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WHY FAILURE IS OFTEN BETTER THAN SUCCESS

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Telling children to color inside the lines is a great injustice. It crushes creativity and plants a seed that eventually grows into a toxic fear of failure. If you can’t (or won’t) color inside the lines, you’re branded as learning disabled, willful, or just plain stupid. From that first admonishment to keep our colors under control, we begin viewing success in life as a series of decisions and actions that must result in a predictable outcome: a gold star, a pat on the back, a pay raise. The notion of failing on purpose used to be – and to some still is – ludicrous.

Enter the new philosophy of failing, or more appropriately, “failing fast.” For an article I’m writing for Life Reimagined, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Babineaux, Ph.D, one of the authors of a new book called Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win. The idea, in a nutshell, is that you learn way more through your failures than you do from your successes, and that it’s the way we approach failure that can transform our tolerance for it.

A few days before speaking to Babineaux, I went to see an ice show, a breast cancer fundraiser presented by a dozen female figure-skaters, ages 8 – 20-something. I love figure skating (watching, not doing – this is NOT going to be one of my new adventures, your encouragement shall be ignored). I enjoyed watching the skaters execute their technical moves. But one girl dove into her routine as if she were plunging into a pool from the high board. I could tell right away she wasn’t going to play it safe. Her spins and twirls and leaps were full of the kind of energy you only see in a hurricane. She had an abundance of talent, but she wasn’t settling for that. She meant to inject her performance with electricity. I quite possibly held my breath the entire time, mesmerized by her bravery.

She fell, not once but several times. What astonished me was not that she got back up and continued on – all skaters worth their blades do that – but that her “failure” made her skate harder, with ever more passion. It was joyful. This girl, I thought to myself, is going to go places. And it wasn’t necessarily because of her talent, but rather how she framed that talent with a kind of fearlessness you rarely see anymore. To say I was impressed is an understatement.

Babineaux told me in my interview with him that the way to transform our fear of failure is to change how we approach it, and to take many what he calls “low-cost” actions  toward our goal, so that the failure, when it comes, does not have so much riding on it. Think of it as learning, experimenting, playing, he said. “Failing fast is about being proactive. No matter what situation you’re in, there’s always something positive you can do to move forward.  The more exploratory actions you take, the faster you’re going to get where you want to be.”

The young ice skater was taking an exploratory action: how high can I leap, how fast can I go before I fall? Falling on the ice in front of an audience was inconsequential to what she gained, which was a greater level of self-knowledge, an expanded understanding of her capabilities. A recognition of what she needed to work on to get better. Wow. We will see this girl in the Olympics, I’m sure of it.

When I told Babineaux the story about this ice skater he said, “The world needs people who live in that fearless way. Watching them, you see a different way for you to be. By watching them, you can begin to fearlessly embrace your life. And when YOU live like that, you’re helping everyone around you.”

What about you? Does fear of failure hold you back? Could you purposely fail at something for the sole purpose of getting better at it?

 


5 Comments

  1. Susan Woodward said...

    Janice,

    You’re always onto the next thing before I’ve even delved deeply into the last thing you’ve been doing. Yeah! Loved this article and will look for the book. Are you reimagining another life? I am failing as fast as I can at painting.

    Susan

    Comment posted on August 5, 2014 at 9:20 pm

  2. Janice said...

    Susan, there’s a terrific story in the book about an experiment conducted in a pottery class. Half the class was told they’d be graded solely on the number of pots they created, regardless of quality. The other half was told their grade would rest on the best pot they threw. Surprisingly, it was the group that threw the most pots that created the best ones. The theory is that by making many pots, and not worrying about perfecting them, the students were learning from their mistakes and applying those lessons progressively, which resulted in a superior product. Supposedly, the pots created by the second half of the class were far lower in creativity and craftsmanship, due to the fact that the students spent a lot of time planning and fussing over “the perfect” pot. Food for thought!

    Comment posted on August 5, 2014 at 9:38 pm

  3. Lola Reid Allin said...

    Dear Janice!

    Beautifully flowing elaboration of “A ship in harbor is safe – but that is not what ships are built for” (John Shedd).

    I loved the equation coloring outside the lines = thinking outside the box.

    Cheers, Lola

    Comment posted on August 6, 2014 at 7:56 am

  4. Janice said...

    Lola, yes — thinking outside the lines. Isn’t it amazing that we’ve convinced ourselves that if we follow the rules and stay inside the lines that we’ll be safe? What kind of life is that?

    Comment posted on August 6, 2014 at 8:18 am

  5. Ken Caputo said...

    Makes sense. We’re conditioned to follow certain guidelines to succeed. People that go out on their own and understand that failing is just part of the process are to be admired. Conformity is acceptance. From an early stage in our lives we are told not to rock the boat. But I can see where taking risks and missing the mark can be humbling but you can also grow as a person and continue to move ahead in life.

    Comment posted on August 6, 2014 at 1:14 pm

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