How Do I Cope with Fear of Failure?

Advice from The Sherwins for September 2018

Don't Rain on Me


Hi Sherwins,

I've transitioned into product design this past year from a non-design background. I'm in my first contract role now and I'm having a hard time shaking my imposter syndrome. I didn't go to school for design, but I compare myself to other designers. I’m afraid of doing something wrong and people telling me I'm wrong. I fear that I will fail as a designer but I want to succeed. 

How do I cope with this?

Thanks, M in Salt Lake City


Hello M,

We’ve been getting a lot of letters about this lately. We’re curious if this imposter syndrome thing happens so much in other fields, like accounting or sports medicine.

So, we’ll start by saying it again: Everyone feels this way at some point in their lives. We shouldn’t, but we do, and a lot of that is because it’s acceptable to feel it. Design is lousy with folks saying they have imposter syndrome. It’s rife with people who work hard but fear failure. It’s almost a job requirement at this point, an endorsable skill on LinkedIn. Secretly, no one wants to work with someone who’s super-confident, unless they’re willing to share their fool-proof hacks for getting there.

Let’s skip all of that, then. To us, your letter sounds like something adjacent to imposter syndrome. Yours is a letter of worry.

Specificity is the difference between worry and fear. We have fears of specific things. Death, spiders, even fear of the unknown is specific in its non-specificness. Right now, everything you’re talking about is a worry, meaning that it’s loose and ill-defined. You don’t actually know. 

You’re comparing yourself to fellow designers, and that’s usually a productive thing. But if the assessment is a consistent “I’m coming up short” with no specifics to help you along, then the comparison is useless.

And now a short break for a stern scolding. Stop with the “I didn’t go to school for design” stuff. A lot of product design folks didn’t go to school for design. Hell, a lot of designers didn’t go to school for design. “What I didn’t go to school for” has become part of an identity that too many professionals in the field use to put up barriers for themselves. Design school isn’t med school or law school and it certainly isn’t Hogwarts. What do you think they teach there? Go talk to some people who went to design school. What did they get that you didn’t? Make a list. Now, go learn it. Make today the day you tell your past educational decisions to sit down and stop talking. End scolding.

One of the first things you learn in the design world—and yes, there are plenty of designers who don’t learn this in design school—is that defining success is an essential part of any project. It’s also an essential part of your career. You’re worried about failure, but what does success look like? Instead of spending so much time considering failure, spend more time getting specific about success.

Given where you are right now, and all things being equal, are you doing a good job? If you can’t immediately answer that question, start there. Consider each part of your job—you can even start with the scope of your role in your contract—and ask yourself how you’ll know if you’re doing it well. At a glance, if you’re doing it wrong, how do you know? If you’re doing it right, what happens? (And no, “I’ll get paid” isn’t a good enough answer.)

Who is affected by your work? Not just those mysterious users out there in the world. We’re talking about your immediate team members. This is the researcher that gets your findings report, the engineer you sketch wireframes with, and the marketing group you deliver that awesome presentation to. Those people. Ask them.

Don’t ask them if you’re doing a good job. That’s not helpful information. Ask them what their expectations look like, what they need to get their jobs done, and what a good working relationship is for them. How do they frame success?

Don’t stop there. Because all you’ll get from those conversations are answers. We want the answers, right? We want a clear checklist so that we can know for certain that we’ve done our part. But life isn’t like that. Life is more than answers. Life is how you get there, why you seek the answers, and ultimately, figuring out what the questions are that get you to the specifics. Life is all of the relationships that we build over time with others, then figuring out how our definitions and specifics align with those of others. And if you really want to be successful, as a designer and as a person, you have to begin cultivating those relationships as quickly as possible.

This is not a magic formula, M. It’s not like you’re going to spend a couple of days digging through your job description and have some intense coffee talks with your coworkers and come out on the other side a fearless design guru. You’ll still worry about things. But the inability for you to label your worries about your job is holding you in place, even though you were clearly capable enough to make it this far. The inability to name where you are weak and where you wish to grow prohibits you from making a plan to better yourself. Without specifics, you will never escape worry. Without direction, the lack of certainty will hold back your career. 

We cope with worry by transforming it into fear. It’s really the only way. Once you have fear, you can apply frameworks and logic and critical thinking to it, and transform it into a force for action. 

You have an entire organization of people to pull from, an entire industry of designers and non-designers. Ask them how they measure success for themselves. How do they understand their worries? And how do they turn them from worry to fear to action? Ask for the details. The specifics. You need specifics about your contract, your company, and your job. Then move outward and forward. Specifics about career and vision, what you want and what you don’t.

Because if you aren’t specific for yourself, someone else will be specific for you. And the ability to define our lives—our jobs, our happiness, even our fears—is not something we should let slide through our fingers. 

This is usually the part of the column where we go for a big inspirational finish… but, well, those are never very specific. Plus, we don’t want to give you another vague aspirational thing to worry about. Ask your questions, get the answers, and start to shine a light into the corners where you cannot see just yet. Give yourself time to see the space before worrying if it can ever be your home.

All best,
The Sherwins

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Send questions to questions (at) askthesherwins (daht) com. All questions become the property of Ask The Sherwins, LLC and may be edited. Our advice shouldn't be construed as a replacement for the appropriate legal or professional counsel. This advice is around till October 2018.