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Why do 20-somethings fear failure?

Yesterday I posed the question, “What should I teach about next month in Spain?” Another way of framing the question is, “What do 20-somethings need to be successful?” For example, should we help them learn to how to take more risks and learn that failure is a normal part of life?   You…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes
Yesterday I posed the question, “What should I teach about next month in Spain?” Another way of framing the question is, “What do 20-somethings need to be successful?” For example, should we help them learn to how to take more risks and learn that failure is a normal part of life?
Your responses were helpful and stimulating.
Chelsea wrote on FB: “School teaches us that everyone can and should excel and parents
are (generally speaking) no better. The expectation is that we will
never fail at anything and when the reality hits that failure is not
only likely but inevitable it can be crippling. In fact, that plays a
huge part into way I have been so anti-leadership for the past 8 years
of my life. Learning that failure isn’t the end of the world is
tantamount to helping a generation step out in faith and move.”
Rozy: “It seems that disillusionment is the tool that teaches this generation.”
Jody: “Perhaps everyone spends some time in listening prayer for – what does God want me to risk/obey today? Then go out and do it.”
Greg: “What this generation needs is an exhortation to be consistent in their commitments.”
Emy: “People are afraid of failing. Overcome this is to consciously recognize this fear and see how false it is.”
Jeff: “I think most of our inaction is due to fear. We either stop pursuing
what God has for us because we’re afraid of change or because we’re
afraid of failure. I’d go to the heart of the issue – fear.”
Suzanne: “At 25 I look around and see a need to release fear.”
You helped me see that this issue of a fear of failure goes deeper than I’d realized. Can you take your exploration of this issue further for me? I invite your help in answering the question: Why do 20-somethings fear failure?

Comments (18)

  • I think 20-somethings whose parents are 1st generation Americans (from, say, Korea, for example) fear failure because 1) for our parents, it wasn’t so much a matter of success/failure as much as it was survival. 2) many of our parents worked hard so that we, their children, could live a higher standard of living, to make greater inroads. one pastor, dr. peter cha, analogizes it to d-day in normandy. our parents’ generation advanced the beachhead so that our generation could go further in. 3) thus, failure for 2nd generation Americans means not only a personal shortcoming but letting down the ones that went before; that is, we feel a burden to redeem the hardship and the work/energy/time that went in to set *us* up for success.

  • Obviously there are several reasons “why 20-somethings fear failure.” However, two main reasons are 1) a multi-generational loss of character (in a secular sense) and 2) a weak belief in who, God is.

    I believe in the first half of sara’s comment. Two generations ago, our families experienced WWII/the Freat Depression and some even sailed across the pond (like my italian famiglia) to give their children a higher standard of living. With that said, these families (2 generations ago) endured much and as a result much character formed (especially commitment). As this generation had kids, parents passed a portion of their character to their kids and the kids were raised in an environment that was less character challenging/building in respect to the times of the Great Depression. Then, the kids (1 generation ago) had their own kids (the 20-somethings that are afraid of failure), who received a portion of portion of the character their grandparents developed. In addition, we 20-somethings live in an environment where the standard of living at worst, is comfortable (relative to what our grandparents endured). In a secular sense, I believe this is a logical thought process to why most of the 20-somethings todar are ambitionless and complacent.

    Another reason why 20-somethings are afraid of failure is due to our perspective of who God is and who God says we are. We fear failure because we lack faith in God. As soon our expectations of instant results are unmet, we begin to doubt God’s follow through and even believe our current paths must not be God’s will. As a result, we change course frequently. Also, we fear failure because we believe it dictates our value to some degree. Of course, this is lie/illusion but without faith this is reality for most

    But I’m optimistic, because I know this doesn’t describe every twenty-something.

  • I wonder if it is because we don’t allow our kids to ever fail in our culture anymore. We tend to micromanage their lives so much and have so much control as parents that they are never allowed to experience failure in their teens or 20’s. In the schools now days, they don’t “fail” anyone. It is ridiculous if you think about it. We are also bringing up a generation of kids who feel they have to be perfect in every way all the time. I know we have been guilty of expecting perfection with our own kids and we have been feeling convicted to change that expectation. We as parents have left no room with our kids for fear of failure, fear, or failure because we expect perfection all the time. Not only are these things true in our culture, but they are true in our big churces today. Examples are if you are not perfect you don’t make the worship team, if you are not perfect you don’t make the missions team, if you are not perfect you don’t make the drama team, etc. What I have seen lately is that the church no longer looks at the heart of these young people, but looks more at how they perform all the time. I think young people are just tired of it all it results in apathy and things like fear of failure.

  • I agree with Chelsea from the blog mostly on the parents thing. They lived comfortably without risk therefore they (seemingly) never failed and that became our example of expectancy. They lived safe and therefore don’t invite failure as a good thing in our lives. It sucks… but is also possible to growth through and change your own attitude about it if you try.

  • A couple of thoughts about perspective.

