Throughout high school I have always thought that the fear of failure is a good thing. On the surface I thought that the fear of failing was a no brainer. Why would anyone want to fail and not succeed? Isn’t it a good to have the desire to do a task to the best of your ability?

Perfectionism and the fear of failure are two sides of the same coin. It is this fear of failure that is the driving force for pursuing perfectionism.

Perfectionism is described in Wikipedia in this manner:

“Perfectionists strain compulsively and unceasingly toward unattainable goals, and measure their self-worth by productivity and accomplishment. Pressuring oneself to achieve unrealistic goals inevitably sets the person up for disappointment. Perfectionists tend to be harsh critics of themselves when they fail to meet their expectations.”

Perfectionism and hence this fear of failure can be quite engrained in some of us, and I would say that most of it is due to the schooling system that we were/are immersed in. School trains us to fear making mistakes through the very act of testing – where we were disciplined or reprimanded when we did poorly on a test, and applauded when we did well. It is in this environment in which a sickening culture of perfectionism emerges, of which further actualizes this fear of failure.

Having taken part in an accelerated maths class during high school, such a culture of perfectionism was rampant. In this hypercompetitive environment, there was the culture of chasing after the elusive 100% in a math test. The one who got that 100% out of the whole class would be held in acclaim by everyone for the entire week, where in contrast, the ones that received 99% and below would feel dissatisfied. Inevitably, this culture engulfed my psyche, in which this fear of making mistakes plagued me in all areas of life – be it academics, music or sport. The damaging thing is however, was that young high school me thought this desire of perfectionism was a good thing.

Contemplating it now, I realised that this obsession with perfection did a lot more damage than it did good. Robert Kiyosaki, the author best known for his investment book “Rich Dad Poor Dad“, makes a great point about the downsides of perfectionism in his book “The Cashflow Quadrant“:

A person may be highly educated mentally, but if they are not educated emotionally, their fear will often stop their body from doing what it must do. That is why so many “A” students get stuck in “analysis paralysis”, studying every little detail, but failing to do anything.

This “analysis paralysis” is caused by our educational system punishing students for making mistakes. If you think about it, “A” students are “A” students simply because they made the fewest mistakes. The problem with that emotional psychosis is that in the real world, people who take action are the ones who make the most mistakes and learn from them to win in the game of life.

Robert Kiyosaki, the cashflow quadrant

It is this ‘analysis paralysis” that Robert describes in which has plagued me in many stages of my life – where I have lost many valuable learning opportunities to grow as a human being. What is sad however, is that the fundamental design of the schooling system does not prepare us for the real world. Tom Bodett has quite poignantly described this problem:

In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.

Tom bodett

This is the fundamental flaw of schooling as a whole. The one who fears making mistakes, is also the one who fears to take risks. Because of this fear, we are unable to learn from our mistakes and grow to the best of our ability. Because of this fear, we shy away from new opportunities in which we could potentially grow from. It is rather ironic that because we fear making mistakes, we do not make enough mistakes such that we can learn from them, which prevents us from achieving true mastery.

In and of itself, trying to do a task to a high standard is objectively a good thing. However when this desire consumes you to the point of a neurotic obsession, then this is where it can really impair relationships, as well as one’s physical and mental health. Therefore, we should strive towards a healthy equilibrium in our perfectionistic desires, in which not that our grades in school are optimised, but that learning is optimised.

Successful people know that success is a poor teacher. Learning comes from making mistakes.

Robert Kiyosaki, The Cashflow Quadrant