Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What if I do all this and I fail?

In the last few days, no fewer than 5 people said, in response to my asking them what is keeping them from doing the work they say they need to do to reach the goals they set for themselves, "what if I do all this and I fail?" Now, I've heard this before; most successful people fear failure. However, what is new here is the "all this" part -- it isn't just "what if I fail" but "what if I fail after I've expended tremendous effort or time."

To each I responded, "and then what? What happens if you did all this and failed."

Common response, "then it would have been a waste of energy/effort/time."

And I'm thinking how is this wasted time different from the time wasted watching tv., posting to facebook, etc.? But I don't say this because such a comment would take them to a different place -- defense or shame -- than where they need to go.

Me: "Ok, then what. You wasted some effort or time, so . . . "

Common responses:
1) So, then I would have failed. If I don't try then I can always hold out hope that if I were willing to spend the effort I might succeed. Whereas if I fail, I'll know the truth is I can't do it. Then, I might not try anything like it again.

2) I'd burn out from all the work. I need to conserve my energy.

3) I wouldn't have fun and if I didn't have fun then my life would be really sad.

In the context of my discussions with these folks -- one of helping them develop the capacity to solve their own problems -- I didn't want to lecture them from my perspective and values on these three responses. For the purposes of this blog, though, I want to ask my readers: what do you think about these three responses? If you were to give advice to these folks, what would it be?

Finally, while the "fear of failure" concern comes up frequently in my coaching work, I'd never heard concerns 2 and 3 before. Both were from people under age 25. Is this a new generation thing? Is there some new fear of over-exertion and lack of fun?


  1. great post and great questions--Not sure what would be the best response here--Seems "instant gratification" is equted to success/passing by many nowdays and traditional learn and pass model is indeed getting weaker....Would like to know myself best way to reenergize and show courage to fail as stepping stone to success to many!!!

  2. Interesting Alphageek, thanks for commenting. Do others think that this has to do with a focus on instant gratification: if I don't succeed quickly I haven't succeeded?

    If so, how can we help our direct reports who may have grown up with this focus as well as our kids living in this culture learn to live with the ambiguity of working toward something that may, far in the future, succeed or may (gasp!) fail?

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

  3. For me, there is no failure if you learn something and/or become a more well developed person. We learn primarily through life experience. If you think about it, learning depends on failing (think of a child learning to walk). Think of Edison saying (my own version of the quote): "I didn't fail at making a lightbulb 1000 times. I learned 1000 ways NOT to make a lightbulb." As adults, we tend to care more about failing than children because we have egos we want to protect--that's the main reason.

    On the other hand, part of the learning process is being able to make life affirming choices and evaluate, "is this opportunity/goal worth the necessary investment of my time and energy?" I think my positive energy is the most valuable resource I have. My health, my relationships, my work must be resourced from my energy. As I get older, I care more and more about WHY I'm doing something and less and less about the outcome. I can never control or predict the outcome (may or may not look like conventional success), but if I choose out of my sense of purpose and my values, is it really possible to fail?

    In terms of working with direct reports, I think we must be willing to make "failing" less of a big deal and learning more of a big deal. When the penalty for failing is high, people won't take risks and the important work won't be attempted.

  4. Great post.
    I feel most of the times, we use "No-win model" to arrive at a choice for such situations where we assess them based on what we gain or what we lose if we do this or that. I read a book ("Feel the Fear and Do it anyway" authored by Susan Jeffers) sometime back which talked about the internal chatterbox which takes control. Under its influence we start predicting the results of both the choices.So even if we make one choice and move forward with it, our internal chatterbox throws another question that what if the situation reverses this whole process becomes crazy and actually even if we don't fail...we do fail in the process by making it so agonizing.

    An alternative approach is to try and follow the No-Lose Model as you suggested: thinking there are goodies on both the ways despite the outcome. Of course the goodies (opportunities) can be different.

    I will give you my own example:
    I took path A and did my bachelor's in Alternative Medicines, became a practicing physician. I felt something is missing and I need to pursue something more focused on core research of diseases.
    I took path B and did my Masters in Biotech with Management Courses. I thought I will go into research but it did not work out.
    So both the paths I did not achieve any positive outcome(=failed?) so what, I took path C and used my knowledge (=goodies)gained on these paths A and B and made a career for myself which I like which is Quality and Regulatory Field (as we all know that its a huge plus to have both clinical knowledge and management experience for these kind of jobs).

    So I guess what needs to change is the way you look at these goodies. Most of the times we relate goodies in life to money,status fun, some visible signs of success or entertainment that's why it gets difficult to adapt the No-Lose Model. One thing which inspired me was this line that "we will not succeed in everything we do and that's the only thing which is guaranteed". But look at how rich life gets with experiences (of how to do things in a better way or what not to do again ), knowledge, a less stressed life where you don't continuously juggle predicting the future of unknown circumstances. So you win or are actually winning in the process.

  5. Hi, yes it is very hard to focus on our own measures of success when everywhere we turn there are messages that other measures are the "right" measures.

    I appreciate that you've determined your own measures. We all should make a list of success factors for ourselves and put it somewhere we can see it frequently so that we don't get swayed by others' ideas.

    I also appreciate your positive attitude, Rekha. I will try to follow your example.

    Thanks for the post!