Know that you will never be able to get rid of the fear of failure or fear in general. Fear is a natural feeling, just like joy, happiness and accomplishment. It’s a feeling that so long as we are human, we will experience.
The Fear of Failure is one of the most common restraints that holds people back from pursuing great ideas. Imagine if we could become totally free from the fear of failure. Imagine what we could then manifest and create. In this interview series, we are talking to leaders who can share stories and insights from their experience about “Becoming Free From the Fear of Failure.” As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Michelle Kuei.
Michelle Kuei is an international professional speaker, coach and critically acclaimed author. Her life’s mission is to change people’s attitudes, guide their behavior and inspire and empower them to achieve greatness.
At age 11, Michelle was permanently disabled in a car accident that froze her growth at 4’ 4” and left her needing crutches to walk. By her own admission, she wasn’t just physically small — she used live her life emotionally small. The hardest part of living with a visible disability was the shame and unworthiness that she carried in her heart and mind.
So she embarked on what began as just physical fitness journey — and evolved into a life-transformation journey when she decided to join her gym mates in their quest to climb Machu Picchu in Peru. She hiked up the 26 miles of ascending trail, 8–10 hours a day. She had to bandage her wrists so they wouldn’t break as they took the load of her body weight with every step on her crutches.
She ultimately ascended the peak … crawling on her hands and knees at the end, to the cheers of those in her party who had been strangers at the outset of the journey.
When she came home, she was changed forever. The voices of shame and doubt about her body were gone. She was free to live life fearlessly. And to help others do the same.
That’s exactly what she does through Elevate LifeCoaching, her speaking engagements and her podcast.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?
Absolutely! Like many entrepreneurs, I wear many hats in my life. I am a visibility coach, author, motivational speaker and content marketing strategist for female coaches. To make it easier for anyone who has no idea what all these titles refer to, most people know me as a “storyteller.”
I tell stories about myself, and I help others tell their stories. But I didn’t start out as a storyteller.
I have a doctor’s degree in pharmacy, and I have been in the healthcare field for the last 20 years. When I finally arrived at a healthy place as a person living with a physical disability, at age 40, I found myself at a crossroads, where I needed to decide what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
While being a doctor of pharmacy and being looked highly upon alongside a medical doctor, I didn’t feel the passion I did when I first got out of graduate school. Pharmacy felt like a job, and if I was lucky, today might be a good day. But most of the time I was just having a lot of those “bad days” where I didn’t care how much you were paying me, I just wanted to get out of this.
Miraculously, this all happened during a period of time when my personal life was also coming to a crossroads. I booked myself a hike to Machu Picchu and came home feeling inspired and knew the one thing I CAN do (and I know I can do it well) is inspire people — one person at a time.
I enrolled in an international coach federation accredited program at iPEC Coaching — and here I am, four years later, with my own company, Elevate LifeCoaching.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
I love using the analogy of climbing a mountain in how this entrepreneurship journey has played out. You know you want to go somewhere high, and you have your backpack and gears ready to go. You start out your hike and first, it’s a little hill, and then come twists and turns. But you are still hopeful, and you think, Well, if I can see it on the map, it can’t be that far away, right?
But … the reality is more that you are going to fall and experience some road bumps along the way, and yes, there are going to be people who adore you and want to sign up for your program or buy from you right away. But there are also times that no matter how much energy and effort you put into creating a program or selling a product or service, what you get is dead silence. Nobody cares!
Why? Because there are thousands of coaches out there who talk about the same thing over and over. You begin to get into this heartbreaking period where you don’t have a large following on social media, no one cares about how amazing your program is (even though deep down you know you can make a great difference for them), but no one cares.
So … when I think about this entrepreneurship journey in starting my own business, I think of it as going on a hike. And it’s not an easy one.
There’s a Haitian proverb that says, “Beyond the mountain is another mountain.”
When people ask me why I want to quit my prestigious pharmacy job and go into business, I tell them … because I am an avid hiker and I like finding more mountains to hike!
So the biggest takeaway from my own business is that having a destination is not good enough. You need to come up with three things and these are what I call the 3D rules: Determination, Dedication and Discipline.
You are a successful leader. Which three-character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
My three most unique traits are authenticity, bravery and connection. I live by my ABCs.
Authenticity is one of the most important and probably the most commonly shared traits among great leaders in this world. Many inspiring and successful leaders, you’ll notice they share the same values in life.
