In business the number one reason people don’t pull their triggers is fear. Everyone has fear of failure, even people who have lots of successes in their businesses. Nobody ever really gets over it. On today’s The Startup Chat we discuss how to move past fear and change your thinking.

Today’s points of our conversation:

  • Why you need to face fear head on.
  • What we can learn from young children.
  • How to cope with social programming.
  • How to acknowledge, accept, and push on through fear.
  • How to find the balance of fear and reality.
  • How to reprogram your thinking.

If you want some resources for how to overcome your fear shoot us an email and we’ll be glad to hook you up!

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As always, you can hit us up on Twitter @Steli or @hnshah, #thestartupchat.


Steli: Hey, everyone. This is Steli Efti.

Hiten: And this is Hiten Shah. And on today’s episode we’re going to talk about the fear of failure and how to get over it. And I’m going to hand it off to Steli because he really wanted to talk about this, and I think it was based on an experience he had recently.

Steli: Yeah. So yesterday I was speaking at an event. And then at the end of the – it was a Q&A session, an interview session on stage. At the end of it, there were a lot of people that were asking great questions, so I had a lot of fun. And the last question that was asked, that person basically said: hey, Steli thanks for sharing all this stuff, blah, blah, bah. It seems like you have figured out a way to not be afraid of failure anymore. It seems like you had lots of failures and you’ve overcome that. And you’ve preserved through it and now you’re successful.

And it seems like the fear of rejection, the fear of failure is something that you’ve learned to leave behind you, and you’ve kind of grown beyond. How did you do that because I’m still terrified and afraid to fail? And I was so grateful for that question. It was a very honest one. It’s an uncomfortable question to ask, especially the way – with the level of honesty that he asked that question. But I was not just happy that he asked about fear of failure, because I think this is such a huge thing, and that I would share some of my experiences and learning there.

But I was glad that he asked in the way that he did because it gave me an opportunity to clarify something. The first thing that I said and responded to is that I am still afraid to fail. And I don’t like rejection, and I don’t like failure. And I’m sometimes bummed that I can come across as if I am this person that has gone beyond this, and that I don’t have these emotions. I’m very sensitive to lots of people like us Hiten that have a lot of visibility, and share a lot of our experiences.

Even people – some people I think are full of bullshit, and full of shit, some people are on a spectrum of more or less authentic in how vulnerable, they share what they truly believe. I know that we both try every day to be as honest and as authentic as we can, and I’m trying to get better at this every day. But I think one of the big problems is that people are listening to people like me on stage, and they get this like misconception that I’m not afraid of fear, afraid of failure anymore and I’ve gone beyond this. So they’re like how can I get there as well, which I think is unrealistic, or they feel like they’re not enough.

They’re like I’m not this type of Steli dude that is not afraid of anything anymore, so of course I’m not succeeding, which I think is wrong. So I want to talk about the fear of failure, and talk to you about this, and kind of how I deal with this fear and the tactics I’ve used and the experience I’ve had. Because I do think that I am coping and managing the fear of failure and rejection a lot better today than I used to, that’s why I am, I think, more successful today than I used to. And I’ve gone – I’ve learned a ton of things around this, but I wanted to preface this discussion, at least on my end, by saying that being afraid of things in life is just part of life. And I don’t think you can get completely beyond that.

And I think you need to accept that and be okay with it. You need to be okay with these emotions and find a way to deal with them, and to honor them, and to work around them, versus trying to kill them or grow to some like superhuman level, where you are never afraid of failure or rejection because I think that’s unrealistic. And I’m serious to hear if you would agree and what your response to this is?

Hiten: Yeah. I mean, it is so hard to start something new. And I hate the word hard. And this is the truth because you’re starting from nothing and you’re trying to create something, and the gap between nothing and something is literally vast unlimited space. And you need to have lots of opinions, data, or whatever, to actually – not even an opinion, but like validated learnings and all this stuff, even if it’s something really small you’re trying to start, even if it’s something new, or something old that you’re trying to add on top of, like it’s this idea of creations.

It’s like, you know, when an artist looks at a blank canvas; sometimes they just don’t end up with anything they love, right? And they didn’t – it’s kind of like if they have a blank canvas and they never start, they’re never going to produce anything of value. And so this fear is like so – I think it’s just deep rooted in humans. But I’ll say one thing, and I know we’ve talked about this before, but a child doesn’t have that same fear.

Steli: Yep.

