Leadership Lessons: Building Success Out of the Scariness of Trial & Failure

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Recently, I keep finding reasons to think about being scared. Or more specifically, getting reminded that being scared is OK.

Successful people spend as much (or more) time being scared as they do feeling confident and comfortable. The difference is that they do it anyway.

Here is the story of what might be the worst moment in my career.

I was in my early 20’s and I was a sales engineer. My job was to demonstrate technical products during the sales process. It was my first week on the job after being trained on one of the two products in our product line.

The sales force was not supposed to schedule demos for me for the second (more sophisticated and specialized, or “scarier”) product until I had a chance to get the training. So much for “supposed to”…

I found myself in a room of customers who demanded that I do a demonstration of the product I didn’t know. I told them that I could show them the product, but I wasn’t prepared to do a full demo. So I launched the product and they started firing questions at me. I must have said, “I don’t know, I’ll have to find out and get back to you” at least 30 times. It was humiliating.

Painful yes, but no, I didn’t die

Talk about uncomfortable. I don’t think I knew the answer to a single one of their questions. I didn’t even understand the questions. It was painful. I was used to being seen as smart and competent and prepared. I was SO embarrassed.

One of the customers said to the sales person in a frustrated, angry tone, “Why did you bring HER? She doesn’t know anything!”

You know what happened? I didn’t die.

Yes, it was very painful, and beyond uncomfortable, but it didn’t kill me.

What it did do, was give me a list of 30 important questions customers have about this product. The next day I sat down with the product manager and asked him to explain to me what those 30 questions meant, and how to demonstrate them in the product.

Within a week I was the second most competent (and in demand) sales engineer to demonstrate that product. By contrast, there were other sales engineers at the company who stayed scared to demonstrate that product, so they never even tried.

Their careers did not advance.

Scared is OK

That one experience allowed me to be scared for the rest of my career, but to also know it’s OK.

I was genuinely scared every time I got a promotion. I was scared many times in big presentations, meetings, or negotiations. That man’s voice was in my head saying, “why did you bring HER? She doesn’t know anything.” But that lesson allowed me to realize:

  1. That you can be scared, screw up, even fail, and you will survive.
  2. That failure-learning cycle is far more valuable than the safe, not-doing-it approach, where you learn and accomplish nothing.
  3. Over time it get’s easier. If you force yourself to act when you are scared, every time it gets easier to act when you are scared.

In brief — do it scared.

Scared and successful

Ultimately, I was able to be scared and still perform really well most of the time.

My way of working would be to push forward, be scared, and do it anyway. I still cringe sometimes. I am not perfect. I forget things, and I get thrown off sometimes.

But now when that happens I always think about what I learn from the minor embarrassment and feedback. It makes me better next time, and forever after.

I would not improve without some amount of trial and failure.

If you never put yourself out there, you never get the feedback, practice, insight, and ideas to tune what you are doing to be more successful. You just stay stuck.

And it’s also important to realize that if you mess up a few times in dozens or hundreds of outings, it has no impact whatsoever on peoples’ impression of you. Those moments just fade away as you replace them with the improved, excellent ones.

Fear and competence

People who are not held back by fear have broken the link between fear and competence.

What I mean by this is that some people when they feel scared, have a tendency to think that is a sign that they are not worthy.

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They think:

If I am scared and I feel vulnerable, that must mean by definition that I am not good enough to be in this situation.

This is not how successful people think. Successful people break the link and say something instead like:

I feel scared and vulnerable, so it’s going to be harder than I expected to put myself out there. Damn, I guess I have to do it anyway.

It breaks my heart when I see gifted people hold themselves back because they are too nervous to step forward. One woman in particular I am thinking of did some breakthrough medical research, but was not comfortable being the one to present it.

Guess what happened? The presenter claimed the credit and she got pushed aside. What should have been a breakthrough moment in her career turned into a setback.

The invisible risk

Staying in the background because it is more comfortable does nothing.

It adds no value, you don’t learn, and you fade into the background. In terms of being vulnerable, in reality you are much more vulnerable if you are invisible, than if you are out there.

Being out there and being imperfect, trying to move things forward, and committing to contribute is actually a much less risky way to behave in your career.

Leaders step forward

It’s not about being flashy or having a big personality. Leaders drive outcomes and then they communicate about them.

Even the most humble, introspective, introverted leaders put themselves out there when they need to. And it is very powerful. The power comes from showing that you are taking ownership for the outcome of the communication, not from the song and dance.

Leaders step forward and show others that they care. I saw a TED talk by Dr. Brene Brown about Vulnerability and Shame.

I’ve included a link below, it’s really worth watching, but I wanted to point out a couple of things that really struck me on this topic of fear and success.

  • Everyone feels vulnerability and shame. Everyone. Not just some people. Not just most people. Everyone. If you are human you feel shame (unless you are a psychopath). So there you have it — vulnerable or psychopath. I found that very comforting. To think because I feel scared, I am not good enough, makes no sense – because everyone is in the same boat. Another reason to do it anyway.
  • There is no creativity or innovation without fear. There is no success without failure. Great ideas and big successes come from people who are willing try, fail, and keep going. Good ideas stem from bad ideas. Failure is necessary to progress. Do it scared, and you might get someplace. The words Dr. Brown uses, which I really like, are “Daring Greatly.”

Here is the link to Dr. Brene Brown’s talking about “Listening to Shame.” Her research and her talk are about much more than these two points. It’s worth the time.

What about you? When have you been scared or failed and built success out of it?

This was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog. Her latest book is Rise: How to be Really Successful at Work and LIKE Your Life.

Patty Azzarello is the founder and CEO of Azzarello Group. She's also an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/business advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35, and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk). You can find her at patty@azzarellogroup.com .


2 Comments on “Leadership Lessons: Building Success Out of the Scariness of Trial & Failure

  1. Thanks. Your article is very inspiring and I hope to assimilate all of what was written. I sometimes hold back or stay invisible because I think I’m not experienced or good enough. So, it was refreshing to hear that I wasn’t the only one. 

  2. “That failure-learning cycle is far more valuable than the safe, not-doing-it approach, where you learn and accomplish nothing.” Love it – well expressed, thank you for your personal story.
    The excellent Tim Harford (@TimHarford) has written a book on this general subject, called, ‘Adapt – How Success Always Starts With Failure’. Harford summarises his approach in three steps: 
    1. first, seek out new ideas and try new things (‘fail often’);2. when trying out new things, do so on a survivable scale;3. seek out feedback and learn from your mistakesYou can see a synopsis of the lessons from the book here: 

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