Have you noticed how often people draw back from trying something new because of fear? Fear that they might not make it; fear that the outcome will not be as good as they hope that it will be; fear that change may prove that what they’ve been doing until now isn’t as good as they’ve made it out to be; fear of being seen to make a mistake—even if that error is essential to finding the correct answer. This fear of taking risks in life risk stymies all too many people, especially those who have tasted success in the past. Successful people like to win and achieve high standards, so they become deeply invested in their continuing success. and in their past track record. That’s what makes them frightened of failure. They don’t care to put their reputation as a “winner” at risk—so they stay in their comfortable rut, missing all kinds of opportunities for an even brighter future.

This is very sad, and it’s an easy trait to fall into. After all, when things seem to be going well, we generally decide to stick with what is so obviously working. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” the saying goes. Paradoxically, whenever things are going well may be exactly the right time to take some risks and make a few changes. The reasons?

  • Life changes. If you’re doing well now, the only way (usually) is down, so it’s time to find a new way to prosper, before the old one gives out.
  • Change needs resilience, and resilience is born of confidence. When will your confidence be highest? When things are going well for you, or when they aren’t? You’ll cope with any setbacks far better when you’re doing so from a position of strength.
  • If you wait until life has dealt you some bad blows, those necessary changes will need to be made under time pressure and stress. That’s a bad time to make decisions. The more stressed and frantic you are, the more likely you are to make mistakes—and the less you’ll be able to recover from them.

Corporations often make the same error. They get complacent when the product line is selling well and profits are high, only thinking about new ways to please their customers when those customers are already going elsewhere. You know what they say about being fat, dumb, and happy?

The time to take risks is when you can most easily afford to lose or screw up. And here’s another thought: when a positive value, like achievement, becomes too strong in someone’s life, it’s well on the way to becoming a major handicap.

Achievement is a powerful value for many successful people. They’ve built their lives on it. They achieve at everything they do: school, sports, the arts, hobbies, work. Each fresh achievement adds to the power of the drive to achieve in their lives. Against this background, failure becomes unthinkable. Sometimes they’ve never truly failed in anything they’ve done, so they have no experience of rising above it. Failure becomes the supreme nightmare: a lurking horror that they must avoid at any cost. And the simplest way is never to take a risk. Stick rigidly to what you know you can do. Protect your butt. Work the longest hours. Suck up to anyone in power. Double and triple check everything. Be the most conscientious and conservative person in the universe.

Then, if you have to do anything risky—and constant hard work, diligence, brutal working schedules and harrying subordinates won’t ward it off, it becomes logical to use every possible means to make sure you still don’t fail. Lie, cheat, falsify numbers, blame others, hide anything negative. I believe the collapse of ethical standards in certain major US corporations in recent years has had more to do with fear of failure among long-term high achievers than criminal intent. Many of those guys at Enron and Arthur Andersen were supreme high-fliers, basking in the flattery of the media. Failure was an impossible prospect. It was worth doing just about anything to try to keep it at bay.

Beware of being fat, dumb, and happy. Beware of a lack of balance in your outlook on life, when one goal or value —however benign in itself —becomes too powerful. Over-achievers destroy their lives, and the lives of those who work for them. People too attached to “goodness” and morality easily become self-righteous bigots. Those whose values for building close relationships become unbalanced slide into smothering their friends and family with constant expressions of affection—and terrifyingly insistent demands for continual expressions of love in return.

Balance in life counts for more than you think. Some tartness must season the sweetest dish. A little selfishness is valuable even in the most caring person. And a little failure is essential to preserve everyone’s perspective on reality.

Are you a safe pair of hands? Sometimes, dropping the ball isn’t a bad idea. Are you a positive person? Maybe you need to cherish your negative thoughts too. Are you successful? Everyone learns more from failure than they ever do from success.

In many ways, the saying that “all we have to fear is fear itself” is less trite than it sounds. Fear is the great destroyer of human life and happiness. If you’re successful, but constantly afraid of failing, all your success hasn’t bought you what matters most—peace of mind in the face of life’s constant unpredictability.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. His new book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization, is now available at all good bookstores.

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