Is your progress in life hindered by fear and doubt? Are you paralyzed at key moments by your insecurities? Millions of smart people are held back from achieving their potential by their fears and insecurities – especially their fear of failure. Many people do not even realize that this recognized condition is limiting their progress in life.  It’s a self-fulfilling downward spiral that condemns otherwise intelligent people to set the wrong goals, which lead to unfulfilled ambitions and low achievement.

What’s Stopping You? is aimed at breaking this destructive cycle. An international bestseller now in its second edition (including case studies and a practical “Seven Steps to Overcoming Fear of Failure”pathway), Robert Kelsey’s ground-breaking book will show you how to unlock your true potential for success: at work, with people and in life.

Based on extensive research, recognized science and stark reality, Robert plots a path forward for you to:

  • UNDERSTAND the root causes of the fears and insecurities that may be holding you back, as well as the impact they have on your responses and behaviour,
  • ACCEPT who you are, including your faulty thinking, rather than trying to become someone you are not by adopting quick-fix techniques,
  • NAVIGATE the barriers thrown up by your fears and insecurities to help you produce better results that generate sustainable progress towards goals that reflect your true values.

By finally understanding what’s stopping you, you can calculate your true goals and take small, practical steps towards a more positive future.

The Sun: “This book will help you navigate the barriers you’ve built”

BA Business Life “An engaging and entertaining read. Worth a look”

Management Today: “I couldn’t help but admire the bravely personal experiences and stories shared by the author”

The Market: “A readable but intelligent book”

Edge Magazine: “I would recommend the book to anyone from apprentices to entrepreneurs who would like a practical perspective of psychology and self-help”

“This personal witty and insightful book teaches us about the fears that drive failure and the self-awareness that can help to navigate it. The great point about this book is that it is both philosophical with regards the nature of fear and its impact on achievement, and practical. For those that may be paralysed by a fear of failure, it offers a way through.”
Luke Johnson, Chairman, Risk Capital Partners and The RSA, FT columnist, serial entrepreneur

“Robert Kelsey has combined thorough research, careful thought and the lessons of his own experience to produce a valuable, original and eminently readable book. I can strongly recommend it to anyone whose progress has been impeded by fear of failure.”
John Caunt, author, Boost Your Self-esteem

“This is a must-read book for anyone concerned with achieving long-term professional success. Not only does Kelsey explain our common insecurities in the most readable and entertaining ways, he delivers strategies and tactics that really work.”
Martin Yate CPC, NY Times bestseller of Knock em Dead Secrets and Strategies for Success in an Uncertain World

“Why do talented people sabotage their own chances of success? Often the answer is that they are afraid of failure. Kelsey provides a practical guide for overcoming this common problem. Clear, engaging, and to the point.”
Dylan Evans, author, Emotion: The Science of Sentiment

“This powerful, insightful book shows you how to unlock your unconscious brakes and step on the accelerator to achieve your true potential!”
Brian Tracy, author Goals!, Eat That Frog, and Maximum Achievement

“In this wise and compelling book, Robert Kelsey helps you think your way out of fear of failure not only by appreciating its hidden virtues but by discovering the most original and enlightening routes to self-confidence. What’s Stopping You? is a brilliant guide to the art of living in the twenty-first century, written with literary flair and personal insight.”
Roman Krznaric, author of The Wonderbox: Curious Histories of How to Live and co-founder of The School of Life

“Kelsey offers a successful and eloquent analysis of fear of failure as a mass condition in the modern world, and one we ignore at our peril.”
Donald Kirkpatrick, psychoanalyst and a founder of the London Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy

“Confidence is the ultimate secret weapon of any successful entrepreneur. If Robert’s book can help you find your then it will be worth its weight in gold,”
Rachel Bridge, Sunday Times Enterprise Editor and author of How I Made it, My Big Idea and How to Make a Million Before Lunch

“It’s a bestseller for a reason – buy it!”
Hag Hughes, author of Mr Right: The Smart Girl’s Guide to Finding Him.

Extract from What’s Stopping You?- Second Edition 


“Failure is not an option,” said the actor playing Gene Kranz, flight director for Mission Control in Apollo 13, the 1995 movie dramatizing the near-disaster of the third Apollo mission to the Moon. But he was wrong. It was an option, which is why he said it. Kranz knew that his team had to think the unthinkable, invent the uninvented, do the undoable. And this meant employing classic alpha-male posturing to force them beyond their fear of failure.

