Is being over ambitious a sign of fear of failure?

This article appeared in a recent edition of Mental Healthy.

California’s Stanford University became the centre of a series of psychological experiments on children in the late 1960s and 1970s that transformed our understanding of drive, motivation and ambition. One of these experiments – the marshmallow test undertaken by Walter Mischel (measuring deferred gratification) – became legendary. Others less so, although they were no less revealing of what makes children act as they do, and the impact this can have on their adult choices.

It was John Atkinson’s experiments measuring motivation that transformed my own thinking – making me rationalise my own career and academic failures despite considering myself intelligent. Atkinson corralled the kids of university academics and students into various experiments including a game of hoop-the-peg.

Here, different rewards were offered for the greater distance achieved. Yet he noticed that the children divided into two broad camps: those that stood a realistic but challenging distance from the hoop, because they were motivated to win the maximum reward achievable, and those that didn’t.

This latter group fascinated Atkinson because they were not “achievement motivated” (as Atkinson termed it). In fact they seemed motivated by the opposite concern: something he termed “high fear of failure”. Unmotivated by the reward on offer, instead their focus was on their likely failure and – most importantly – the humiliation they’d experience from such a failure.

Fascinatingly, these “high FF” children approached the game in very different ways. Some resorted to disruption while others stood right on top of the peg in order to be sure not to miss. Yet others stood so far back they were almost certain to miss, although their fear of failure had been masked because such a distance looked ambitious: indeed, they were expecting kudos from being a “trier” at such a distance.

Atkinson’s work was reinforced by experiments in the 1980s, also at Stanford. Carol Dweck and Susan Leggett undertook similar reward-based tasks and concluded that the children were either “mastery oriented” – meaning they were focused on attainment and skill acquisition – or were “ego oriented”, meaning their main concern was not skill acquisition but the avoidance of losing face.

From these Stanford experiments it’s not difficult to see the impact this could have on career choices and ambition. Atkinson’s “achievement motivated” kids are likely to pick realistic but challenging careers. They would aim high – avoiding careers with low incentives. But they would also remain grounded – steering clear of unrealistic “wildest dream” type career choices.

Those deemed to have high fear of failure, however, were likely to keep their career choices at an uninspiring level in order to avoid the potential for failure, or aim for something that would bring fabulous rewards (such as fame). Of course, failure was the most likely outcome, but that was fine – at such a level failure would be kindly judged and it would mask their avoidance of those more challenging but grounded careers such as joining the professions.

Yet there’s one more sting in the tail for the high FFs. Many would have retained their “wildest dream” career choices well into adulthood. If, as is likely, such dreams remained unfulfilled, they may have been led into the hands of that most modern of phenomena: the self-help universe. Here, books, DVDs, courses, gizmos, even hypnotism and acupuncture, would have been geared to convincing them that, yes, they can reach for the stars – it’s theirs by right, they just need to adopt the guru’s (admittedly motivational) methodologies.

So is there an alternative? Not an easy one, admittedly, but that’s the point. High FFs have avoided difficult choices in favour of low ambition or unobtainable dreams. But an understanding of the insecurities that may have driven such wayward thinking is a strong start, as well as an acceptance of the fact such fears are hardwired into us from early conditioning – so no hypnotist or self-help guru is going to eradicate them overnight.

From here it’s possible to chart a detailed path that includes calculating our true values before visualising ourselves in 10 years’ time, as well as the milestone points along the way (five, two, one year, as well as six months, three months, one month and even one week). This generates a clear path that should improve our judgement and – hopefully – deliver that most important attribute for the high FF: a tolerance of failure. If we can see failure as part of the learning process – as a point along the path towards our true goals (not those generated as a form of avoidance) – just maybe failure won’t seem so humiliating.

Finally, it might be worth a closer look at celebrity behaviour. What happens to the high-FFs that do hoop the distant peg? This is not to say they’re not talented, of course – just that their fame-laced dreams may also reveal Atkinson-style fear of failure that will stay with them no matter what their success. The addictions, the feuds, the inappropriate marriages – and divorces – and the constant need for celebrity reinforcement from the media or their “fans” can all be explained by their deeply-held insecurities. Convinced they don’t deserve their stardom, they resort to self-sabotage in order to mask their fears.

Just maybe those stars are not worth reaching after all.

Robert Kelsey is author of What’s Stopping You? Why Smart People Don’t Always Reach Their Potential and How You Can? Capstone. Buy it here:

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