March 27, 2013

Afraid of Failure? Maybe You Should Be.

Turns out, there's a reason - an actual physical reason - to avoid failure. "There is a part of the brain called the anterior insula, and that's where we process losses," says Dr. Richard Peterson, psychiatrist and managing partner of MarketPsych. He specializes in behavioral finance and neuroeconomics research, two fancy ways of saying that he studies the inner-workings of the mind in order to make better financial and business choices. In a New York times article about individuals who change career course only to fall flat and ditch their projects, Dr. Peterson notes that there is real pain associated with poor financial decisions and outcomes, aka "losing money".

I've written before about my own hesitance to hang a shingle and go out on my own as a consultant or freelancer. It is just not in my nature to step out alone without a business, organization or network behind me. I always thought this was a major weakness in my professional career. Shouldn't I be confident enough in my own skills to brave the workforce alone? 

Well, bravery may not have anything to do with it. Neuroeconomics research demonstrates that we humans are pre-wired to overestimate our ability to tackle risks, especially when they involve a major investment in time, money or other resources. Again, Dr. Peterson: "We overestimate our ability to control outcomes that have some element of chance, tend[ing] to overestimate the extent to which good things are going to happen, especially to us." I read that to mean that we like to minimize the risk and maximize the benefits that stem from our decisions. 

Yep, sounds about right.

I empathize with the entrepreneurs in the article (really, you should read it!) who gave their all only to realize too late that they had no hope of success. The lesson I take from their stories is that I should cut myself some slack. Perhaps I am not the cowardly lion after all but, instead, someone who takes self-assessment seriously, who constantly weighs and works on the value of my skills for professional growth. That can't be a bad thing.

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