Never let the fear of failure stymie you

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A new year is a good occasion to reflect on your life and then implement the learnings over the coming years. I remember my post-graduation period in the early eighties. My friends and I were grappling with the multiple demands that adulthood made in those times on young, middle-class, professionally-qualified individuals.

One distinct remembrance that has left an indelible stamp on my life involves my friend Vijay. A newly-qualified engineer, he had obtained admission in the Masters programme of a top school in the United States. He had confided to us about the crush he harboured for his childhood friend and neighbour for many years. He was friendly with her. But fearing rejection, he had never mustered the courage to confess his feelings to her. Egged on by us and emboldened by his professional success, he at last determined to speak to her one evening. He was ashen faced when we met the next evening. It seems she was fully aware of his feelings but was waiting for him to make the first move. In what sounds like a script out of Bollywood, she had just got engaged to another person after becoming weary of waiting for Vijay’s proposal.

While commiserating with Vijay, all of us pointed out to him how his fears had made him overestimate the cost of rejection. Even if she had rejected his proposal his life would not have ended. “My fear of rejection made me underestimate the feeling of regret I will live with for the rest of my life,” he lamented.

Vijay’s experience shaped my life too. I was considering a start-up long before it became fashionable. But fear of failure was preventing me from taking the final plunge. Remembering Vijay’s experience helped me move beyond the fear of failure. I forced myself to consider the cost of failure. I was confident I could find another job if the start-up failed. Therefore, the cost of failure was essentially the wages lost for the period I was running the start-up. Stacked on the other side were all the benefits success would bring. More importantly, I wanted to avoid experiencing the lifelong regret so acutely felt by Vijay. Thereafter, deciding in favour of the start-up was a cinch.

The fear of rejection can impact lives even under more mundane circumstances. Apart from client referrals, we deal only with incoming enquiries from prospects who come to know about us from other sources. We normally let the prospects decide about engaging with us at their own pace. We do softly nudge some who we think can really benefit from our services. Sometimes I am keen to convert a prospect into a client but don’t nudge too hard for fear of being seen as pushy.

There was one prospect I was very keen to have as a client, given both the investment size and his requirements that could gain from our firm’s expertise on cross-border taxation and remittance. I realised that my reluctance to follow up was nothing but the fear of rejection in disguise. The cost of rejection was zero in this case. Once I saw that, it was easy to decide to actively persuade the prospect.

Truth be told, the fear of rejection keeps many of us from experiencing the rich lives we deserve. Lord Tennyson said, “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” That is so true, especially if the cost of the loss is quite low.

The writer heads Fee-Only Investment Advisors LLP, a Sebi-registered investment advisor; Twitter: @harshroongta

(A slightly different version of this column first appeared in the Business Standard on January 02, 2023)

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