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Failure: why are people so scared of it?

17 February 2023

The Christian faith is an encouragement to people to own up to, and learn from, their mistakes, contends Emma Ineson


Jesus Falls under the Cross by Andrea Casali (1777)

Jesus Falls under the Cross by Andrea Casali (1777)

ALL failures are not equal. Is a genuine mistake the same as a devious moral error? How do we tell the difference?

Leadership professor Amy Edmondson’s contention is that some failures are to be encouraged, while others are to be avoided. Some warrant praise and are the gateway to new breakthroughs. Others warrant blame and demand admission, an apology, and reparation.

She suggests that there are three primary kinds of failure. First, there are simple, preventable failures or mistakes made in routine tasks. The person knows how to do something right but, for some reason, gets it wrong.

Second, there are complex failures or accidents, which is when a set of factors together lead to failure, despite there being recognised processes.

Finally, there are intelligent failures — that is, discoveries which are the undesired results of “thoughtful forays into new territory”. When Thomas Edison was asked about the failures he experienced on the way to inventing the electric lightbulb, he said (purportedly), “I have not failed 10,000 times — I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”

Intelligent failures should be looked for and embraced.

Edmondson has also identified a spectrum of reasons for why failures happen. The spectrum ranges from reasons that are blameworthy at “1” to praiseworthy at “9”, as follows:

  1.  Deviance — an individual chooses to violate a prescribed process or practice.
  2. Inattention — an individual inadvertently deviates from the specifications.
  3. Lack of ability — an individual doesn’t have the skills, conditions or training to execute a job.
  4. Process inadequacy — a competent individual adheres to a prescribed but faulty or incomplete process.
  5. Task challenge — an individual faces a task too difficult to be executed reliably every time.
  6. Process complexity — a process composed of many elements breaks down when it encounters novel interactions.
  7. Uncertainty — a lack of clarity about future events causes people to take seemingly reasonable actions that produce undesired results.
  8. Hypothesis testing — an experiment conducted to prove that an idea or a design will succeed fails.
  9. Exploratory testing — an experiment conducted to expand knowledge and investigate a possibility leads to an undesired result.


EDMONDSON contends that very few failures are someone’s deliberate fault, and, in many organisations, blame is apportioned more frequently than it should be. She says: “We . . . tend to downplay our responsibility and place undue blame on external or situational factors when we fail, only to do the reverse when assessing the failures of others — a psychological trap known as fundamental attribution error.”

Edmondson suggests that failure analysis needs to move beyond the simple (“Who did what wrong?”) and on to the complex (“Why and what systems and structures led to their mistake?”). Failure is here to stay, and simply seeing it as something to get over or avoid to achieve success is to misunderstand the power and potential — and the reality — of failure.

The primary thing that stops organisations, and the people within them, making the kinds of failures that may lead to success, is fear, fear of getting it wrong. Such fear takes several forms: fear that we will be found inadequate for the task, fear of harming ourselves or other people (though that is probably a good fear to have), fear that we will be embarrassed or shamed.

A degree of fear of failure is to be welcomed: it is that kind of healthy fear which is the precursor to trying new things.

But some fear of failure is altogether less positive and even crippling. There is a word for an extreme fear of failure: “atychiphobia”, which is an abnormal, unwarranted, and persistent fear of failing at something in your life.

There is an embarrassment connected with failure. Moran puts it like this: “Shame still attaches to failure as it ever has. That is why we are so quick to turn it into something else, to escape from its shame with stories of salvation.”

So, why does failure happen, and why are we so keen to cover it up when it does? In their book Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me), Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson examine the concept of “cognitive dissonance” (a term coined by the psychologist Leon Festinger in the middle of the 20th century). Tavris and Aronson define cognitive dissonance as “a state of tension that occurs when a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent with each other.”

Such discomfort when there is dissonance springs from the inner need of human beings to create a narrative that enables us to lead a life that is “consistent and meaningful”. The trouble is, things go wrong, and we don’t know why or what to do about it. We justify ourselves and our world to make sense of what we see and experience every day.

In connection with failure, cognitive dissonance drives the impulse to downplay, deny, or cover up failure. Humans go to great lengths to avoid the pain and shame that goes with failure, and so will employ all kinds of tactics to ensure that it doesn’t happen, either denying or minimising it.

That is what causes people to prefer to tell a fabricated story about what went wrong, and why, even when confronted with the facts, to avoid the pain and shame of confessing they got it wrong, even to themselves. It is this self-justification that causes people to veer away from openly admitting mistakes.

The root of it all is the self-protection necessary for the avoidance of shame.


Hardly a story about triumph 

CHRISTIANS ought to be really good at failure. The story of our faith equips us so well for it. If I’d been writing the Bible, I would have gone about it differently. I would have been tempted to big up the highlights and play down the bad bits, to show the story of God’s people in an altogether more positive light. But the real sorry story of God’s people contained in the Bible, and written in the books of all our lives from here to eternity, is one of constant failure.