Authenticity encompasses a lot of things, but to me it’s about being genuine to others. Showing empathy and honesty are just some of the important qualities when a person is authentic. In order to be authentic, you may also need to be a bit vulnerable in sharing your struggles.
When I first started my coaching career, I really didn’t have anyone within my network. Most of the people I know are in healthcare, and few know about my new career endeavor. I was struggling to find my audience, let alone potential buyers and clients.
The first thing that came to my mind was, “I need to somehow tell people about what I am struggling with.” I mean, in my personal life, I have learned to ask for help. So I thought I might be able to bring that into starting my business just by asking for help.
The very first thing that I did was send out an extensive email to my friends and family and anyone I know, and I asked them for their help. I told them about my passion for becoming a coach and I asked them if they would like to be coached or if they know someone who might be open to coaching.
Now, That was scary.
Not knowing what they might think of me and whether they would understand my intentions, just the idea of clicking that button was something I would have never thought about had I not started this business.
But I think what helped me in that experience was the authenticity that I brought to the table: being genuine, being vulnerable and just asking for help when needed. For some people, it was an immediate “no,” but others who truly cared about what I was up to kept me in their minds and wrote back to encourage me.
Which brings me to my second personality trait that I am most proud of: bravery.
Most people who are in their 40s are probably looking for some stability in their lives, and who would want to completely shift gears and go into unfamiliar territory — starting a business?
I remember asking myself, Michelle, why not just hop on a plane and go for a month of vacation somewhere? Why do something new and different? Are you out of your mind?
But I think one thing that continued to serve me well in the past and still does is knowing the fear … but doing it anyway. And I believe if you are really passionate about something, your fear is no longer in the control seat.
You know it’s important and you want to get to your destination, so even though it is unfamiliar and scary at times, you are going to let your passion drive the car and just go. Everything else you can figure out along the way.
So how I started my own solopreneur business definitely had a lot to do with bravery. Just be brave and trust the process.
The last piece of my ABCs that I personally live by every day is the key to success, in my opinion. I can be authentic and I can be brave, but without the connection, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
This connection isn’t just about connecting with my why and who I am from an internal perspective, but this connection is also about the community where I bring people together. Especially coaches within my community.
During the pandemic, when the entire world locked down and everyone was scrambling to learn a new way of communicating and making connections, I made a commitment and goal to bring people together.
I want to build a community of people who can count on me to provide positivity in their life. I want to be that go-to person when they are having a bad day, so they can come to my Facebook or social media to have a good laugh, start a conversation or just forget the world is in chaos for a moment. Just to breathe.
I want a community.
Over the years, this community has evolved, and it is now becoming a place where new coaches who are starting out their coaching business can find resources to start. They can count on me to be there to guide them through this process.
I had a difficult hike to be here so I want a community that is easier for them in their journey. I want to bring people together, connect them with who they need to talk to and share their wins and struggles.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the concept of becoming free from failure. Let’s zoom in a bit. From your experience, why exactly are people so afraid of failure? Why is failure so frightening to us?
I believe in answering this question appropriately, we first need to understand our definition of failure. When we hear the word “failure,” our mind is already automatically populating what that looks like. Someone who is not living up to the expectations. Someone who is below average. Someone who isn’t quite fitted to the rest of the world.
And the reason why we have all these images and ideas around the word “failure” is that we were brought up and trained to compete and become the opposite of failure, which is being successful.
Being successful means you get a badge of honor, and being a failure means you get a badge of shame. Shame on you for failing. Good for you for being successful. So when our human mind is focusing on interpreting these words, there comes the emotion that starts to surface. Those emotions are typically negative. Feelings like shame, unworthiness and of course, fear.
The way people live in this world is to be “successful.” If there’s anything other than completely successful, we believe we have failed. So it makes sense for someone who defines failure this way to feel fearful of anything other than success.
In the movie Forrest Gump, Forrest was sitting on a bench describing life. And remember what he said about life?
“Life is a box of chocolates.”
The metaphor behind it is to tell you that life is made up of beautiful unpredictability. When you open the box, you never know what you’re going to get.
But here’s what I believe. I believe life doesn’t come in a box. If life comes in a box, then your life and my life would have looked the same, but they don’t. We may have a lot of similarities in our experiences, but it’s not the same. In fact, it is very unique and different because our life experiences are different.
