Everyone fears failure – at least everyone doing something worth doing. This fear is amplified for entrepreneurs, owners of new startups and even – believe it or not – successful CEOs. What if my business folds? What if investors don’t believe in my proposition? What if my enterprise takes a hit from the economic recession and doesn’t recover? All these are enough to frighten anyone out of their wits, but imagine the scale of failure someone like Elon Musk faces. Someone trying to accomplish what majority of people would pronounce impossible the moment it’s mentioned. Automobiles running on electricity? Come off it! Building a habitable colony in space? Impossible! Our everyday failures pale in comparison to the projects Elon Musk proposes. Imagine announcing a project to send humans to mars on a global platform. If such a venture fails, the spotlight shows your failure to a worldwide audience! So how does Musk handle the fear of failure he experiences? Does he even feel this fear at all? In his own words “I feel fear quite strongly.” so how does he keep this fear at bay?
In a Google Hangout session – sponsored jointly by Google for entrepreneurs and Virgin Unite – Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Richard Branson, Chairman of Virgin Group had a lot to say about fear of failure. This doesn’t come as a surprise, seeing as both their businesses almost fell through while still young. Elon Musk got funding for Tesla at the last possible moment, saving it from bankruptcy and Richard Branson got the overdraft for Virgin group the weekend before the bank was to foreclose. These close shaves have taught some lessons. For Elon Musk, it’s that “People should certainly ignore fear if it’s irrational. Even if it’s rational and the stake is worth it, it’s still worth proceeding,” he says. Assume that your enterprise can fail at any moment, you will constantly harbour the fear that it will die, but this fear should never keep you from trying. Granted, most startups will fail, but you should still try regardless. Elon Musk’s advice for increasing chances of succeeding is to work nonstop and place your entire focus on building the best possible product, supported by the best possible brand. Richard Branson advises to not take failure personally, because most businesses will fail.
In an interview with Jared Friedman, Elon Musk shared some tips for dealing with fear. He calls one method “fatalism.” “Something that can be helpful is fatalism, to some degree, if you just accept the probabilities, then that diminishes fear. When starting SpaceX, I thought the odds of success were less than 10 percent and I just accepted that actually probably I would just lose everything. But that maybe we would make some progress.”
Fatalism involves picturing the worst possible outcome of a venture – that it would fail woefully and that you would lose everything. While this might sound like a strange method for combating your fear of failure, it actually works. Imagining the worst possible outcome kind of prepares you for it and at the same time nudges you to start unconsciously making a contingency plan.
Another ingredient from the Elon Musk recipe is passion. While majority of the people Musk knew thought SpaceX was a fantastic idea, with no chance whatsoever of succeeding, Musk actually knew the odds were far from being in his favour. Why did he continue inspite of all that? “I’d soon come to a conclusion that if something didn’t happen to improve rocket technology, we’d be stuck on earth forever,” says Musk. And being stuck here was a possibility he just wasn’t willing to entertain.
Says Elon Musk: “People sometimes think technology just automatically gets better every year but actually it doesn’t. It only gets better if smart people work like crazy to make it better. By itself, technology – if people don’t work at it – actually will decline… Look at, say, ancient Egypt, where they were able to build these incredible pyramids and then they basically forgot how to build pyramids…. There are many such examples in history… entropy is not on your side.” So with all that in mind, he got to work. Elon Musk’s need for the project to work out was what kept the fear from stopping him. When you care enough about something, you do all in your power to see it through, even at the risk of devastating loss.