How to Overcome the Fear of Failure

Posted on in On Our Radar by Louis Chew

Living in Permanent Beta


“We are at our most alert when we are in danger of failing. The greatest growth comes from being alert, scared, and striving.”

—Dan Sullivan

The fear of failure is not talked about much, but it is very real. Some of us grew up in cultures of perfection where only pure, untainted success would do. To retain your reputation as an achiever, you must reach every goal and never, ever make a visible mistake.

For that very reason, we stick to the tried and tested even though it’s not always the best available option.

Not long ago, that was the way I operated. I wouldn’t venture something new for fear I would fail. Accompanying that failure were disappointment, frustration, and shame—all of which I didn’t want to bear. I saw failure as a death blow rather than just a series of jabs I could recover from.

Over time, the fear of failure became crippling. I lived on past achievements, no matter how small. As I stopped experimenting and hence growing, I was regressing relative to my peers. Not just in how well I was doing in school but also as a person.

And guess what? I was just a teenager, stuck in school and sheltered from the harsh realities of life. Yet I was already afraid of failure.

I couldn’t continue living like that. Nobody can in today’s world.

I was fortunate enough to experience, and subsequently escape, this dangerous line of thinking early in my life. Others have been ensnared by the fear of failure their entire lives.

face on the lap top

Permanent Beta

How do we overcome the fear of failure?

Look no further than the cofounder of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman. In his book, The Start-up of You, Hoffman urges us to be in a state of “permanent beta.” To the uninitiated, beta refers to a stage in development where a product is being tested through constant experimentation and use. During this stage, an imperfect product is released to a select group of testers for feedback. This way, problems can be quickly surfaced and corrected.

Only after most errors are resolved is the final product released for general use.

When we approach life from the framework of permanent beta, failure is not something we have to avoid. Rather, it’s part of the process. Every failure and setback during this period of beta is immediate feedback on what’s working and what’s not. There’s nothing to fear about failure because it is not an indictment of our capability and potential—it’s simply an evaluation of our progress.

It’s not easy to discard the security of perfection. Doing so opens ourselves to criticism and rejection. However, this seemingly lopsided exchange is another trade of short-term pain for long-term gain. We accomplish more in a year living vulnerably than we would in 10 years living cautiously. We keep failing forward.

The best startups often release their product, even though imperfect, for beta testing to improve quickly. Even then, development takes far longer than expected. Gmail, for example, launched in 2004 but only left official beta in 2009, even though millions of people were already using it.

If Google can spend five years experimenting with a product that may constitute only a negligible percentage of their revenue, you can spend your entire lifetime experimenting on something far more important—you.

An Experiment in Learning

Failing forward means putting out work that isn’t perfect. Your aim isn’t to produce the Mona Lisa; rather, you want to just ship a minimal viable product and get started. You aren’t afraid of failing because you know it’s not your magnum opus—there’s more to you than that.

Start a side hustle or pet project. That allows you to explore something that you normally wouldn’t do. It’s also not a radical change, which allows you to sustain your interest without being overwhelmed by practical concerns. Beyond the skills you learn, you’ll also overcome the fear of failure since you are thrown into the deep end of the pool. You’ll eventually learn to tread water with your constant struggling.

Writing is my personal pet project. Through it, I can document the challenges that I face. I can journal my learning and personal growth. It is not on the level of Tolstoy. It does, however, serve its purpose of allowing me to create something unique to me and helps me grow by forcing me out of my comfort zone. Most of all, it’s an act of creation, not just one of consumption.

Work in Progress

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, concludes every annual letter to shareholders by reminding them that “it’s still Day 1” of the Internet and of

In the same vein, we should all be allowing ourselves to be a work in progress. Keeping yourself in permanent beta forces you to acknowledge that you have bugs, that there’s new development to do on yourself, that you’ll need to adapt and evolve. It’s a lifelong commitment to continuous personal and professional growth.

For entrepreneurs, finished is an F-word, because they know that great companies are always evolving. Finished ought to be an F-word for all of us. Because when it comes to life, we are all works in progress.

Louis Chew shares stories and ideas on learning, self-improvement, and personal growth. Subscribe to his newsletter to connect more deeply and to read his latest articles on how we can lead purposeful and productive lives.

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