Is Fear of Failure Holding You Back?

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Today, the hot topic is failure. It’s timely, because I just failed in writing a blog. I’ve been working on a blog for two weeks that was supposed to be posted already, but it flopped. I could say it was a failure, or I’m a failure. Or I could just say that it didn’t work out.

I love this topic of failure, because I know how a fear of failure can really limit us. However, when we reframe failure, a world of possibility can open up.

I was afraid of learning partner dancing after a mortifying experience on the dance floor at a wedding. Even though I secretly really wanted to learn to dance, I avoided it for years, even decades. I was afraid I would be a failure. When I finally got the courage to take a dance class, it was a real shocker when I didn’t die and I didn’t whack my partner in the face (Lol – that came later!). The world was still spinning, and this thing I was so fearful of was actually rather fun. And dance did open up a whole new world for me.

My father, who was a successful research physicist, helped me find a way to reframe failure. When I told him about something that I thought I had failed at, he said, “You know, that just didn’t work out for you. You can see it as a failure if you want to, but as a researcher, I have to look at countless experiments that don’t work and see what to do differently.”

I think my father may have been channeling Thomas Edison when he gave me that advice. Edison famously quipped, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

My father’s words really helped take the sting of my “failure” away. It’s not hard to go from failing at something to feeling like a failure to even proclaiming oneself as a failure. The phrase “it didn’t work out” is “failure neutral.” The overlay of judgment is gone, and there’s a free space in which to look objectively at what happened and learn from it. In this way, a “failure” can actually make success more likely, if we use the information as material to build something stronger going forward. If we let the shaming side of failure have its way with us, it will stick us with a surrender flag, drag us into a cave, and seal us in with a heavy rock.

When we’re working on a career transition, this fear of failure can keep us stuck in that cave or scurrying back to it. How do we apply this reframe on failure to have the confidence to grab our spear and join the hunt?

One answer to this question comes down to choosing our mindset. In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Psychologist Carol Dweck introduces the Fixed Mindset and the Growth Mindset. In the Fixed Mindset, we find safety in the status quo and avoid situations that make us feel vulnerable or could involve perceived “failure.” In the Growth Mindset, we seek out and are energized by opportunities that allow us to learn and grow as individuals.

How might these mindsets show up in the career transition process?

The Fixed Mindset Approach:
Stay with what you know, it’s risky to try something new
If you try something new, you could fail
If you apply for jobs, you could get rejected
If you change things up, you could be worse off
You don’t have the skills to do something new

The Growth Mindset Approach:
I’m curious to see what else I’m capable of
If something fails to work out, at least I know I tried
If I get rejected, that’s part of the process, and I’ll learn from it
I won’t know how things could be better unless I try new things
I’m a lifelong learner and I can learn new skills

With the growth mindset, we’re able to reframe “failure” as a normal and essential part of life and learning. When something fails to work out, it’s really just neutral feedback designed to give us helpful information. We actually have a tool in failure that helps us be more precise going forward, rather than letting failure become a wet blanket that snuffs out any spark of hope.

Winston Churchill captured this growth mindset when he stated, “Success isn’t final, failure isn’t fatal, it’s the courage to continue that counts.” Churchill knew intimately both great success and failure.

In our extensive learning process to become physicians, we were in a growth mindset. This mindset took us from not even knowing how to examine a patient to being able to care for very ill patients and save lives (that’s pretty cool!). The growth mindset doesn’t have to end when our training program ends; we can keep it as a way of life. When we see ourselves as learners, we give ourselves more permission to not have to be perfect and to not have to do everything right. In this approach, life becomes more of a grand experiment rather than a final exam.

You are never a failure for trying something that doesn’t work out. Whatever you try to do, you will have some new information about yourself, as well as an experience you would never have had otherwise. You get to interpret what that experience ends up being for you. And this goes for the past, as well as the present.

When we look at our experiences with the eye of the learner rather than the judge, we have the chance to be in awe of the truth of who we really are. From this place, we are more able to step out of our comfort zone because we realize who we are is not defined by what happens to us, but how we respond to what life gives us.

Bring it on, Life!!

A special thank you to Dr. Vanessa Vidal for first telling me about the Mindset book by Carol Dweck. 