The problem with why failure is so frightening to us is that we keep living life inside a box. When you’re young, you want to compete to do well in school, get your degree and have a job. After that, you want to get married and have kids, make sure your kids go to a good college, make sure they get good grades and a good job. So it almost feels like you are following a standard of operation. If for any reason you fall outside the box, you have failed.
What are the downsides of being afraid of failure? How can it limit people?
In order to stay on the path of success and not fail, you will do everything in your power to do what is “right” vs what will lead to growth. This fear that you need to keep up with the rest of the world makes you do things instead of being true to yourself and making the most conscious decisions to bring impact. Sometimes when we believe we’re doing the “right” thing, there is in fact a better way of doing it.
I hear this a lot from leaders who still lead under the mindset of “I am right and I will always be right” and an organization that talks about “this is how we’ve always done things.”
And this to me is a sign of that fear of failure. What is it costing them? Tons!
Chances are people won’t trust you because you keep positioning yourself as this person who is very strong and has it all together. You lead by scarcity and your employees are probably not very loyal to you.
Fear of failure is often masked by how we interact with others because again the idea of not being successful is not socially acceptable. And I don’t want to be socially unacceptable, so I am going to hide the fact that I am afraid by being more authoritative.
In contrast, can you help articulate a few ways how becoming free from the free of failure can help improve our lives?
Yes! I love that. I believe having awareness and redefining our relationship with the word “failure” is the foundation for freeing ourselves from the fear of failure and actually starting to live in a winner mindset.
One of the tools that I use to create this awareness for company leaders and their employees is a proprietary assessment developed by Bruce Schneider, the founder of iPEC coaching, known as Energy Leadership. It is a piece of evidence- and researched-based attitudinal assessment that helps individuals to redefine and change the way we see things in this world in relation to ourselves and others.
There are 7 ways we can see failure and in the language of Energy Leadership, it is broken down into 7 levels. So here are the 7 levels of how one may see failure.
Level 1 — Failure is glued to me. No matter where I go or what I do, I always fail.
Level 2 — I don’t want to fail, and therefore I am going to fight through this so I can’t fail.
Level 3 — Failure is like a black cloud to me, and it’s never going to stop. I’m just trying to go through my day and let this just be an OK day.
Level 4 — I know I failed, but I did my best. I will give myself some credit for actually being able to come this far.
Level 5 — OK. I know I didn’t really fail. This was a learning opportunity and here are the things I’ve learned.
Level 6 — It was a beautiful experience to be able to go through this. I brought my gifts and strength to this. I can find happiness in this experience.
Level 7 — We are spiritual beings having a human experience. Failure is just an experience like happiness is also an experience.
The beauty of using this Energy Leadership tool in creating that initial awareness means we are giving people the opportunity to pick and choose what feels more supportive, nurturing and inspiring at the time of experiencing failure.
It’s like flipping a coin. You have a 50/50 chance to land on tails or land on a heads.
With these 7 ways of seeing failure, now you can have some options to choose from on how you want to move forward in your decision-making process. You may still be feeling the fear, but you can turn your fear into a more empowering way of seeing things, doing things by choosing for yourself which way you want to move forward with this fear.
The choice becomes yours.
And the analogy I love to use here is imagining you enter an elevator after experiencing fear or noticing you are afraid to fail. Here are 7 buttons inside this elevator for you to choose from; which button would you like to choose?
Now, remember, no matter which button you choose, this elevator door will open and the outcome you are going to see is going to be different. Choose wisely and consciously.
We would love to hear your story about your experience dealing with failure. Would you be able to share a story about that with us?
Sure! I used to think my life was a big failure.
Despite the degree I have, I used to measure myself against what is considered to be “normal.”
I’m 4’4” tall — failed. A “normal” adult Asian woman measures about 5’ tall at the very least. That’s a fail. I walk with crutches — failed again. I am single and I don’t have kids — failed. These are just some of the most apparent ways how I used to define myself as successful or a failure.
A few years ago before I started my coaching business, I had this opportunity to advance within an organization and for a management position. I thought it was a great opportunity for me to step up and get out of working as a staff pharmacist, clocking in and out at work and feeling exhausted at the end of the day.
When a management position opened up, I thought I might be able to get a desk job where it wasn’t as labor-intensive.
So I gathered my courage and decided to apply for that position.
Well…I didn’t get it. I mean, why would I? Failure is glued to me in life. Right? Level 1 thinking about failure.
How did you rebound and recover after that? What did you learn from this whole episode? What advice would you give to others based on that story?
