Practical tips for overcoming the fear of failure – and success

Impostor syndrome, feeling misunderstood and pressure to stay on top can plague many academics. Magdalena Bak-Maier advises how to prevent them derailing your efficiency  

March 23, 2019
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Whether you’re in the first few years of your academic career or a seasoned professor, one thing never changes: rejection and failure hurt and chasing the next high of success will always come top on your agenda. The drive to prove oneself and be affirmed by one’s peers is deeply woven into the psychology of academic life. 

But fear can can often get in the way of these ambitions. Consider these two scenarios: you open your email first thing in the morning to find a message telling you that your latest paper has just been rejected. Critical comments from reviewers make you feel personally attacked, worthless or, at best, deeply misunderstood. Did you really fail so badly at conveying the novelty of the work? Could it be that you made such gross omissions in your study? You may feel sick, disappointed and most of all demotivated: a difficult position to recover from and go on to have a productive day.

Or imagine you’ve been working on a project for a while but things are not going well. You can’t help but feel that your very survival is linked to the results so you can’t quit now. Instead you work harder and longer to the point that you’re actually making mistakes. Work is no longer fun – it is a race and you can sense something nipping at your heels: another competitor, the risk of being scooped, the threat of loss of status or credibility or maybe even the scorn and isolation that success may bring. 

Every day, thousands of academics find themselves in these or similar situations. It’s no wonder that maintaining momentum as an academic is not an easy. Below are five tips that could help you overcome your fears and remain effective at work. 

1. Avoid starting the day by looking at your email. If you want to be effective and free from emotional hijacking, begin your day by focusing on something you want to do. Leave email for the afternoon. 

2. Make a list of what you want to achieve each day and keep it to two to three items only. Be specific and task-focused. Writing down vague goals such as “write a paper” are unrealistic and unhelpful. Instead, be more precise. For example, set out to brainstorm five killer titles for your next paper. That’s an important task because good titles help your citations and you can achieve it in less than an hour. Or, aim to tackle one specific section of the paper you’re working on. 

3. Learn to connect with your true feelings. Your mind may be telling you that you need to write a research proposal and so is your head of department. But if you examine how you feel about writing, you notice that your muscles weaken and you get a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach.  This is a perfect recipe for procrastinating without knowing why. Knowing and facing how you really feel gives you more options such as getting help to get started. 

4. Notice the internal narrator in your head and what it is saying. Fear of failure – and success – comes from the mind building a story around other fears. The voice could be saying “I will lose face” or “they will think I’m stupid” or even “I will be resented for saying the truth or grabbing the limelight”.  Addressing the unconscious fears underneath these statements will stop them hijacking your thoughts and motivation. 

5. Avoid isolation. The most frequent and misguided assumption I see academics have is that “everyone else is somehow doing better than me” or that “this is only happening to me”. If the person is already successful, they often fear losing that momentum. If they are struggling, they worry about what will happen to them. Battling such thoughts alone is dangerous. Find someone you can speak to and seek practical help.    

We wouldn’t expect Picasso to be Matisse, so dare to be you. Face your fears head on and remember that to be a scientist is to practise your art. 

Magdalena Bak-Maier is a senior fellow at the Higher Education Academy, an academic coach and founder at Make Time Count

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