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8 Comments

  1. Lynette D Charity MD on July 25, 2018 at 2:13 pm

    When I was fired from a hospital job in 2012 at the age of 60, I thought “What am I going to do? This is all I know. I’m too old to do something else.” I had been miserable in that job and my frustrations led to me finally getting into a verbal altercation with the head of the department which led to “your contract will not be renewed.” Did you know calling your “boss” an IDIOT is grounds for termination? Anyway, in my “fixed mindset”, I feared stepping out of my comfort zone of medicine. I feared NOT having the skill sets and failing. But that changed with the help of Dr. Fork. She helped me develop a growth mindset which has allowed me to “explore” options and not worry about failure. Over the past 6 years, I have explored various jobs and been pleased with my progress in allowing perceived failures to guide me to where I am today. I have now transitioned from Anesthesiologist to Physician Speaker and love it! Most importantly, I am happy to NOT be controlled by the fixed mindset of my past. It is cathartic. Bring it on Life! I am eager to learn more!

    • Heather Fork on July 26, 2018 at 2:10 am

      Ha ha! You go Lynette! Thank you for sharing this fascinating story of how you went from the fixed mindset to the growth mindset and it changed your life for the better! Congratulations on being able to transition into being a professional speaker – no mean feat. I have seen the grit and determination and FUN that has gone into your transition. The mindset shift is key, but you have done the hard work to make it happen.

  2. Keerthy Sunder on July 25, 2018 at 3:33 pm

    An outstanding Post, Dr Fork!! Viewing both the past and the present as a growth experience with the eye of the learner rather than the Judge- how kind and cool is that!! Life becomes more of a grand experiment rather than a final exam- Super Cool thoughts!

    Thank you always…

    Keerthy

    • Heather Fork on July 26, 2018 at 2:01 am

      Dr. Sunder, thank you very much. I am so happy that this post resonated with you! It makes my day whenever I hear that something I wrote was encouraging in some way. All the best to you in your grand experiment of life.

  3. Devki Patel on July 25, 2018 at 4:20 pm

    Heather, thanks for posting about a topic that most physicians try to conceal: fear of failure. I anticipate reading this post again and again to remind myself to stick to a growth mindset during career transitions or uncertain times. I never imagined I could learn new skills or step outside my comfort zone, but I did…thanks to your coaching! So happy your original post “flopped” because it led to this gem. 🙂

    • Heather Fork on July 26, 2018 at 1:59 am

      Devki, you are most welcome! Thank you for your kind words and support. I have to hand it back to you, because your post on The Doctor’s Crossing about your own transition has been inspirational to many. You are living proof that physicians can pivot gracefully into a new direction and find growth and satisfaction.

  4. Sue Zimmermann on July 26, 2018 at 8:15 pm

    Thanks for an excellent post – you taught me to make “trust-based” rather than “fear-based” decisions. So much of what people do (or don’t do) is based on fear. I find that things almost never turn out to be as bad as we fear they will.

  5. Heather Fork on July 26, 2018 at 8:41 pm

    You are most welcome Sue! It’s been a true pleasure to see how you have stepped out of your comfort zone in many ways to navigate a new career direction and find much success and fulfillment. You are absolutely right that our fears are often unfounded, and how helpful it is to make decisions from a place of trust and not fear. I appreciate your reading and commenting.

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The coaching I have had with you has been life changing."

You helped me find the courage to seek out leadership positions and become a medical director as well as a physician advisor. I am grateful we crossed paths and am a different person because of it. You have inspired me to "believe" in spite of my inner skeptic. I consider you one of my most important mentors and am proud to also call you a friend. This says a lot given the apprehension I felt when I took a chance with our first coaching session. Even though I have already made a successful transition, I still value your ongoing mentorship and can enthusiastically attest that the value of your services is tremendous!

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Lynette Charity

“I was at a crossroads in my medical career. I asked myself, "Do I stay or do I go?" 

I met Heather at the SEAK conference. She and I revisited this question.  Did I want to quit being medicine completely? She helped me to identify my needs, wants, and my vision for my FUTURE, not just in medicine, but in life!!!

She was able to listen to my "ramblings" about becoming a stand-up comic, lounge singer and voice-over actor and translate them into action steps.  I chose to become a composite of all of these. Now I am a more confident, healthier, happier person. I credit this in its entirety to the tutelage I have received and continue to receive from Heather.  She cares. She listens. She was there for ME.  She will be there for YOU!

- Lynette Charity, MD

Anesthesiologist
Gail Miller

“I am forever grateful to Heather for helping me to recognize, I am more than just my M.D." 

