Career Center Blog

August 27, 2013

4 ways to avoid the 'fear of failure' spiral


Let's talk about failure for a moment. Sure, it's not an easy subject, but anyone seeking a new job or a more in-depth career change will have to absorb and learn from a lot of perceived "failures" before finding success.

Failure happens to every one of us, but our winner-take-all culture still makes us a bit squeamish when talking about its existence and its necessity in the learning process. In their 2011 book, "Missed Ops: When Opportunity Knocks ... Know What Not to Do," authors Keith Nelson and Anthony Rienzi, both former law-enforcement agents turned career coaches, discuss how failure and rejection are just stepping stones on the path to achieving our career goals -- as long as they are recognized and not taken personally.

In their book, Nelson and Rienzi list four ways to respond to, manage and even embrace the inevitable rejections and setbacks that are part of the job-seeking process.

Don't dwell on fear. Often, the fear of failure alone becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, say Nelson and Rienzi. If you're terrified of saying the wrong thing in a phone screen, you're likely to tighten up and seem nervous to the interviewer.

"Success is not limited by failure or rejection," the authors write. "What hurts our chances for success is the fear we feel. ... If you let the fear of failure prevent you from following your dreams, you will never succeed."

Fail forward. The best pro athletes are the ones who spend hours reviewing game tapes to analyze flaws in their performance. The same can be done for resumes that were rejected or interviews that went poorly.

Think back on how you acted or were perceived during these setbacks, and see if you can discover behaviors to avoid. Once you realize that something you did in an interview was wrong, you're halfway to the goal of getting it right the next time.

Avoid excessive revisions. Learning from your mistakes is a crucial way of avoiding them in the future, but it's possible to overdo it -- especially if you try to make too many changes at once.

"Overthinking can yield diminishing returns," the authors write. "The more times you revisit a topic after putting in an adequate amount of effort to research it, the more you run the risk of getting bogged down in an overload of too much information."

Be persistent. One of the toughest challenges in conducting a sustained, focused job search is finding the motivation to operate on a high level for weeks or months on end. After a resume is customized, a cover letter and application are submitted and a phone call is made, the steps of the process can develop a momentum to keep you going.

The hard part is when all of these avenues have led to dead ends, and you have to start the process over again. That's when job seekers need that extra spark. The authors liken it to a car battery that gets an engine cranking so it can move forward on its own, and recharge the battery in the process.

"Persistence is pivotal in keeping you moving in the right direction, and the value of persistence comes from visualizing your future," Nelson and Rienzi write. "Being specific about every vivid detail of what you want in life will allow you to develop a never-quit attitude."

Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.

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Karen Burns Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.

Kristen Fife Kristen Fife is a senior recruiter, career mentor, blogger and resume consultant based in the Seattle area.

Lisa Quast Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.

Randy Woods Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.

Former contributors

Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.

Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.

Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."


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