Why Successful People Regularly Fail (And Why You Should Too)
Do you know anything about Dressage?
I assume that for most people reading this post, the answer is going to be no, so let me enlighten you.
Dressage is an equestrian sport where horse and riders perform a series of movements, sometimes to music. They’re more often referred to as ‘the dancing horses’.
As the riders and their horses are performing each exercise, a judge, or sometimes several judges, score each movement out of 10. The scores are then added up and the winner is the one with the highest score.
At the end of the competition, the riders are given a copy of their score sheet that details what they scored for each movement as well as comments and observations from the judge. These comments are designed to encourage the rider but also note improvements that need to be made to achieve higher scores.
Back in a previous life of mine, I organised and ran many of these competitions and I had relationships with both judges and riders.
You’re probably wondering why I am telling you all of this but please bear with me. There’s always a method to my madness.
As with most sports, there are various levels of difficulty and the same goes for Dressage. Riders start at the introductory level and once they’ve experienced a certain level of consistent success they move up to the next level where the dressage tests contain more challenging movements.
Or at least, that is how it is supposed to work. But, needless to say, that doesn’t always happen.
There are riders that sick at the lower levels for a considerable amount of time (sometimes permanently) before moving up to the next level, even though they are regularly finishing at the top of the class.
These riders often win the classes that they have entered along with any rosettes and prizes that are on offer.
The dressage community dubs these type of people as ‘rosette hunters’, meaning that they enter classes that they know they could easily win just to get the rosette and prizes on offer.
But after working with hundreds of riders over the course of a few years, I think that there is more to it than that.
I don’t believe that ‘rosette hunters’ are out solely to win classes and accumulate prizes (although that is a nice cherry on the cake). I believe that the reason why they don’t move up to the next level, although they probably won’t admit it, is because they’re afraid.
They’re afraid of not being the top of the class, of not receiving a near-perfect score sheet, of having to take the constructive criticism from the judge and, most importantly, afraid of what everyone else would think if they don’t finish in first place.
In other words, they’re afraid of failing. So afraid of failing, in fact, that they allowed it to stop their progression as a competitive dressage rider.
Failure and Success
This phenomenon is not only apparent in the sport of dressage, it’s in our everyday life and, at one time or another, we’ve all been affected by it.
How many time have we avoided asking out a guy/girl that we like because we fear being rejected? Or asking for a pay rise because we fear that the answer might be no. Or launching a new product because we fear that it might fail.
And yet, by avoiding these situations – the possibility of rejection, the possibility of embarrassment and the possibility of failing – we take away the possibility of success.
As Wayne Gretzky once said, “we miss 100% of the shots that we do not take”.
Imagine what we could all achieve if we didn’t fear failure? How many more time would you have picked up the bat and taken a swing if you didn’t fear failure?
In summary, if we do not have a way to overcome our fear, we will never achieve what we want in our lives.
Failure is a Necessity
Going back to my dressage days, I remember that there was always an air of excitement and anticipation at the end of a competition whilst riders waited to see the results and read their comments and scores.
If they scored highly and their scoresheet was full of comments such as ‘good work’ or ‘pleasing to watch’, they were elated, and that piece of paper became almost like a prized possession. They’d fold it carefully, try not to get it dirty and take it home with care. It was their poof of a good performance.
On the other side of the coin, if the rider finished in the lower half of the class and their scoresheet contained comments from the judge such as ‘out of balance’ or ‘lack of relaxation’, then that piece of paper became almost like a piece of trash. They uncaringly fold it up and scrunch it in their pocket, and on a few occasions, instantly binned it.
Then one day, something different happened.
A rider came to collect her scoresheet. She had one of the lowest scores and her sheet was filled with loads of constructive criticism and notes for improvement from the judge. When she looked at her scoresheet her eyes lit up, she smiled slightly and began reading every comment that the judge had left for her.
