its connection to failure.

Think about this for a minute. How many things in your life have you avoided, set aside, ignored, or otherwise not pursued because you simply did not want to fail at them? These may be professional or personal. Maybe it’s a competition you never entered for fear of personal failure, a business opportunity that you passed by for fear of financial failure, or a relationship that you walked away from for fear of heartbreak. The bottom line is that all too often we jump ship for fear that we will go down with it–and many more never even leave the dock.

In my own life, there are so many instances where I forced myself to walk through the fear of failure because I so wanted what was on the other side. I was deathly afraid of heights and air travel, so I learned to fly planes; the freedom of flight turned the fear into adrenalized euphoria. I was terrified of not being financially secure, so I left a very well-paying corporate gig to start my own company; the ability to control my financial destiny for the rest of my life turned the fear into promise. I had an irrational dread of public speaking, so much so that I’d sweat profusely when I first started getting in front of audiences in my 20s. Yet, I kept speaking in front of larger and larger audiences until the ability to connect instantly with thousands of people turned the fear into intense anticipation.

“The bottom line is that all too often we jump ship for fear that we will go down with it.”

I’m not saying that the absence of fear of failure is a guarantee of success. But there are a few things that will guarantee you do not succeed, and a fear of failure is among the most lethal.

Go Where the Fear Is

When I think back to the success of my own Inc. 500 company, Delphi Group (not a typo, back then there were only 500, not 5000, fastest growing Inc. companies), there were plenty of reasons during the early days of our business to fear failure. Over $40,000 of credit card debt in the first year adequately proved that point! Every early step should have been stunted by the fear of failure. But we refused to let that stop us, and for everyone involved it was a magnificent journey that taught us to repeatedly go where the perceived fear was, because that was precisely where everyone else was unwilling to go.

As an entrepreneur, you have an obligation to yourself, and to those who buy into your vision–to find something so compelling that it overtakes the fear of failure, breaks through it to the other side, and ultimately transforms it into the fuel that powers your dream.

That is no small deed. It demands courage and perhaps a bit of foolishness. In our minds, fear of failure always seems very real. But overcoming it will inspire you and those around you to greater heights from which you can take in a vista that only dreamers, who have no fear of failure, will ever see.

This article was originally published on Inc.

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Thomas KoulopoulosTom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.

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