Redemption, also, of course, and grace and love and all those other good things, but all those good things are necessary because the people of God fail and always have done.

Christians should also be the most forgiving when it comes to those who fail. Is there room in our theology for a doctrine of failure? Jesus set out very clearly to his disciples and in several places that what they were signing up to was not an instant route to worldly success. It wasn’t going to earn them a good reputation or honour or glory. It would, in all likelihood, lead to their deaths: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16.24).

Even with large crowds following him, Jesus clearly spelt out the cost of discipleship, and that it is not an easy ask: ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14.26).

When Jesus’s disciples were arguing over which of them was the most successful and would sit in the most honoured place in heaven, Jesus was clear that’s not what all this is about: “But it is not so among you; instead whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10.43-44).

It’s why Dietrich Bonhoeffer summed up discipleship in this way: “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.” Jesus knew that to be a follower of his would not be an easy path to walk, and he prepared his followers well for failure.

One of the things that we fear when admitting failure is the spectre of shame. The reason so many people don’t admit to mistakes and errors is that we don’t acknowledge the inevitability of failure as part of the human condition, and we think that, if we admit to getting something wrong, we’ll be seen as incompetent. One day, people will realise that I am the fraud I know myself to be, as the self-talk goes.

I reckon that, for most people — aside from those rare few who seem somehow to have an unfailing sense of confidence in their own ability — most of the time, adult life is lived in constant fear of being found out. “Impostor syndrome” looms large. Grown-up life is hard work. It involves constant making of decisions and daily actions that, if done wrongly, potentially, could end in disaster.

Indeed, some of us have a very highly tuned sense of the perilousness of adult life. I think it’s why I hate driving. I don’t trust myself, and I’m so conscious of all the terrible things that could result if I make a wrong move. I’d be a terrible pilot.

In some ways, we need to maintain the veneer of competence. It wouldn’t do if, each time I went to the dentist, she started with the words, “I hope this goes OK. I really don’t know what I’m doing,” or the train driver chirpily let you know over the Tannoy, “I’m 80 per cent confident that I’ll get you to your destination relatively unscathed.”

Keeping up the aura of respectability and competence ensures that we function as people and societies. Yet, there is always the nagging fear just below the surface that I’ll be found out.


THAT is why it is wonderful, even in this place of fear, that the Christian story speaks loud and clear. We fear shame, yet at the heart of the story of Christ is the comforting fact that the Son of God, who was in all senses the most perfect human who has ever lived, sinless and whole in a way none of the rest of us will ever be, was himself the subject of shame, mockery, and derision.

At the heart of the good news of Jesus Christ stands a symbol of foolishness and utter incompetence: the cross. We often miss what a shameful failure the cross appeared to be. We have cast it now in the warm glow of the success of the resurrection, and perhaps are inclined to skip over what a sign of ignominy the crucifixion of Christ really was at that time.

After his trial, the soldiers guarding him clothed him with ironic symbols of success precisely to highlight how much he had failed in the eyes of those who condemned him to death: “They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand. and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’” (Matthew 27.28-29).

He couldn’t even carry his own cross. As Jesus was crucified, those looking on held out to him what they thought he had said about his own success, and goaded him with his failure: “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Matthew 27.40). The religious leaders also mocked him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself” (Matthew 27.42). Failure.


EVEN though Jesus was the perfect human being who could never sin and could not fail in the eyes of God, he certainly seemed to be a failure in the eyes of the world. Right at the heart of the Christian faith stands a symbol of shame and disgrace. It was widely held that execution by crucifixion was not only cruel but also humiliating. Yet it is through the cross, a powerful icon of failure, that God chose to shame the apparent wisdom of this world:

“Much of the power of Christianity derives from the wisdom of the cross regarding suffering, failure, and death. It is a realistic preparation for the inevitable experience of personal and social failure: ‘You will be hated by all men on account of my name’” (Matthew 10.22).

Perhaps another word for the shame of failure is “foolishness”. When we fail, we feel foolish, and the Bible has plenty to say about that, too: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1.27).

Paul makes the bold claim that, through this shameful instrument of public humiliation, God showed his ultimate wisdom and power. That ought to offer comfort to all of us who feel like we have failed. Failure is never final, and redemption is always possible.

So, what’s the problem? Why are we, even those of us who are Christians, so reluctant to allow ourselves and others to fail? Why do we have such an undeveloped theology of failure? Without a robust theology of failure, we are unable truly to know ourselves or to know the extent of God’s love, grace, and forgiveness.

As John Navone says: “Such a theology must remind us that there is no authentic Christianity without the willingness to risk failure, and that to attempt to insulate ourselves from the possibility of failure is a betrayal of the Christian spirit, so that our attitude toward failure measures the degree of our self-transcendence in Christ.”


These are edited extracts from Failure: What Jesus said about sin, mistakes and messing stuff up by Emma Ineson (SPCK, £10.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99); 978-0-28108-784-6). It is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2023 (Books for Lent, 20 January).

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