He knew that failure was staring them in the face but, given the consequences of failure, any other option was not only preferable but imperative. Had he said “failure is almost certain, but let’s have a go anyway” his team would have been unable to get beyond their fear of public humiliation for suggesting a potentially-daft idea. Yet daft ideas were the only thing that could save the astronauts, so Kranz had to find a way of getting them on the table – hence upping the stakes in order to overcome his team’s individual fears.


Fear of failure

Yet Apollo 13 is a movie and those words were written by a script-writer (despite the real Gene Kranz later adopting them for the title of his biography). The fears that prevent us from achieving our goals are usually mundane, nuanced, private and sometimes so subtle that many of us may not fully accept their impact on our thoughts and actions.

As Kranz knew, fear of failure can change our behaviour in ways that render failure a near certainty. Fear paralyses our decision-making, throws our judgment, destroys our creativity and removes previously-easy fluidity from even everyday movements. Yet as mental conditions go, fear of failure is not only one of the most common – with millions of sufferers in the UK alone – it is also one of the least acknowledged or acted upon, partly because those with the condition are so paralyzed by their fear of humiliation or public embarrassment they suffer in silence, or even in self-denial, rather than seek treatment.

They are chained to the seabed, unable to swim towards the sunlight above due to their fears and insecurities. Of course, some may express their fears through depression or anger without even realizing what lies behind such symptoms – making them hostage to behaviour that further confirms their inner fears and further destroys their potential for progress.

And while the actor playing Kranz unlocked the potential of his team with one powerful phrase, we are unlikely to be so lucky. Even if we acknowledge our fears and seek to overcome them, we may find ourselves bewildered by the hundreds of self-help books offering more confidence, higher self-esteem, greater success and even “unlimited power”. Some deal directly with fear of failure. Others focus on related or underlying conditions such as lack of confidence or low self-esteem. Many offer a near-instant cure – the banishment of our frailties and the certainty of success – through a mental realignment injected into us via some, admittedly strong, motivational words and techniques.

But a health warning is required. Promising the chance to be born again as a new, more-confident, even fearless person is a false promise made to afflicted people desperate for a cure. Conditions such as fear of failure – as well as antecedents such as low self-esteem – are, as we shall see, innate. Once and however inflicted they are here to stay.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that we can understand our insecurities, accept them as part of us and make strong progress while taking them into account. In fact, in my opinion strong sustainable progress is only possible once we have accepted that our fears and primary beliefs are here to stay. We can develop a strong self-awareness of our fear-driven behaviours – and their root causes – and we can learn to live with who we are. We don’t have to banish our fears forever in order to move forward. Indeed, we can achieve our goals. As long as they are the right goals, our goals – not false goals potentially fed to us by external influences or our own faulty thinking.

And that’s where this book comes in. People with a fear of failure need a map. This book is not a map. In fact, we have to draw our own map and even that will require many redrafts before being even vaguely accurate. What this book provides, I hope, is guidance on how to go about drawing such a map: in draft, fuzzy at the edges, containing plenty of “here be dragons” elements, but a map nonetheless. Something we can grasp and regard as we cut through the thicket. Something that allows us to take those all-important next steps.


The monkey on my back

I have suffered from a debilitating fear of failure all my life – itself the result of poor confidence brought about by a low self-esteem developed in early childhood. At key moments in my life fear has led me to doubt my abilities to succeed, which has profoundly changed my behaviour in ways that made success less likely: often snatching a humiliating defeat from the jaws of victory. And I have read scores of books in an effort to shift what I call the “monkey on my back” – the creature that whispers fear and self-doubt in my ear at critical moments.

But the monkey hasn’t disappeared. In fact, there was no shifting him, which didn’t seem to compute with the literature I was reading, much of which promised both a cure for my insecurities and the certainty of dream fulfilment. Clearly, I was doing something wrong: perhaps not applying the methodology diligently enough or maintaining destructive behaviours and beliefs. Yet I now realize it was their prognosis that was flawed because it took too little account of the fact I am who I am, and that monkey comes too.

Surely a more powerful book would describe a route towards progress from our own flawed perspective – answering the question “what’s stopping you?” with the answer: you are (and the monkey of course). Yet it would also state that we must accept the monkey as a fellow passenger and plan to make progress anyway. It would spot and describe the likely barriers preventing progress, as well as the false assumptions they may generate.

