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Why Experience Makes You Fearless

People who seem fearless are not. They're just experienced.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

I was chopping wood with a gas-powered splitter last weekend when a super heavy log caused the machine to tip over. Luckily, I pulled away just in time; instead of a broken leg, I got away with a little gash and a bruise. That was a close one; the thing weighs 500 lbs.

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The thing is, all I could think of after I got cleaned up was getting that machine upright and finishing the job. And that’s exactly what I did. My wife thinks I have a death wish, but that’s not it. After a painful or humiliating defeat, I automatically face my fears and get back up on the horse as soon as I can.

That wasn’t always the case. Dealing with failure is something I had to learn … the hard way.

Related: 25 Best Habits to Have in Life

As a young sales and marketing executive for a high-tech startup back in the dark ages, my sales reps in Texas lined up meetings with top executives at Dell and Compaq on back-to-back days. Landing either computer giant would have been huge. As I boarded the plane to Austin the morning of the first meeting, I was excited … and nervous.

Dell was not what I expected. We all filed into a large room and plopped down into comfy chairs in a circle. No conference table. No projector. No slides. I was lost. When Dell’s engineering veep said, “So tell me about you guys,” I went blank and fumbled so badly that one of my marketing guys had to jump in and bail me out. It was humiliating.

The rest of the meeting went fine but I felt defeated, like I’d let down my team, my company and most of all, myself. When we got to Houston that night, I was quiet all through dinner. Alone in my hotel room, I lay awake most of the night worrying: What if I flop again tomorrow? I just kept telling myself to be tough and do the best you can.

Related: 10 Misused Words That Make Smart People Look Stupid

The Compaq situation was thankfully more conventional, and that made me feel comfortable. After all, I’d done this a hundred times. I stood up, presented and knocked it out of the park. Confidence restored, I flew home to California and practiced my pitch, sans slides and projector. And that was the end of that.

Don’t get me wrong. That was not the last time I underperformed in a meeting or on stage, but it was the last time it felt like an existential crisis.

Once you learn that you’re probably harder on yourself than anyone else is -- that the world doesn’t revolve around you, that the worst thing that can happen is not that bad, that the sun still comes up shining bright the next day -- failure gets a little easier to handle effectively.

It’s a competitive world, and nothing prepares you better to thrive in it than the realization that, win lose or draw, tomorrow is another day. That’s a powerful lesson that only comes from experience. Lots and lots of experience.

If you win, that builds your confidence and self-esteem. Just don’t let it go to your head. Confidence can be a slippery slope that all too quickly turns to hubris, or excessive self-confidence. That is definitely not a good thing.

If you lose, don’t beat yourself up or let it fester. Rather, hold yourself accountable, learn from your mistakes and try to avoid a repeat performance. The sooner you face your fears and get back up on the horse, the sooner you learn that powerful lesson.

Related: 10 Lessons You Should Learn Sooner Than Later

You read a lot about the benefits of failure these days, but I’m not so sure people get it. When you’re little, you learn to walk by falling down, picking yourself up and trying again. That’s called trial and error. You couldn’t do it by reading a book or a blog or even watching a video. So why do so many spend so much time immersed in content? You have to laugh at the irony.

Funny thing is, if I hadn’t gone through that experience at Dell, I never would have learned the lesson that failure is not the end of the world. You can read about it all day long, but until you experience it for yourself, it’s not going to have the effect that it had on me. Failure only gets easier when you experience it, handle it effectively and learn that tomorrow’s another day.

People are never fearless, just experienced.

If you enjoyed this article, you'll also enjoy reading Steve Tobak's book Real Leaders Don't Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur. Pick it up today.

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