Key Idea: Failure is a friend; not a foe.
What would you do if you knew you couldn't fail? You have probably come across this question. It's a great prompt to help you pinpoint what you most want to do, but are afraid to pursue for fear of defeat. The truth is that there is no perfect place in which failure is impossible. There is no getting around it. So, the question is thought-provoking, but incomplete.
Lately I have been asking myself this follow-up question:
Knowing that failure is possible (perhaps even probable,) what's my next move?
Some choose to play it safe; some rationalize their aspirations away. Others make a conscious choice to put their ambitions aside for the sake of others. Many prefer the path of least resistance.
A few will stir up their courage and chase failure in pursuit of their dreams.
Failure is common to everyone who dares to venture. I have plenty of personal experience with mistakes and defeats. I know that when I stick my neck out, failure is there, waiting to take me down. And it has often succeeded in causing me to retreat.
A couple of years ago, I was offered the opportunity to write City Farming. I had a decision to make. I could turn down the contract and play it safe, or commit and run the risk of falling flat.
Quaking in my boots, I signed the contract.
I was so fearful, that my first reaction was to enter a state of denial. I procrastinated to avoid the pain of making mistakes while pretending that I had full confidence of success.
Have you ever been there? When we procrastinate or pretend, failure has us right where it wants us, directly in its path. When we inevitably make a mistake or sabotage ourselves, failure jumps out, points a finger at us, and says, See, I told you so. The evidence is clear; you'll never succeed. Might as well give up.
Does that make you as mad or as discouraged as it made me? If you have ever been wrecked by failure, it should.
I was angry. Yes, I knew my history; my pattern of stepping out, making a mistake, listening to the accusing voice of failure, followed by retreat. But I was not going to let it torpedo the biggest opportunity of my professional life.
I turned the tables on failure, no longer willing to let it blindside me.
Choosing to be dauntless, I began to relentlessly chase failure. I began to look for it, to seek out opportunities to fail, to catch hold of it and make it work for me instead of against me.
Purposefully setting high goals, I dared failure to come and get me. And when it came, I embraced it, choosing to learn, to build and to grow instead of retreating.
Chasing failure on purpose changed my mindset. Here are a few of the reasons why (and how) it happened:
Choosing to focus on progress rather than perfection, I began to set lofty goals and document my attempts to reach them. As an example, I set a target of writing 2,000 words per week day, or 10K per week. Some days I missed the target by a long shot, only achieving 500 or 1,000 words. Instead of becoming discouraged and kicking myself, I logged my word counts on a spreadsheet.
After only a few days, the word counts began to add up to big numbers, and I was able to visualize the incredible progress that I was making. Even though I might have only logged 5K per week instead of the 10K for which I was shooting, this was many more words than I would have written without a high goal. This gave me reason to celebrate! Choosing to focus on what I accomplished, rather than what I didn't accomplish, began to build my confidence and joy.
Failures shine the spotlight on imperfections within systems. I don't like it when I am excited about using a technique, or have become comfortable with a system, only to have it fall short. And I don't like change. But I choose to embrace the pain and hard work of figuring out why a technique did not work the way I thought it would and revising it (perhaps 2 or 3 times.)
For example, I set a goal to collect 100 emails per week and began to create lead magnets to encourage subscriptions. But I was only seeing 24-30 sign-ups per week, far short of the target. I was grateful for the growth, but also began to think carefully through the system to make it better.
What I realized was that my lead magnets were buried within blog posts. I began to publicize the lead magnets by themselves, independent of the blog posts. As suspected, I got exponentially more subscribers when I posted the lead magnets directly. Although it was a bit of work up front to refine the system, in the long run, it will be much more profitable. And the little bit of extra work involved in promoting the blog and the lead magnet separately will certainly be worth the effort.
When I fail, I learn. Failure wants me to conclude that I will never succeed; that I should not try. But if I grab hold of failure and crack it open, there is wisdom inside. In 1993, I spoke at a church in Hawaii, and my message fell flat. I was humiliated and made a private vow never to speak in public again. But how could this be? I was a trained teacher with a passion for sharing knowledge. Clearly, failure was trying to derail my calling.
Fifteen years later, opportunities arose through the Master Gardener program to teach adults about gardening, a topic that I love to talk about! Speaking to small groups, I began to study audience reactions to discover what engaged them most. I also paid attention to what appeared to bore or annoy them, which was painful to acknowledge.
I asked for feedback. Sometimes it felt personal, when a mannerism or a favorite turn of phrase was criticized. But this time, passion for teaching others to grow food was important enough to override the discomfort of making mistakes. Over the years, I have learned a tremendous amount about public speaking, and am quite comfortable in front of large crowds. I will never stop making mistakes; but if I embrace the wisdom to be gained by them, they will continue to make me a better teacher.
Chasing failure is not fun, but the benefits are a blast!
In pursuit of failure, I have had to accept some embarrassment, some disappointment, and a lot of frustration. But it is absolutely worth it! Despite the struggle, I have gone places I never would have gone, met the most amazing people, and stumbled upon opportunities that I didn't expect and couldn't have foreseen. Yes, I have days when I am frustrated and wish that I was closer to meeting some of my goals. But when I glance behind, I realize that I have accomplished more than I ever thought I could.
Set one uncomfortable goal today. Pick something that is just a little bit outside your comfort zone, neither too easy nor so daunting that it stops you in your tracks. Record your efforts on a spreadsheet or in a journal, and celebrate progress, no matter how large or how small. Do this over and over again.
I promise that if you chase failure, you will find it. But instead of letting it trip you up, embrace it. Learn, grow, and build successes on the foundation of mistakes. Put a reminder in your calendar one year from today to look back on your goals and the progress you have tracked. Prepare to be amazed at what you will accomplish!