Heather helped me understand that I am more than just a doctor and that my experiences in clinical medicine are valuable in so many arenas.  As a result I realized that there are other ways to use my background, still be able to help people and continue to challenge myself and grow.  To that end I discovered coaching - specifically health coaching.  I am on my journey becoming a health coach and truly loving it!

- Gail Miller, MD

OB/Gyn physician
Steve

“Thank you, Heather, for helping me transform my career, my faith and my life."

What started out as an initial thirty-minute consultation call turned into an amazing four-year journey that transformed my life, personally, spiritually and professionally. 

Heather helped me to discover my passions...by doing so, I discovered I still had a calling for medicine but it now came from a place of truth...

Today...my wife and I are opening our first concierge medicine clinic in a community we love. I’m actually excited to have the opportunity to practice medicine the way I believe it’s meant to be, with a focus on the doctor-patient relationship and an emphasis on faith. I know if I had not reached out to Dr. Fork, my life would not be where it is at today.

- Steve Lapke, MD

Papillion, NE
Sue Zimmermann

“Heather gave me the confidence to create a new livelihood by following my heart."

She is incredibly knowledgeable about the range of careers available to physicians and provided me with advice and connections which I would not have found on my own.  From the start she encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and try different things.  I was laid off unexpectedly in early 2017, and Heather gave me the confidence to create a new livelihood by following my heart and making decisions based on trust, not fear.  Now I am enjoying working part-time in a clinical setting in addition to teaching and writing.

- Sue Zimmermann, MD

Orthopedic Surgeon
Devki Patel

After months of struggling to find a non-clinical career that matched my values and passion, I stumbled upon Heather's website which truly changed my life."

Heather's insightful and personalized approach to career coaching made me think outside the box since she took the time to evaluate my personality, values, interests, and preferred lifestyle.

Through her encouragement, practical advice, and professional connections, I was able to find a non-clinical position at a state Medicaid agency that aligned with my passion for population health and serving low-income communities. In addition to her coaching sessions, Heather has built a community of like-minded physicians through her blog, and I feel honored to recommend her to friends and colleagues who seek to make positive changes in their professional and personal lives.

- Devki Patel, MD

Pathologist
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Working with Heather ultimately helped me leave my job in corporate healthcare and find a path that was much more fulfilling."

My career was going reasonably well but I couldn’t shake this nagging feeling I could do better; or at least find a better long-term career fit.  

I was able to find a surgery job that better aligned with my goals and professional interests.  Additionally, Heather helped me start a consulting business which has allowed me to pursue a true passion: helping medical students, residents, and attendings surgeons navigate the challenges of high-stakes standardized exams.    

If you are reading this as a “Type A” surgeon who doesn’t think coaching is for you, I would encourage you to give Heather a shot.  I’m very glad I did!

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“I gained the confidence in myself to develop an action plan that blended the best parts of my experiences and interests into a cohesive career." 

Through our work, I learned to trust myself to make good decisions for my own future – something I hadn’t realized I was struggling with because as an emergency physician, I make life-changing decisions with patients every day. 

By feeding my creativity and interests in other realms of my professional life, I’ve found renewed compassion for my patients and myself, making every shift an opportunity to actually care for people. Thank you Heather. I really couldn’t have made these changes without your help!

- Liz McMurtry, DO

Emergency Medicine Physician
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The simple truth is - Heather Fork totally helped me change my life."

I never would have had the courage to make the changes I’ve made without her unwavering support, wealth of knowledge and commitment. 

When I first started working with Heather, I was downtrodden...I’d been practicing medicine for 20+ years and yet had never quite found my place.  During the first year I worked with Heather, I left the practice I’d been working at, and recreated an entirely new professional purpose.

I’m now an executive and leadership coach, a university professor, and a Brené Brown Daring Way facilitator, and I have never looked back.  I love what I am doing more than at any other time in my professional life and I credit Heather with seeing in me what I was never able to see in myself, until now.

Don’t hesitate, don’t doubt yourself, schedule your time with Heather as soon as possible- she can help you reconnect to your purpose and reinvent your life.

- Amie Langbein, DO

Family Physician
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"After 30 years in academic medicine, I wanted a career change but had no idea where to start. Medicine was all I knew."

I signed up for coaching with Heather and it transformed my life. She helped me get clear on what I wanted my life to look like. We reviewed my skills, values, and strengths. She instilled hope in me that change IS possible after 50 years! 

The outcome is that I have created a life I love! I practice endocrinology part-time and own a life coaching business! Coaching with Heather is one of the best investments I have made in my life. 

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