Hiten: A child just goes. You know, we both have children. I know a lot of people listening have children, or even if you don’t have children, you watch children all the time. I’m talking about like under thigh, let’s just say, they don’t care. Like, they just – they just go do it. And you’re just like are you kidding me, like you just did that? And you just fell, and you started bleeding, and then you got up again and kept going, didn’t it hurt? Didn’t it matter? Weren’t you scared? And it’s like no. Like, even before you know it they’ve moved on, right?

Steli: Yeah.

Hiten: It is amazing to watch that. And I think many of us that have children probably realize that we just need to fail more. And we need to just get – you know, do something, fall down, bleed, and just get up and go, and not even worry about the pain, right? And this is not even real physical pain, this is mental pain. This is like the idea that even before you get started, you’re going to fail. And you don’t want to go start something with that idea in your head. You want to start something, do something with the idea that you will be successful at it.

Not even you will be successful at it, if you want to go even further and Tony Robbins’ it, you want to say that you’re already there and you are successful, even if you’re not there yet. And I think that a lot of this failure and fear of failure, we all have it. it’s just like what I think we talked about on some episode about public speaking and stuff like that, where both of us, like before we get up on stage, yeah, we’re super nervous. One of the best tips I heard, besides imagine everyone in their underwear and all that kind of crap is like change that – and you might have told me this. I don’t remember.

Steli: Yes.

Hiten: Turn that anxiety into excitement. And that’s been one of the most valuable things that helped me, and I think it applies to this whole concept of failure and fear of it. It’s like why would you want to start something with this fear in your mind? Why don’t you start something with this excitement that you will figure it out, or you’ve already figured it out, and then approach it like that.

Steli: So I love that and I agree with that. And I’ve been playing around with this concept of – or the way that I’ve been describing this is like emotional alchemy. You have an emotion that is disempowering, and you turn it around into something that’s empowering. So the difference between excitement and fear, in terms of the emotion, the sensation you feel in your body, there’s no difference other than context, the way you think about it, but it’s the same sensation.

And so I – you know, I think that one of my main messages is this, so my main approach when it comes to fear of failure, I do think that it’s a learn trait, but I also think it’s a very human thing. And it’s hard wherever you are when you listen to this, to just go: oh, since I’ve learned this, and I didn’t have it as a child, I can just decide that I don’t have it anymore and boom it’s gone. So I think that that is a nice idea, but I think it’s an impractical one for most people.

And we talked about this children thing with like kids – you know, babies when they try to learn to walk and they keep falling down, they don’t at some point go: alright, fuck it. I can’t walk. I’m not a walker. I give up. This is stupid. I look like an idiot. Like, they don’t have that kind of self awareness and ego to be like reflecting on this and being like: okay, if I don’t look amazing at the first attempt at something, I will just never do this. I will just never do this again.

They’re okay with failing and failing lots and lots of times because they just don’t have that inner dialogue and social pressure that they put on themselves to be reflecting on what is everybody thinking about me? And then coming up with some really horrific things that you make other people say about you or think about you in your head. They haven’t learned that mind fuckery yet, but you have. Most of us have in some way or another, so how do you deal with this? I think that one is that you face that fear.

And I do believe that you get stronger over time. Just like if you were – you know, if you do weight lifting, or if you do any kind of physical activity, if you life something heavy, something light will feel heavy the first time, and the more you do it, the stronger you get. And these light things feel light now and you are able to kind of progress to heavier things. And the same thing with your fear sand your fears of failure, the more often you face it, the less sensitive you are around it.

And the things that most people would be afraid of failing might be things that for you and me today it’s hard to relate to because we’ve faced that fear so many times and survived that today we’re not afraid of that anymore. But there might still be other things, maybe in personal life, maybe in other areas in our lives that we are afraid to face. And I think when you feel that fear it’s important to acknowledge it and go sometimes you know what, it’s fine to feel this way and I’m going to activity anyways.

I don’t have to – if I can make myself brave, then that’s awesome, if I can motivate myself and pump myself up to change the way I feel about this. And this is the public speaking hack we talked about, where if you feel that nervous energy inside of you, release it, so when you go on stage speak louder, be more animated, release that energy, don’t try to contain it. And you’re going to instantly feel better and you’re going to calm down. And you’re going to be excited, and motivated, and inspired, and pumped up, versus being nervous and flustered on stage.

