How to Overcome Your Fear of Failure by Using Rewards

There might be affiliate links on this page, which means we get a small commission of anything you buy. As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases. Please do your own research before making any online purchase.

In this post, Stephen Guise provides a simple (but effective) framework for using a simple reward system for helping you take action when you fear failure.  If you want to know more about Stephen's work, I encourage you to check out this book: Mini Habits: Smaller Habits. Bigger Results.

Now let's talk about to build a simple reward system into your day-to-day routine…

She was expecting my order.

Instead, I walked up to her and asked, “Do you like animals?”

“Yes. I love animals,” she said.

“Me too!” I replied, “I was wondering if you'd like to go to the zoo with me.”

“Oh. Actually, I have a boyfriend.”

She Was Really Cute

So I wasn't at all surprised that she had a boyfriend. In fact, I expected it. But… she said no. It was rejection.

It's even possible that she didn't have a boyfriend; some women will “protect” men with that line if they're not interested. Because I know that, I have to wonder for eternity what type of rejection it was. Sigh.

Still, I felt good about the whole thing because I don't often ask out strangers and I do have some fear of rejection. It was a victory in that sense, but there was obviously some disappointment there too, as I walked out of that place with a smoothie instead of a date. Oh well. The smoothie was tasty, and it turns out, I'm smarter than I first realized for getting it.

Risk And Reward Have a Special Relationship

Risk and reward are inseparable.

The general relationship they have is, “what possible reward can I get for taking this size risk?” If the risk/reward ratio is favorable, then it's a good idea to take the risk. Asking out a pretty girl has a high potential reward, while the risk of any meaningful harm is very low. She'd have to go on a tirade about how terrible I am that pinpointed my greatest weaknesses and crushed my self-esteem forever. Again, unlikely.

We make this risk/reward calculation every day:

  • The long-term risk of eating an unhealthy hamburger vs. the reward of tasty beef.
  • The risk of being embarrassed by asking for a raise vs. the reward of actually getting it.
  • The risk of starting a business that could fail vs. the reward of it succeeding.

On this basis, I've got an idea for a NEW risk/reward model, and I really think it can help us overcome many of these “petty” fears we struggle with.

The NEW Risk/Reward Model

What makes a risk a risk? Is it that something bad can happen? Sometimes, certainly. More often though, the real risk is a relatively harmless feeling of discomfort or rejection combined with the sting of NO REWARD.

The fear of not getting a payoff while being embarrassed keeps men single prevents workers from getting raises, and generally keeps people in their safe, but boring and life-draining routines while they could be out living the Caribbean life (or, whatever might suit them better than their current life).

Here's the NEW risk/reward model:

When you take a SMART risk (something with low real risk and high potential reward), give yourself a reward. Plan the whole thing out: If I ask a girl out, I get to buy a smoothie. If I email the president, I get to watch an episode of Seinfeld. If I dance in limelight at the wedding tonight and let loose, I will book a massage.

The reason I was smarter than I realized with the cute barista situation is that immediately after I was rejected, I rewarded myself with the smoothie. What if I got a smoothie every time I asked a girl out? I like smoothies. It really “sweetens” the deal, because now there is a built-in, guaranteed reward. Sure, the reward is completely artificially-placed, but your brain can't tell the difference, and what's there to complain about? You get a smoothie!

Here are the reasons to use this new risk/reward model…

It Trains You Correctly, Neurologically

We know from research on habits that the brain responds to rewards, and will favor the behaviors that precede rewards, given enough repetition. If you complete behavior in a similar context enough times over a given period, and it is always followed by a reward (even if the reward is unrelated), the brain will begin to desire that behavior more. So if you really want to increase your tendency to take smart risks, this new method is a neurological way to do it.

It Establishes The Risk As Permanently More Favorable

If every time I asked a girl out, I'd get 10,000 dollars, how many girls do you think I'd ask out in the next 5 minutes? As many as I could find within shouting distance. Isn't it interesting how even a shy guy would completely shatter his shell of fear if the reward was big enough? Find the shiest guy in the world, and offer him a million dollars to talk to ten attractive girls. I bet you he'd find a way.

