By André Baars, psychologist/coach at the Radboud University; published by 16 Dec. 2009

We are all familiar with fear and stress. They are not unnatural feelings. Stress used to ensure the survival of our ancestors confronted with bears and Sabre-toothed cats. The feeling is part of our survival mechanism. It helps us recognize danger and it tells us when to fight it off or when to run and hide.

Hunters and Gatherers
Humankind evolved from small groups of hunters and gatherers into bigger communities of farmers. We exchanged our nomadic lives for lives in permanent settlements. The daily routines were less life-threatening, yet stressful situations still existed. As communities grew, the number of laws people had to abide by grew too, which made it easy to fall out of favour with the risk of becoming a social outcast. Being a social outcast, moreover, sometimes meant the death sentence.

Today, our communities are much safer; however, stress still plays a role in our daily lives. Although social acceptance within a group is hardly a matter of life or death now, we still experience the possible loss of that acceptance as very stressful. We are afraid to fail in our duties towards others and loose our position in society because of it; we are afraid to end up alone and vulnerable. When this fear grows out of proportion we say that somebody is suffering from fear of failure.

Panic Attacks
I have known students who suffer panic attacks with the very thought of having to take an exam. They get sick when they have to do a presentation, experience black-outs during oral exams, or get crying fits from bad grades. For those students the exams, papers, internships, presentations, and theses have taken the place of the bears and Sabre-toothed cats of the past.

Complicated Lives
How can it get out of hand like this? Although stress is a natural feature in our lives, extreme fear of failure is partially the result of our society which has become more complicated. Not too long ago people were born into specific social classes where they would stay for the rest of their lives. A large percentage of the population would live their lives in a relatively safe world with clear social boundaries. In contemporary society these hereditary class divisions have largely faded.

Moving Beyond Hereditary Class Divisions
Although class divisions still organize our society, hereditary class divisions no longer play a role in most people’s lives. It is now possible to move beyond the social class a person’s parents belong to by virtue of the choices they make in life. And indeed, the options seem endless. You can choose to become a labourer or an intellectual, a manager or an entrepreneur, a company owner or a civil servant. Our freedom of choice has lead to a society comprised of classes that are no longer rigidly defined and which need not be mutually exclusive. You can be a manager and own your own company and be a service provider simultaneously. Professional interests and personal political preferences do not even need to correspond.

This world filled with complexities makes it hard for students to find a safe group to belong to; let alone learn how to fit in. What makes you an intellectual? What product does a manager produce? And how do you define a typical left-wing voter? At the same time the pressure to make the right decisions has greatly increased, since, after all, we have been granted every option.

Importance of Higher Education
Higher education has become an important institution which has taken it upon itself to create order in this difficult situation. Educational institutions have gained the authority to decide which professional field or (social) group a student can join. They define the boundaries of each group and formulate the requirements of admission. You choose the focus of your academic training and as soon as you have met all requirements you get a degree. This degree, in its turn, gives you access to a particular group.

The Role of Education
This role educational institutions have started to play seems both clear and pleasant. The various professional fields are defined, academic programmes offer student coaching and the requirements of admission are clearly defined too; make sure that every assignment deserves a mark of 5.5 out of 10 or higher. Why, then, does all this stress occur with students? Perhaps it is because higher education simply cannot live up to the role and actually create the order so needed. Since education directly reflects society itself, the increasingly complex nature of society is also present in higher education. In recent years we have experienced an explosion of new courses and departments. Many of them are just as vaguely defined as the professional fields they relate to. What profession you will be able to practice after training in these departments is often very unclear. In this way it is not settled what group you will end up joining upon receiving a degree.

The grades students receive for their coursework are the only things that can offer some form of stability. Grades give the impression that examinations can affirm unambiguously whether or not a student is capable enough to be admitted to the select members of the group they are in training for. Students hold on to their grades for dear life as though they were life buoys in a rough ocean. The result is that students do not understand that a 4 out of 10 mark means that they still have more to learn; on the contrary, to them it is similar to being informed that they are terminally ill. It stigmatizes them. You did not only get an insufficient mark, you are unworthy as a person too. From the perspective of some students a safe harbour seems out of reach forever.

Fear of failure, then, should be just as understandable as the lifesaving stress our ancestors experienced. Still, it is not a cross we must simply bear; instead, we can escape this hereditary defect. Why do I believe this is so? Because Geert van Kesteren won the Silver Camera and was elected photographer of the year in 1998. For the first time in Dutch history somebody had won both prizes. What is more, van Kesteren had never been trained at some prestigious school of photography. He had worked at a bank until he decided to give up his job in favour of his passion for photography.

In 2007 Donald Thompson won the world championships high jumping. He had never subjected himself to years of training within the strict regime of the high jumping academy. He was a basketball player when one day he saw his nephew high jumping. He told him he wanted to have a go at it himself and miraculously made a jump of over two metres in height using an impossible jumping technique; one and a half years later he became the world champion. In the 1960s and ‘70s Hamilton Naki was fast becoming one of the best surgeons in South Africa. Did he receive his training at the best medical school of the country? No way! He had been a gardener without a degree to speak of.

These examples show that no institutional training can unambiguously decide whether or not you qualify to be admitted to the group of your choosing. Moreover, it is hard to truly fail in our contemporary society with all its vagueness and uncertainties. Extreme fear of failure is often related to a now or never feeling; if I cannot show my qualities off now, I will never make it. Additionally, there is a sense that there is only one way of achieving your goals. If it does not work out the way you imagined it, it will never work. Yet, the flexibility of our society actually offers many opportunities to achieve your goals. It is hardly ever too late and goals can often be achieved in a multitude of ways. Perhaps the easiest way or the best grades will not always lead to success. And it doesn’t have to. Companies hardly ever ask for lists with grades and delays or diversions become a vague memory within five years time.

These people are not only examples of personal power and tenacity in my view; their stories present a society which acknowledges and accepts a peculiar course of life. Naki may not have gained national recognition during the Apartheid regime, but he was valued and rewarded by a small group of people nonetheless. Our society provides a space in which personal success can occur in various ways and it does not irrevocably reprove the failure of the moment. Obstacles and delays are not necessarily threatening; instead, they are challenges you can safely commit to in this society, which in the long run is more tolerant and more patient than we often believe it to be.