And I think the same thing applies for when you’re afraid of failing at something, which prevents you usually from taking the first step, is just acknowledge that emotion and I go okay, I feel I have all this inner tension, all these like thoughts that are pulling me in all directions. I am afraid. And then just tell yourself: alright, I’m afraid and that’s fine because everybody that did this was afraid, too. And I’ll learn to activity despite my fear, versus being held back by it.

Hiten: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I’ve found your advice to be some of the best around getting through that failure, so I totally agree. The thing I would add is that, I just go back to this concept that like anytime you feel that fear, or feel that fear coming on, find a way to balance yourself, because basically an imbalance, right? The fear is coming out of this thing, this idea that you’re going to fail because you’re trying something, you’re actually trying something.

I actually have a book on this because a lot of the failure and fear has to do with creativity often time, because it takes creativity to start something and, you know, do something. So there’s a book, it’s called – I might have suggested it before – it’s called The War of Art.

Steli: Yeah, you mentioned this before.

Hiten: It’s a Steven Pressfield book. I’ve read it multiple times when I get this massive fear built up. And it basically just, for lack of a better word to say it, like a lot of people in Boston have this saying JFDI: just fucking do it. And they actually have a hash tag, and I think it’s from Boston if I’m not mistaken because all of my friends from Boston use it. But that’s really what it is, and that book will help you get motivated. It’s The Art of War by Steven Pressfield. And yeah, it will help you get in that mindset of: oh, everyone feels this, and I just need to get balanced.

And I really feel the word is balance for me, where if I’m too off, too excited or too fearful, then there’s just different versions of paralysis. I might be too sloppy honestly, if I’m too excited about something when I’m trying to create. And if I’m too fearful it will totally prevent me from doing the right thing or even starting at all. And so this fear of failure is like one of the most common problems probably have, whether they’re founders, team members, or anything like that. I think it’s like massive.

Do we have some examples of like the common times when people have it? Obviously, public speaking, I already got a great approach there that again, you interested me to. Are there other examples that you think of around failure that are common?

Steli: Yeah. I think that people are afraid to be rejected in situations like reaching out to a customer, either through an email, or a call, or even in person when they are at an event, going to somebody and introducing yourself and pitching, putting yourself out there saying: hey, you might be interested in what we’re doing. We’re doing XY and Z, are you – could you imagine becoming a customer? So a lot of times people are afraid of the potential failure or rejection, like I’m going to try to sell you on my idea, my product, my service, and you are going to say no to me.

Hiten: Right.

Steli: And that stops them often times from even doing it, or trying it, or attempting it.

Hiten: Yeah, I totally agree. I think that’s a huge one. So what should people do?

Steli: I think that when it comes to that, again I think you need to tell – like, I think that most people need to just accept and tell themselves that everybody doesn’t like – nobody likes rejection, and that’s fine, but to build a business, and to do anything of significance in life, you are going to have to face it, even if you don’t like it. And also realize that rejection, a way to reframe it is that every single rejection will get you closer to the yes or success, right? Failure is part of success to a certain degree. So I think that when it comes to being afraid of sending an email because you’re not going to hear back or you’re being rejected, the best medicine there is just to do it anyways.

And to realize that if you do it often enough, you’ll have success. And once you know what your success and your failure rate is, I would actually advise you to focus on failure and not on success, and reprogram yourself on that term. So sort of trying to, if you know when I approach ten people one person says yes and nine people say no. Instead of focusing on that one person that says yes and trying to get that person, I would reprogram myself and say, a little hack that you can use it to say: you know what, my job every day is to get nine rejections, to get nine people to say no. because I know if I get nine no’s on average I will a new customer every day, or every week, or whatever it is. And you’ll see your job as in collection the rejection, and not as in getting to the success.

Hiten: And so you almost flip it and basically embrace the suck as some people say, and make the success all about the failure, basically.

Steli: Yes.

Hiten: You’re reframing it in a way. And I know you’ve you said this before, but it sounds like something that really works with sales and cold calling and even like inside sales and things like that, right?

Steli: Yeah, absolutely. This is a very like sale – very practical things in sales to do.

Hiten: I really like it. So I got a little bit of a loaded question for you on that.

Steli: Okay.

Hiten: Is that how your sales teams run, like at Close,io, is that what you tell people, whether it’s Close,io or your customers, is that really like the way you guys actually think about it and how the team thinks?

Steli: It depends on your sales process. So when we were running ElasticSales, yes. Because so – well, basically let me reframe this. If you face rejection at a very high frequency, and this is very common when you do outbound sales. It’s less common when you do inbound sales, or when you do cold sales. You’re going and you’re cold calling, or you’re cold emailing people, you’ll have a massive rejection rate, versus if you do some marketing. People come, they sign up for a trial, and then the most qualified out of those trial people, they get connected to your sales team.