    1. Our culture has praised success to an extreme degree. Failure looks that much worse by comparison. And the definition of success has narrowed to pretty much exclude everything except fame and money. Small targets if you think about it.

    2. In light of the current economic mess, their whole lives have been livd in a season of plenty upo to this point. Even some of us older folks have been pretty well rocked by this change.

    3. If Barna’s research is correct about the declining influence of the “church” which has been the primary corporate expression of faith in our culture, than this generation is fast losing sight of the bright light of faith to guide them safely home. They need those of us who can to shine that light even more brightly in other ways.

    All of this highlights the importance of encouraging young people to explore their faith through acts of service. If the institutional church is busy tearing itself down in a misguided attempt to make itself more accessable, then service stands out as a way back to a stronger faith experience for young people who are searching for what matters.

    Service is an easy starting place for people who don’t know where to begin. Perhaps that is because it does not present the sort of cultural objections that other facets of the faith do. Service may be the “Trojan horse” against the cultural stronghold, because helping your fellow man can easily become a living out of the Gospel. As you know so well fom your own ministry, service can open up wonderful doors to a deeper, more passionate faith experience.

  • Lots of reasons. I think much of it is rooted in our theology and lack of understanding of God’s grace and unconditional love.

    1/ Guilt. Not fully understanding our ongoing forgiveness on a heart level – seeing that we come to God with empty hands when we receive salvation but sometimes thinking after that that we need to earn it. Not wanting to fail God. Burying the talent not investing it.

    2/ Pride

    3/ What Wendy said about the Church. Echoing that, leaders aren’t seen as real people who fail and often don’t share their struggles with those who follow, so when people fail they feel like the first person in the world who’s done so.

    4/ Lack of a supportive tribe around them who they know will love them regardless.

    Just some thoughts.


  • I think the fear of failure stems from many sources, but I see at the very core of it identity issues.

    We don’t really know who we are. We are bombarded with seemingly imossible standards to try and acheive, or constant “do more”, “be better”. If you don’t know your identity and who you have been created to be is NOT dependant on the 6-figure salary, coming in first, acheiving more than your parents, driving the latest and greatest car, having 5 bedrooms & 4.5 baths, then anything short of this obliterates who we are taught we are. Losing your perceived identity is the scariest thing of all.

    Of course the loss of the false identity is essential to discovering the real one, but there isn’t usually anyone around to walk us through that.

  • I agree with Suzanne – our fear of failure stems from identity issues. We’re so insecure.

    We are entirely too concerned with what other people think about us. We allow the media to taint our view of what is normal, of what is good, and then we do all we can to try to obtain that. This translates into physical appearance and perfectionism and everything in between. We are terrified to get it wrong, to be the ugly duckling, to be viewed as less than what we “should” be.

    At the same time, this fear of getting it wrong can leave us paralyzed. It’s too much to obtain, so we sit around and do nothing.

    I don’t know – these are just random thoughts flowing out of my fingers onto this keyboard. What can I say…I guess I’m a little insecure that people will think I’m wrong 😉

  • I certainly agree with the previous comments that have linked our generational fear of failure with a lack of understanding of who our God is. We have lost sight of the bigness of God and of the life-changing implications of His grace. We say we trust Him – but our lives too often reveal an unwillingness to fully embrace the reality of fearless living that true trust demands. It is as if, in the deepest part of our hearts, we are afraid that our failures will be too horrible to be covered by the cross.

    As I’ve struggled with an almost paralyzing fear of failure I’ve been blessed with friends and mentors who have pressed me to ask myself hard, honest questions. “If I fail – what is the worst thing that can happen?” “Will I really be less of a child of God?” “Is this area of my life really too big for God to handle?” “Will my failure be the thing that negates Romans 8:38-39?” Questions like these force my gaze outward and upward – off of myself and back to God.

  • Seth-what 20somethings dont know is that we-50somethings, and likely 30-40-60-sometings- all have fear of failure. My childhood experience is filled with alcoholics who themselves got an early msg that they were worthless and believed it. I grew up craving any sort of approval /validation /encouragement that i was loved/worthy/okay. I in turn, poured into my kids- current 20somethings- that they are awesome and loved. My mistake? I don’t think so. It’s humans doing the best they can with what they know. The key- as Ive come to learn- is the unshakable Love of Christ. That’s the answer for every generation-no matter what the underlying msg.

    Also- Ive worked for years with addicts and adult children of addicts and they share a common ache for parental attention and approval. The message Ive shared with them and would share here is… get over yourself! :)<-smiley is to indicate that's said with love in my heart. Whatever the burden of your childhood, it just doesn't play as an excuse much past your early 20's. At some point no matter how henious or how overdone the parenting you recd, it's just not your parent's 'fault' anymore. You need a different story that has You in the driver's seat- making decisions, caring for yourself, dealing with your issues... there's no secret or magic or unattainable dimension-> open your eyes, open your heart, seek Christ, accept the love He alone can offer, find a community, live your life, start now, repeat as often as necessary. GO!