Certainly, if we could see that it was our responses to those barriers that were producing the poor results, not the barriers themselves – nor was it poor luck, innate ineptitude or even prejudice against us – then we may be able to generate better results.

We don’t need a miracle cure injected into us. We just need to take account of our insecurities and navigate our way forward accordingly.


A practitioner in failure

I am a practitioner in failure with a childhood and early adulthood punctuated with one self-fulfilling educational and career disaster after another.

Written-off as stupid by low-grade village-school teachers, and traumatised by the immediately-preceding break-up of my family, I failed the 11-plus – ending up in an Essex secondary-modern turned comprehensive school. I left aged 15 with just one O’ level. Directionless, I was taken on by a local building surveyor needing someone to hold a stripy pole in muddy fields, although he kindly enrolled me on a day-a-week diploma course. Inevitably, I bunked the course – instead spending the days walking the streets of London with a day-return ticket in my pocket.

This eventually landed me a job looking after the vast residential property portfolio of the London region’s gas board. I was 18 at the time and loved it. I was working for a large West End surveying firm full of graduates and professionals, who were nice to me despite my gruff accent and manners. They encouraged me to return to education, so – realizing I was as capable as them – I enrolled on an evening A’ level history course. Five years later, I graduated from the University of Manchester with a high 2:1 joint-honours degrees in Politics & Modern History.

But I was, again, directionless, other than a vague notion of going into journalism – a highly-competitive trade rarely conquered through the application of vague notions. Yet after a few false turns I managed to land a staff-writer then editor’s role for a banking-focused magazine, which led to me becoming a banker in what the City describes as a “gamekeeper turned poacher move”.

As I relay in Part One, I was not a great banker. Paralysed by fear, I worked in both London and the US before realizing I was simply not cut out for finance. Once again without a plan, I was recruited by a friend with a plan – for a dotcom “incubator” (this was the height of the dotcom boom) – and together we founded Metrocube, an “e-business community” that incubated over 200 companies before being sold a few years after the dotcom crash.

Cured of my journalistic and banking ambitions, and somewhat bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, I then combined my skills and experiences to start Moorgate Communications, a financial public relations agency aimed at banks, which has been a sustainable and fulfilling enterprise ever since – even growing through the financial meltdown of 2008-09.

Oh, and I wrote a book on my banking experiences in New York, which was published in 2000 and had me all set – I thought – for a career as a humorous, laddish writer in the Nick Hornby or Michael Lewis mould. However, the book sold less than I’d hoped and my dream was dashed.


An addiction to self-help

The book-writing career aside, it is possible to read the above and think I am, in fact, a long way from a practitioner in failure. But that’s because I have edited out the fears, frustrations, moods, paranoia, anguish and temper tantrums that have punctuated every one of the above experiences. Terrorised by my own insecurities, I have been a nightmare to work with and apologise now to any colleagues that had to suffer my nonsense.

But I have also made considerable progress in facing up to my fears and insecurities. Perhaps surprisingly given my earlier comments, much of this has been due to my ongoing addiction to self-help books. This began while in the US – where the acres of shelves dedicated to the genre suggest an openness that the UK is only slowly adopting – although it took a deeper hold of me back in the UK as I began to realize the problem was not a particular job or person or set of circumstances. The problem was me.

Ultimately, and as described within, this landed me in the hands of a professional psychologist. Yet far from complementing the work of all those self-help gurus, the shrink – plus further research of my own – opened my eyes to the gaping hole between what the psychologists state about our innate (but treatable) personalities and the near-instant and life-changing promises and cures on offer from the self-help gurus.

My first reaction to this was – not untypically – anger. The gurus seemed to be offering false hope and unrealistic dreams that could ultimately leave people further weakened. But then the penny dropped. Much of what they convey has been incredibly useful. Their tips and techniques can be both logical and inspiring. Someone rejecting their divinity with respect to the earthly paradise promised can, therefore, still make use of their, often very practical, advice and methodologies – many of which pepper the pages ahead.

Certainly I still fight the fear every day, as well as my low self-esteem. But I now realize this is part of my chemistry and that such a chemistry doesn’t condemn me. It just means I must take it into account. And it is both the flawed thinking and behaviour of those with a high fear of failure – as well as related insecurities such as low self-esteem – and the progress possible despite it, that I wish to convey in this book.