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The courage to fail

Nobody wants to fail. We’re shamed (usually unintentionally) starting as children until we develop an aversion to failure. Spilling the milk as a clumsy toddler turns into not applying for a promotion as our developing child minds become adult. We avoid failure, or rather, the chance of failure to protect ourselves from the degradation it might bring upon ourselves. If we don’t try, we don’t fail, and that’s the safest thing to do.

Our biology is incentivized to keep things as predictable and as safe as possible to preserve ourselves and our species. It’s worked well for thousands of years. It’s been especially effective in deterring humans from fighting animals that they can’t overtake and risking journeys across land masses they can’t survive. What now though?

Our world is vastly different from the world our ancestors lived in, yet we inherited their brains. One slip and fall on the wild frontier can cost you your life. A simple broken leg could mean a slow, painful death. Now, if I slip and break my leg (putting up Christmas lights), I simply hop in the car, drive to my choice of hospital, and I’m recovering within hours. I can order food from my phone and watch the robot vacuum clean the floor while I try to figure out which episode of The Office I’m on.

This is the disparity we find ourselves part of. All of the sudden (the last hundred years), the modern world is actually very much devoid of risks compared to the one our brains are made to live in. Since we don’t have to worry about dying alone in a remote forest, we’ve repurposed our worries on modern issues. The modern world, though, has built in safety nets everywhere we look. The undo button exists everywhere, so modern failures are actually very navigable.

All of this isn’t to say that there is nothing to be afraid of, or that there’s no risk we shouldn’t take. There are many failures we can and should avoid. We can and should learn from the failures of those around us and avoid those failures as long as it’s a parallel risk and failure. There is a big difference in the following examples: “Should I use illegal substances to give me an edge?” and “Should I start a business in x month at x location with x business model?”. One of these is full of precedence and we know how it probably ends. The other is more nuanced, it’s unique in its details.

The failure we would be wise to seek out is the one we avoid because of fear. When you know you need to take action but are afraid, that’s the (possible) failure you can welcome. If we face fear with courage, even a negative outcome pales in comparison to the growth we experience by facing the fear. But it doesn’t end there. The right kind of failure teaches us lessons we can only learn by failing. It hones us, refines us, and prepares us for success.

Micheal Jordan was cut from his basketball team as a teen. He used that experience as fuel for his fire for the rest of his life. His early failures shaped his character as a champion. He said: “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Can you imagine the feeling of a stadium of people suddenly being let down because you failed… 26 times? The energy must have been heavy. Micheal Jordan put himself in that position. He felt the feeling and he moved on. When we talk about Micheal Jordan, we don’t talk about those 26 failed game winning shots, we talk about the 6 rings on his hands.

Walt Disney was told by an editor early on that he ‘lacked imagination and had no good ideas’. We all know what became of that. Disney later said: “I think it’s important to have a good hard failure when you’re young… Because it makes you kind of aware of what can happen to you. Because of it I’ve never had any fear in my whole life when we’ve been near collapse and all of that. I’ve never been afraid.”

I’ve been speaking on failure in terms of heroic proportions, big names, big decisions, and awe inspiring stories. But perhaps the most important types of failures are micro-failures. Maybe risk and the possibility of failure doesn’t have to come in the form of life altering decisions. What if you try a new restaurant? What if you talk to someone in the street? What if you take a different route, cook a new dish, or try a new view? If you can fail fast, often, and objectively, you can constantly correct course and push yourself into bigger and bigger decisions. If you can take micro-risks (that will sometimes result in micro-failures), you’ll get better and better at it, resulting in more and more growth.

May I suggest a few questions that can guide you into taking the right kind of risks and failing in the right ways:

  1. Can I learn from someone else’s mistake? Do I have the information I need to make a good decision? Have I done my homework?

  2. What is holding me back from taking the risk? Is it fear or good judgement?

  3. If this is the wrong decision, and I fail, what can I do to fail as quickly as possible so I can move on? Can I scale this back any without losing the upside? How will I know when I have failed? What are my indicators to make a change?

  4. How can I keep the emotion out of this, should it fail? How will I disconnect this failure from impeding my success? How can I use the failure constructively? What will I have learned in the event of a failure?

Now go, pull your boots up, be courageous, take the risk, and if necessary, FAIL!

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