The rejection rate that that team is going to face is going to be much lower, but also the amount of selling they have to do is much less. So in our case, for our team, no, they don’t focus on – they don’t focus on the rejection rate day in and day out, but they also don’t focus on the success rate. They focus on a lot softer things because the inbound following that we have is one where they don’t have to face a massive amount of rejection. But when it come sot their personal growth, or when it comes to the skill sets that they have to require, even the sales team, the number one thing they are focused on personally is the thing they are most afraid of, the thing that is most difficult for them.

So we’re trying to put people in a situation where they have to face that fear and reprogram that. When it comes to ElasticSales that was very much how would we would run campaigns. And when it came to a lot of the campaigns we were running for our customers, we would train the team. And I’ll give you even a more specific example. I wanted to give this anyways, but I’ll pretend that it is the – that it relates to this.

Hiten: Yeah.

Steli: And it’s an example of one specific sales manager that we had at ElasticSales that was this fearless person. And he has the most – the craziest humor. And he would be like witty as fuck, and cynical as fuck. And he would give everybody shit and he would make me look stupid. He was just an awesome – he is an awesome dude, like really really amazing human. Very fearless in the way that he interacts and interacted with people. But when he was cold calling for clients, he would just turn into this totally different person. And he would just be soft and weak, and tentative, and easily give up, and be this totally different timid person.

And he was aware of it. We were aware of it. I tried all kinds of things to help him get over that, but for some reason when he was on the phone, his fear of failure and rejection, and his discomfort with that situation turned him into a totally different person. So eventually, I made him do this little hack. This is something that practically people can do if they really struggle with that fear and that rejection of a specific situation. And that is I made him make his worst fear a reality. So what I did is I mandated him failing on every call on purpose.

So for example, I would have him make 30 calls, and on each call when somebody – when the call connected, I would have him stutter really badly, or speak very very slowly, so slowly that people would just hang up on him. And he was like seriously I really have to do this? And I demanded it of him. And it was the weirdest thing ever, like the entire sales room got quiet. He would be on these calls sweating. You could see his face was in like dear pain as one person after the other would hang up on him. And then after 20 or so of these types of calls and him being like physically suffering through this, at some point I stepped in.

I looked at him and I went: alright, the next call, I want you to do the best job you can. I want you to close them. Just do your best job, stop stuttering, stop speaking so slowly, just have a normal sales conversation. And that was it, the next call he was charming, eh was funny, he was having a good time. He had faced the fear of being hung up on and rejected, and performing really poorly in front of everybody at such an extreme level that speaking to people normally now seemed like this incredibly easy thing to do. And he kind of los that fear, like what’s the worst thing that can – I already was the worst version of myself.

And when I just try to be good, like the worst thing that can happen is they hang up on me. I already experienced this 20 in a row; it can’t be worse the next time when I actually talk to them. And he turned things around. And all of a sudden he became this charming, witty, smart ass, self confident version of himself, and he kind of left that fear behind. But he had to fully fail to know that he can survive that and it’s not that bad, and to be able to go and succeed.

Hiten: That’s really powerful. Yeah, so it’s basically, again embrace the suck. And I think you gave us a solid example of how to do that in sales. Alright, I think we’re about at time, so –

Steli: Can I just –

Hiten: Yeah.

Steli: Can I propose something that’s unusual for us to end the episode on?

Hiten: Hell, yeah.

Steli: I know we have five more minutes, so we’ll make this quick. So instead of ending on tips, if people want more tips or more things, just shoot us email or Tweet us, we’ll share more books, resources, stories, whatever we can do to help you with your field failure. Because facing it, overcoming it, getting better at it, is going to be the key for a lot of the things you want to accomplish in the world. So we want to be part of that.

Hiten: Yes.

Steli: But here’s something that I want propose and experiment to do. On this episode, what do you think if we ended it with sharing a time where we were afraid of something?

Hiten: Yeah, let’s do it. Go for it.

Steli: Alright. So I’ll share an example, a big one and a small one. So for me, when I first came to the U.S. ten years ago, I started a company called Super Cool School. It was in the education space. And I thought it would be my legacy and the reason I exist, and the thing that would change the whole world. And I was so passionate about it and so attached to it that a year a two into it I started realizing that it’s not succeeding. I started realizing and doubting myself. And three years into it I was burned out.

