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A Man’s Greatest Fear

I remember several years ago having a conversation with a man who had done quite well in his career. His business seemed to be flourishing and he had all the material trappings of success. He also appeared to have a great marriage and family life.

I share this because during our conversation he surprised me when he said, “Every morning when my feet hit the floor, I am driven by one thing. The fear of failure.” I was shocked to hear these words. He came across as such a talented and confident man. It struck me that he was not driven to succeed, but motivated by the fear of failure.

Do you remember the name David Sokol? He was the CEO of MidAmerican Energy which is owned by Berkshire Hathaway. He was a rising star in the company and many believed he might one day replace Warren Buffett. However, Sokol purchased stock in a company that Berkshire Hathaway was buying. The purchase was made before the announcement of the acquisition. Sokol was forced to resign. Just before all this took place, Sokol was interviewed by The Wall Street Journal and in the article described how he worked his way up the ranks. In the interview Sokol revealed the secret to his success, “I outworked everyone because I feared failure.”

Then you have Bernie Madoff, the perpetrator of the greatest Ponzi scheme to ever take place on Wall Street. In his first interview from prison Madoff shared how he watched his own father go bankrupt. He vowed that it would never happen to him. In his own words he said, “I did not want to lose the honor and esteem of men.” He did not want to fail like his father, but look where that got him.

For many of us, life is about what we do and how successful we are at what we do. Over time it makes us wonder, “What do you think about what I do? How do you rate me and what I do?” It is then just a matter of time before we secretly ask ourselves, “What if I fail at what I do? What would you think of me then? Would you still respect me as a man?”

The thought of failing, of being considered a failure is one of the greatest fears that haunts men’s lives. It is like a psychological death.

The reason is because we live our lives before an audience. My audience is all of those in my sphere of influence. My colleagues, the people in my community, my family, my friends. We often unconsciously allow our audience to make the final verdict on the value of our lives. Most people live their entire lives looking for ways to win the approval of their audience. It makes their lives worthwhile and have significance.

The problem is, we have gotten this all wrong. Several years ago, popular author Donald Miller gave a lecture to a large group of students at Harvard, and he addressed this issue. This is what he said:

Human beings are wired so that they need some great authority outside themselves to tell him or her who they really are. But for many people that voice is not there, because their lives are not oriented towards God. When that is the case, the very first thing that will happen in their lives will be to question their worth and their value. Does my life really matter? And this is what causes us to begin to hide ourselves from others.

Miller goes on to say that he recognizes this to be true in the lives of everyone, including important people and famous celebrities. When he realized how we no longer look to God to give us our worth and significance, he understood why we are so addicted to the approval of others, particularly the audience we are trying to impress. The problem is we are seeking to impress the wrong audience! We were designed to live so that the audience we seek to please first is God. Os Guinness puts it this way, “A life lived listening to the decisive call of God is a life lived before one audience that trumps all others—the Audience of One.”

The only real way to be delivered from the fear of failure is to replace the audience we are seeking to please with that one audience that transcends all others. The Audience of One.


Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.

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