Researchers have also found that people who strongly fear failure have a composite of two personality characteristics: low achievement orientation (that is, they don’t take much pleasure from accomplishments and meeting goals) and high test anxiety (a fear of not performing well at a crucial moment). In other words, they’re motivated less by the possibility of winning and gaining something of value, and more by their anxiety about the possibility of messing up. Those are some of the same personality traits that drive perfectionism, and can show up in low achievers and high achievers alike.
In fact, perfectionism and the fear of failure go hand in hand: They lead you to believe that success isn’t about doing something good, but about not doing something bad. If you suffer from a fear of failure, you’ll know exactly what I mean. Where striving for success should be an exciting journey toward an amazing destination—as the climber George Mallory said, to ascend the mountain “because it’s there”—it feels instead like an exhausting slog, with all your energy focused on not tumbling over a cliff.
Surprisingly, people who fear failure do not need to extinguish the fear itself—to become more fearless—in order to make themselves happier. Instead, the best way to tame a fear of failure is to hone courage. Stanley Rachman, a psychologist, showed this in his research in the 1980s and then in the following decades on people in dangerous professions, such as paratroopers and bomb defusers. They too tended to fear failure—and messing up in such cases might be dire indeed. But they were able to tap into reserves of courage to act anyway. As Rachman argues, fearlessness is abnormal, and even dangerous, because it leads to foolish risk taking and bad leadership. Courage, on the other hand, helps you to balance prudence and resolve, even if the only thing you’re defusing is an office conflict.