But I – the thought – so it was not fear of failure that stopped me from starting it, but it was fear of failure that stopped me from stopping that business. The fear of telling my family and my friends, and everybody around me that I accepted defeat, and that this company wasn’t working, it was so strong that it kept me going for two and a half to three years longer than I should.

Hiten: Wow.

Steli: I already knew this isn’t working and I still kept going because the thought of telling people and being a failure publically and admitting failure was so terrifying to me that I just tried to keep myself in this like zombie zone of just keep going, although I don’t know why I’m still going at this. And it was a horrible thing to do, and I destroyed value, and money, and time, and energy, and I burnt myself out, and it was the wrong thing to do for my team. It was all around a horrible decision that lead to nothing good back then, other than if I can share this story with others and help people when they think they are ready to stop.

I know this is more of a starting episode, but if you’re doing something and you’re afraid of failure and admitting failure, I know how that feels and I pushed that to the extreme. So yeah, this is a story, I can come up with 100 more, but I want to keep this short. But this was a time where I was really afraid to publically admit failure, although I already internally accepted failure. And it was such a strong fear that I did something for three years that I didn’t want to do anymore.

Hiten: Yeah. I like that. That’s really good because it’s not just an example of starting, right? it’s like one of the most common ones, which is I have a fear of what people are going to think of me because I know what I’m doing isn’t going to work.

Steli: Yep.

Hiten: And you wasted two and a half three years. I’m sure you learned a bunch of stuff in that time, but you might have done it for the wrong reasons, right?

Steli: We have an episode, episode 17 on the art of quitting. It’s like a framework of when to know when to stop, and hopefully this episode can help people that are struggling with this.

Hiten: Yes. Okay, so I’ll share mine. So mine is much more recent. And the outcome has been that my partner and I, my business partner and I, she and I – we prevented ourselves from launching things that we charge for, for no good reason. And it was probably because we thought that if we put it out there it had to be perfect. We also thought that if we put it out there and it didn’t work that it would look bad for some reason. And then this is like within the last two or three months. So over a two day period, we were dealing with this, like after – after unknowingly deal with this for probably weeks, maybe even a couple months.

And then we just said fuck it. And then we wrote a bunch of copy, and we put it up as service. And it lead to many wonderful things including a failure on it, but it lead to a lot more positive things. And now we’re like ready to launch lots of stuff. And we’re not as afraid at all. There’s still a little tinge of that, and we’re working through it for a number of a reasons. I think both of us tend to be a little bit on the perfectionist side on a bunch of this stuff for some reason, and we don’t help each other with that. But yeah, it was a real fear.

It was a fear that we’d put something out, it wouldn’t be right, and we’d be either embarrassed, or it just wouldn’t work, and then all that effort was for not, when if we would have just done that two months ago, we would be much further along by now, and so that realization has really been a driver and we just pushed the thing out. And I’m sure it could have been better, but it was wonderful to actually push it out and deal with whatever came next. And so I think you don’t get to what’s next if you stay in that fear zone and don’t activity. And so for me the lesson was just activity, and just do stuff, and don’t worry so much about whether it’s going to work or not, as long as you feel like it’s the right thing to do.

And it was never a question of this is the right thing to do for us, it was more a question of like: oh, is it right? Are the detail perfect, blah, blah, blah? And then we started getting into the whole fear around it, and so we’ve sort of gotten over it, still working through it. Even today, I still have like these – you know, some of it is even what some would call like limiting beliefs around it, of like putting something out and it not working. And so yeah, I’ve had to get over that.

And my biggest tactic has just been like am I doing this or not doing this out of fear? And if that’s the case, then I really think hard and say wait, how can I make a decision that involves no fear? And that’s been really helpful to me.

Steli: That’s a powerful thing. Yeah, fear can be a compass, too.

Hiten: Yes.

Steli: So I love that. Man, thank you so much for sharing this.

Hiten: Yeah, same.

Steli: Thanks everybody for listening. And if you guys are afraid of failing, if you are afraid of anything else, and you want to talk, share your story, share your wisdom with us, just reach out to me and Hiten. We’d love to hear from you. And if we can do anything to help, you know, you overcome your fear of failure, then it’s our pleasure, that’s what excites us, so let us know, reach out. And that is it from us for this episode.

Hiten: Absolutely. Bye.

Steli: Bye.

[End of Audio]

Duration: 29 minutes