Being able to rebound and recover from a setback or failure is a big part of my journey in both my personal life and professional life. What I’ve learned from my own experiences in both areas of life is that resiliency comes from cultivating three very important strengths you have within you.
They are compassion, courage, and confidence.
These three things are like muscles within our bodies, in this case, our brain muscle. To be compassionate regarding the events that had happened. I didn’t get the job was a fact. I couldn’t avoid the accident that took place when I was 11 years old. That was the fact. Giving myself compassion meant knowing that just because I didn’t get what I wanted, it didn’t mean I am not worthy of anything else.
I can do better. I can be more. This isn’t the right job for me, and I was meant to be something else much more, to bring more impact to more people and help more people. Forgiving myself and showing myself the compassion that I deserve was the first step to this resiliency journey.
So the biggest and probably the most important first step for anyone who is experiencing setback and failure in their life is, I would say, to forgive yourself.
One of the meditation practices that I found really helpful on my journey is to practice Hoponopono meditation. It involves 4 phrases — “I’m sorry, please forgive me, thank you, I love you.”
When you do this, you are forgiving yourself for the pain that you are experiencing and the pain you had to impose on others because of what you had experienced.
This practice speaks a lot about compassion to me. I hope it can be for you as well.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that everyone can take to become free from the fear of failure”? Please share a story or an example for each.
Step 1. Know that you will never be able to get rid of the fear of failure or fear in general. Fear is a natural feeling, just like joy, happiness and accomplishment. It’s a feeling that so long as we are human, we will experience.
One of the examples I can share with you is doing a live video. During and after the pandemic I think one thing all businesses learned is to do live video or be on video. Many coaches I work with are afraid to be on video. What if they don’t like me, what if I don’t have anybody watching, what if I don’t remember what to say? Lots of what ifs.
When I first started doing video and live videos, I had the same feeling. I was afraid of how people might judge me. I was afraid of not being able to run a smooth webinar or live event that would actually deliver the message to my audience.
I still live with that fear every time I go live or get on a video. It’s never gone away, but I think the difference is now I am able to give it a new definition. If I don’t call it fear, but “excitement.” I’m “excited” to be on live video or live interviews!
Step 2. Recognize this fear. I’ve talked about 7 ways you can recognize and know which fear of failure you are feeling, and the options you have available to choose from. Just recognizing it and acknowledging that it exists will already make you feel lighter.
There’s a study out there that talks about how many times we talk to ourselves on a daily basis. I think it averages out to about 70,000 thoughts every single day.
And we “hear” these thoughts. They are known as self-talk. Recognizing the fear and knowing that you have options to choose means that before you continue on with the feeling of fear, you can “self-talk” with some more empowering way to snap out of your own fear when it gets deep.
I am notorious when it comes to self-talk.
My ideas are constantly running through my head. Just a few weeks ago, I was in a speech competition and I had to compete with 4 other contestants. My fear of failure started to kick in right before my time to get on the stage because I just heard some amazing speeches before me.
Knowing it was fear, I started to run through all the empowering questions that I could ask myself at that time. Things like “OK! Michelle…how true is it that you are not good enough for this?” What’s the worst that can happen?”
My self-talk became much more supportive when I chose to see this contest as a learning experience (Level 5 thinking from earlier).
Step 3. Give your fear a persona. As strange as it sounds, this is something that really worked for me. Some fear experts would say give it a name. Same concept. You can give it a name, draw it out on a piece of paper, or in my case, I gave it a persona.
My fear has a name, and her name is Daisy. Daisy is a Barbie doll that looks very perfect and lives a perfect life. Daisy is skinny and her legs are straight, tall and beautiful. Daisy enjoys yoga and knows a few places to hang out on the beach.
Basically, my Daisy has everything that I don’t have, and she’s my fear.
My fear of failure, fear of judgment, fear of not being good enough.
When you give the fear a persona, it becomes something you can see and face. I can smack Daisy if she’s being too loud. Daisy used to drive my car, and I would be in the passenger seat. Nowadays, when I am about to take on something new, a big project, or anything that would prompt Daisy to step in my way to achieving my goals, I can now face it and say: “I know what you’re doing there, Daisy, but I’m not going to let you.”
And you keep moving forward.
Step 4. Know your strengths. This is an important part of facing our fear. A lot of people are afraid to fail because they don’t believe they are good enough for the tasks or challenges in front of them. It’s strange how fast we can pick up on others’ strengths and admire them for who they are, but when it comes to recognizing our own strengths and being proud of ourselves for having them, it’s challenging for many people.
