Two Words Which Get In Our Way of Growing

how to improve myself and not be afraid of failing

Last week, I made good progress with the scorpion pose. By the end of October, I’ll do the entire pose by myself.

For months, I wasn’t making any headway. I relied on the instructor to lift my body and hold it in the pose.

Then last week, he identified the single aspect that held me back.


I was afraid to fall, to hurt myself, and at a subconscious level, to be seen as a failure. But I know one thing. I’m not the only one who feels like this.

All of us want to try something new… something that challenges us, adds meaning to our lives and makes us feel good about ourselves.

But fear holds us back. This fear manifests through two words: What If? What if something goes wrong?

What if we get injured while trying a new exercise?

What if that special someone we want to explore a relationship with hurts us?

What if we fail while pursuing our passion?

More importantly, what will others say? “We told you so,” “what the hell were you thinking,” “it’s time you understood your limits,” “you’re a sore loser,”…


It’s better to resign ourselves to our current state. Because the perception of failure has metamorphosed from an action (I failed) to an identity (I’m a failure). And nobody likes feeling like a failure.

This state of stasis eventually builds regret, which is worse than the feeling of having tried and failed. We try to drown out this regret with things that offer fleeting happiness, but leave us empty in the long term. Like external validation, mindlessly consuming content, looking for instant gratification, and so on.

As children, we were not like this. We didn’t fear failure half as much as we do today. Rather we welcomed it.

So what changed?

What Makes Children Different?

In an interesting experiment, children competed against Harvard MBA grad students to build structures as tall as they could, with uncooked food items. The grad students were no match for the kids.

Here’s why. The Harvard students spent much of their allotted time discussing the best ways to build the tallest skyscraper. But the children quickly began building their structures. Each time the structure crashed, they learned and tried another way.

Those children were on to something. And we can learn that “something” from them.

While the Harvard students kept asking “What If” and speculating, the children got in many more tries. They didn’t let What If get in their way. They moved quickly to How.

This trait isn’t exclusive to the children in the above experiment. It’s something every child displays.

Watch how children respond to getting scolded by their parents at the park. It doesn’t deter them from their daredevilry. When they fall, they cry, dust their knees, and return to the “activity” more determined than before, despite their mothers’ helpless protests.

how children learn from failure

“If you fall, I’ll break your legs. (credit: Garbage Bin)

This doesn’t come from stubbornness, but from their love for a challenge. Children just HAVE to figure things out. The number of tries they make is inversely proportional to the time in which they achieve their goals.

Even we can learn to move from What If to How.

From What If to How

Progress is the ultimate motivator. It helps us stick to a task and move closer to our goals. But failure is the biggest obstacle in our path to progress. (Or the fear of getting judged after failing.)

This is why What-If stops us dead in our tracks. its why we learn things rapidly as children but stop learning as we grow older.

It’s time to dump the fear of failing in favor of progress. Because progress helps you discover what you enjoy and adds meaning to your life. It builds self-esteem and makes you stop depending on external validation.

And the “high” that you experience after overcoming a difficult obstacle is better than any drug.

Changing questions from What-If to How sets the ball rolling. This How can be of two types.

The first is “How can I make this happen?” The second is “How can I minimize the chances of failing?”

The first How helps you understand things at a fundamentals level and simplify them. And simple steps reassure you to take action.

For instance, when I asked myself how I could make nail the scorpion pose, I followed the instructions to place the weight of my upper body on my forearms and leave my legs lighter to swing up. This helped me make tiny progress. I’ve understood the fundamentals. Practice will lead me to the goal.

The second How stops you from jumping headlong into the water without testing its depth. Taking precautions to avoid failure is integral to the process which leads to positive outcomes.

I’ll practice the scorpion pose on a thick mat under the close observation of my instructor. He can catch me before I fall. Even if I fall, the mat will muffle the hard landing, and protect my knees and teeth.

Summing Up

We make mistakes, we learn, we try again, we make different mistakes, and learn more. With each try, we move forward until one day, unexpectedly, we achieve the goal.

Remember, 1% improvement every day doesn’t sum up to 365% at the end of the year. It sums up to 3,778%.

You simply have to ask less of What-If and more of How.

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