  • I am a couple years past the “20 somethings”, but not too far off. I will share my own reasons for fear of failure. Really, it isn’t anything that hasn’t been said. We can talk about culture, how we were raised, or our self-perception- and those things are important to know what areas are a challenge to our faith- but at the root of it all is the sin of unbelief.

    1. When I fear failure, it is because of my pride- and pride
    seeks its own glory and does not share it with anyone. I
    want people to see how smart I am, brave, strong,
    whatever. I don’t believe that God is worthy of all

    2. When I fear failure, it is because I have failed to
    believe verses like John 16:33 that say Jesus has
    overcome the world and that Jesus shares that victory
    with us.

    3. When I fear failure, I fail to believe that there is
    grace when I mess up. I think that my failure is damaging
    my position before Christ somehow and that I will not get
    to heaven if I mess up too much. I begin putting my faith
    in my own works instead of the work of Jesus.

    As we see more of the glory of the Lord and his holiness through the work of Jesus on the cross, I think our confidence in Him will grow and embolden us to step out more in faith rather than shrink back in fear. The power of the cross is more powerful than any cultural influence, upbringing, or self-perception.

  • we fear failure because we let it define our value. when we give something else the position to dictate our acceptance/value/worth, we shrink back in fear and hiding…or perhaps we blow up in performance. either way, everything stems from what we let give us value. too often we give that position to the people around us. If only we could really grasp and receive the revelation that His acceptance of me overrides anything else; He defines my value regardless…in any circumstance, any situation, any relationship, I am deeply seated in his acceptance…and I won’t give that place to another. If we could really walk in the revelation of that TRUTH and be our best selves in every moment.

    so if you could teach that…identity stuff. but honestly, i think what would be most beneficial is if you could facilitate them encountering this revelation that it so strongly changes the way they interact with the world. that is what we really need…revelations of Him and His love, encounters with Truth, intimacy with His voice. that is what transforms in such a way that we begin to live differently.

    thank you for already cultivating places for us to encounter Him. thank you. thank you.

  • To those of you who have responded already: Thank you. On my own I would have just shown up, as I have on too many occasions before, and taught good principles.

    But you have put me on the scent of an issue that is so much more foundational – an issue that transcends principles.

    When I last taught in Spain God led us to some very unexpected places. They had to do with identity and brokenness. I think we were all caught off guard a bit. It was real and it was hard to go there with them.

    I’m constantly tempted to go with something prepackaged, but thru you, God has reminded me of the truth that it’s better if I allow him to lead in the moment.

    I appreciate your ministry to me and thru me, to those I’ll be teaching in January. Please feel free to continue to weigh in here.

  • Susanne, Hope and others touched the heart of the issue in my opinion, but we must define “failure” to see what it is that we are examining. “Failure” in the world’s eyes is so often “success” in God’s eyes!

    We must challenge the 20-somethings with a new paradigm. Many say that I am a failure. At 52 years of age and my ministry and work earns me $2,000 a month with no retirement! I get to teach, train and disciple high school and college kids daily.

    In the locker room today before practice, and with the Word opened up, we were basking in God’s goodness to us and how wonderful it is to serve others on our basketball team, not being concerned with individual stats but on TEAM stats. My kids are getting it! At 7-0, my high school girls have bought into serving each other and it is showing up in our win/loss record. We will take this attitude with us when we minister in the slums of Manila this summer.

    Back to failure, I know time is short. I must do all I can to affect my world around me. Paul says this is all just a vapor. I want to be a Mother Theresa, a Jackie Pullinger (Google her). I MUST MAKE A DIFFERENCE! We need to live and model that I (we) ARE successful, even though the world and many in the body think we are fools.

    We need to challenge the 20-somethings that there is more in life than a paycheck and retirement. I am really starting to believe that!

    I’ve found that when we are living on the edge and modeling a life of reckless abandonment, it is not only acceptable and “successful”, it is to be lauded and held high as something that is one of the most glorious callings possible.

    Let’s show those around us what real success is.

  • Everyone fears failure, not just 20 somethings. We fear it because it hurts and can be humiliating if it’s a public failure. Yet, I’ve learned over the years of failing in personal relationships, academic failures, and a very public firing, that God can use our failure in ways that we can sometimes only begin to understand with the passage of time. Every one of the above failures eventually led to better situations– things that would not have ocurred but for the failure. While I am no preacher, the one message I’ve been able to articulate to groups over the years is the “Importance of Failure.” We need to not avoid risk, and we need to be ready to fail. Hope you speak about failure, Seth, and use personal examples in your life. It will be powerful and it will touch people’s lives.

  • Seth-
    These are great comments. I agree with everyone :^) Then the challenge, which your comment alludes to, is how to we “teach”/impart spiritual and mental courage. We model it, we tell stories of people who have done it before and are doing it currently (like us!).

    But until someone gets “it”, that is, until someone actually lives like the promises of God are true and applicable in their lives today, we can teach “No Fear” until we’re blue in the face. It can’t be taught, it must be caught.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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