One way to recognize your strengths is to keep a list of milestones you have accomplished. You can call this a milestone journal or a humble brag journal. After you list them, go back to it and list what went well for you. How did you do it? What did it take for you to do this? Name those traits and jot them down.
I love one of the features that Facebook has to offer. There’s a “life event” function on your Facebook page where you can list your milestones and accomplishments. I love that feature and often use it to share my wins with friends and family as well as my audience.
Step 5. Discover your Winner mindset. I believe you are born a winner. That’s just who you are. You are here to win, and you are always winning.
This may be a strange concept to many, but it’s actually being talked about in many different ways by many people. When you are a winner, you won’t get up in the morning to think about what you need to accomplish. You’ll be thinking about what you can do better than yesterday.
An athlete who runs on a football field doesn’t think about needing to run the entire 10 yards; a player thinks about needing to run an extra yard to win. And the fact that you show up in the game is a win already.
And this is how we are born in this world. We were born as the winner.
Coming to understand this was a game-changer for me because it was the first time in my life I realized that I am limitless. I booked myself a ticket to hike Machu Picchu with my two crutches, I started my business with zero followers and a low budget.
I’m going to do this and I will do better today than I did yesterday.
I am here to win and I am winning every day just by showing up to the game.
The famous Greek philosopher Aristotle once said, “It is possible to fail in many ways…while to succeed is possible only in one way.” Based on your experience, have you found this quote to be true? What do you think Aristotle really meant?
It’s easy to fail if we define failure as missing the mark.
Life isn’t designed in perfection. So there is always going to be the chance of missing the mark because few of us are equipped with the skills and knowledge to be good at something at first shot. If you are, consider yourself lucky.
For the rest of us, we are a work in progress. This means you are going to have to try a few times, perhaps more than just a few things, to learn important lessons that would get you to the next level.
Remember the days they had the original Nintendo, the red and white station that comes with a cassette you plug in to play Mario Bros.? I loved that game when I was a kid. I think of failure and success like playing Mario Bros. You start the game and you have to complete different levels in order to get to the castle and rescue the princess.
There are some levels that are easy to go through while in others you have to lose your life a few times before you finally get the hang of it and make it to the final level.
Failure is easy. Success is hard.
But I believe what Aristotle really meant with this is deeper than just failure and success. Those are the surface words to what we see. What he’s really referring to is resilience and grit. The hidden traits and characteristics of what we take away from an experience.
To have the tenacity to keep going.
To build the resilience in bouncing from setbacks
I believe what he’s really referring to is the characteristics of what it would take for someone to become successful: the ability to build these strengths that we need in order to reach our goals. And this is not an easy thing to do.
But if one simply neglects or ignores the fact that whatever they are experiencing right now is their way of cultivating those strengths, then they will find themselves failing in multiple ways. It’s easier to give up than to keep going. In a more modern term, I think it’s really saying, if you don’t want to do something, you’re going to find a million ways to not do it.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would be starting a project called “Better Human.” I would like to sit different people down from different backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities and languages and invite them to a room where they spend time talking to each other. They would not be able to leave the room until they have “spoken” and “listened” to each other.
I would say it like a coffee chat. You meet someone inside a coffee shop, and you ask them about their lives, how they are doing, what’s new.
I want people to start listening to people, and the only way we can accomplish this is to give them the room and space to sit down with no distractions or interruptions so they can truly listen to each other.
Everyone will have an allotted time, and when they are finished with one room, they move on to the next room. I would like to start a “Better Human Project” so we can stop and start listening instead of jumping to conclusions, making judgments and criticizing each other in ways that aren’t really helping anyone and it’s such a waste of time being human.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them :-)
Her story is the perfect example of someone overcoming the failure that leads to success. And she doesn’t just keep the success to herself, she empowers others to do the same, and she sponsors others in achieving their goals. And the truth is I have a photo of Oprah on my vision board.
I wanted to be like her, so having a private breakfast or lunch would be a dream come true from my vision board.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Readers can always follow me via my website at elevatelifecoaching.org to learn more about my coaching program, in which I’m currently only coaching women coaches and women entrepreneurs. I also work with companies and organizations for events, speaking on the topic of resiliency which they can find my speaker page at elevatelifecoaching.org/speaking. I am also on all the social media platforms; all the links are available through the website.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.