“Fear of failure prevents us from making progress”
– Garry Kasparov, Oxford Union, 9th of November 2012
Last night I went to a debate at the Oxford Union on the subject “Is the current growth crisis a result of decades of technological stagnation in a risk-averse society?”. One of the speakers was Garry Kasparov, who is famous for political activism and for being one of the greatest chess players of all time. In a 2003 chess match he tied IBM’s Deep Junior (after loosing to Deep Blue in 1997), a machine capable of evaluating 3 million chess positions in 1 second. Given Kasparov’s amazing mind, I felt that it was worth listening to what he had to say.
It was a fascinating debate, and both sides made some excellent points. Garry was on the “Aye” side, and argued that today’s technological advances are slower and less impressive than those of previous generations. In particular, he talked about the great achievements of the cold war era in the 50s and 60s. He pointed out that many of today’s “modern” technologies (e.g. the internet) are a direct result of research performed during this time. He closed with a comment along the lines of “the iPhone 5 is nothing compared to Apollo 5”.
Fear of failure prevents people from taking risks, yet taking risks is necessary for progress
One of the topics that was discussed was the reasons why a society ceases to innovate. Garry offered an explanation quoted at the top of this blog – fear of failure prevents people from taking risks, yet taking risks is necessary for progress. This is undoubtedly true, as most breakthroughs are preceded by countless failures.
Garry was talking about societies as a whole, and the risk aversion of government funding bodies and large corporations. However, the same can be said about us as individuals, and I think it has consequences for mental health. For example, consider social anxiety. Risk aversion is one of the reasons that social anxiety doesn’t just go away without evidence based treatments. Social anxiety exaggerates the cost from being wrong, leading to risk aversion. However, treating social anxiety involves challenging your fears and stepping outside your comfort zone. It is worth mentioning that it is well established in psychology that we tend to overestimate risks and the negative consequences of failure.
Returning back to the original talk, Garry was making the point that if our societies are willing to undertake daring challenges, there can be wide ranging positive impacts outside of the original goals (he used the US space program of the 50’s as an example). I would argue that the same holds true for us as individuals. While the speakers were mainly concerned with economic growth, many of their arguments are applicable to psychological growth: overcoming our fear of failure can lead us to healthier and more fulfilling lives.
Fjola Helgadottir, PhD, MClinPsych, is a clinical psychologist, a senior research clinician at the University of Oxford, and is a co-creator of AI-Therapy.com, an online CBT treatment program for overcoming social anxiety