These are unrealistic rewards, of course, but it gets the point across that you can make a risk more attractive if you promise yourself a nice reward for it.

If you're shy and love video games, promise yourself that you can buy a new game if you talk to ten strangers throughout your day. If you're going to a big networking event and you're nervous, promise yourself one guilt-free hour of television for every solid connection you make. The possibilities are only limited to your imagination. You know your fears and desires better than I do, so make your actions and “bribes” appealing to you.

It Makes It More Fun

“Fun” is maybe the most underrated tool in personal development (behind mini habits, which can never be rated highly enough… says the biased author). Enjoyment (or not) of activities has been shown to have a big impact on willpower depletion, in fact, which is something I'm currently researching. If you can reframe a scary or intimidating activity into a fun one, everything will be better.

When I play basketball, I play my very best when I'm having fun, and my very worst when I'm nervous about my performance. This seems to be the case in much of life.

Attaching a reward to a scary, but worthwhile behavior makes the whole scenario seem more playful, because, well, it is more playful. This shift in mindset is surprisingly powerful in helping you rise above fear.

It Gives You The Opportunity To Calculate The Real Risk

Being a human is scary, ok? We've got all of these expectations, both self-imposed and from society. We've got insecurities. We've got fears. It's my firm belief that the most successful people (in any way you define success) are those who manage to disregard much of these worrisome things and live life with “smart reckless abandon.” They take smart risks. They always try new things. They're here to experience life's finest offerings. They understand that asking a question and getting a “no” response is entirely acceptable and non-life-threatening.

But let's not get caught up in comparisons either. It doesn't matter if you've been scared all of your life, held back by others' expectations for you or your own insecurities. Today is a real opportunity to take a step in a promising, bold new direction. And well, I'm suggesting that you bribe yourself to take that step. Combine this strategy with mini habits (i.e. taking really really small steps), and you may become a juggernaut.

If you're looking for more inspiration, check out favorite quotes about fear and our roundup of the best songs about overcoming fear.

If you want to dive deeper into the science, benefits, explanation, and step-by-step application of how to building positive routines into your life, check out the Mini Habits which can be found for sale on Amazon.

3 thoughts on “How to Overcome Your Fear of Failure by Using Rewards”

  1. They say that when a person fails, he needs to rise up again.

    But, the problem with the rise is it could probably be harder to rise again.

    Giving reward for every thing we do rather than for every success helps to make rising up easier.

    Thanks Stephen for the post and S.J.Scott for publishing this.

  2. I totally agree with you Michal and I myself also do come up with many ways on how to deal with it. It’s important to realize that in everything we do, there’s always a chance that we’ll fail. Facing that chance, and embracing it, is not only courageous – it also gives us a fuller, more rewarding life.

    However, here are a few ways to reduce the fear of failing:

    Analyze all potential outcomes – Many people experience fear of failure because they fear the unknown. Remove that fear by considering all of the potential outcomes of your decision. Our article Decision Trees will teach you how to map possible outcomes visually.
    Learn to think more positively – Positive thinking is an incredibly powerful way to build self-confidence and neutralize self-sabotage. Our article Thought Awareness, Rational Thinking, and Positive Thinking is a comprehensive resource for learning how to change your thoughts.
    Look at the worse-case scenario – In some cases, the worst case scenario may be genuinely disastrous, and it may be perfectly rational to fear failure. In other cases, however, this worst case may actually not be that bad, and recognizing this can help.
    Have a contingency plan – If you’re afraid of failing at something, having a “Plan B” in place can help you feel more confident about moving forward.

  3. As a kid I was raised on fear and risked a beating if I broke out of the box of fear. No wonder I was a mess for the first 36 years of my life.

    However, by the grace of God and my angel’s I rose above the fear and took a lot of risks that I though would garner me great rewards…

    Boy was I wrong–the rewards did not happen. However, I kept on going by not letting the fear of failure slow me down.

    And along the way I realized that sometimes when we take a risk–it is also a lesson to help us grow and move into a better direction.

    After all if I had not spoke up about the bullying, intimidation, and harassment my last clinical instructor was doing to me–I would be an RN and would have not written four books.

Comments are closed.