She later explained to me that the scoresheet she held in her hand, the one with low scores and notes containing all the things that went wrong, was worth ten times more to her than any rosette.
Receiving a scoresheet that told her she had ridden well and gave a good performance, taught her nothing. But a scoresheet from a less than satisfactory performance taught her all the mistakes she was making and how she could improve. A scoresheet from a less-than-perfect performance was more valuable for her progression than a scoresheet from a winning performance.
It is only through failure that we can learn from our mistakes, grow and ultimately succeed.
Failure is, therefore, a necessity for success. It’s part of the journey.
Examples of Failure
Often, we look at successful people that we admire and we only see their highlight reel. We see the good bits, the slam dunks and the winning shots.
We often forget or are sometimes led to believe, that these people don’t make mistakes. They don’t get things wrong, they nail it every time.
Well, I’m here to tell you that’s complete and utter bollucks – an urban myth that you can put on the shelf right next to ‘overnight successes’ because both of them simply do not exist.
What seems like overnight success has been years in the making, and what seems like a constant winner was once a constant failure.
Here are some examples.
Walt Disney – As a lot of other people, I grew up on Disney movies and the magic that encapsulated them. Mr Walt Disney was fired from his job as a cartoonist for not being creative enough. His first business later failed. Today, Walt Disney Studios are estimated to be worth $36.5 billion.
Harry Potter – The author, J K Rowling, had her first manuscript of Happy Potter rejected by 12 publishers.
Michael Jordan – In his own words, “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to make the winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over again in my life and that is why I have succeeded.”
Thomas Edison (pictured) – Before inventing the light bulb, Edison had 1000 failed attempts. In an interview, a reporter asked him, “How did it feel to fail 1000 times?” To which Edison responded, “I didn’t fail 1000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1000 steps.”
WD40 – WD40 stands for Water Displacement 40th Formula. The chemist didn’t perfect the formula until his 40th try – which meant that he had 39 failed attempts prior.
YOU – When you were learning to walk, I guarantee that you stumbled and fell over numerous times. At no point did you worry what the other children or adults thought of you constantly falling over. You continued to try and you continued to fail until you got it right.
Fear and Society
We understand that failure is a pre-requisite to success, so why are we afraid of it?
The problem is that as a society, we have developed to enhance the fear of failure within all of us.
We have come to link failure with self-worth. If we fail at a task, make a mistake or get something wrong, this makes us believe that we are not worthy and not good enough. We then try to avoid that failure so that we can maintain our self-worth in our own eyes and the eyes of other people.
If we experience repeated failures, we think that this is due to lack of ability and we give up on trying to succeed. (This behaviour is also visible within those who have a fixed mindset, but more on that in a future post)
At school, failure is branded as a negative thing. If you fail a test or an assignment, you are compared (and ranked) amongst your peers as underperforming. Again, this affects our self-worth and the belief that we are not good enough, not only in our own eyes but in the eyes of our peers aswell. This programmes us into avoiding anything that we may potential fail at in the future in order to protect our self-worth.
Now I’m not saying that everyone should start handing out ‘participation medals’ and rewarding failure. Instead, we need to realise when we have been unsuccessful. We need to learn how to handle, and learn from, failure.
The Fear of Failure
Did you know that public speaking is listed as America’s number one fear? What is even more interesting, and slightly perplexing, is that that the fear of death is at number five on the list.
Which means that people are more afraid of public speaking than of dying. People would, quite literally, rather die than have to speak in public.
This tells us that the fear of failure, at its core, stems from worrying about what other people will think.
Fear of Failure and Creativity
The new buzz word in entrepreneurship and business is ‘creativity’. Before, it was ‘productive’ and ‘effective’, and although these qualities are still important, employers are now on the lookout for those that ooze creativity.
In 2010, IBM conducted a survey to see what the most important skill to see what the most critical factor was for future success. The survey included more than 1500 CEOs across 33 industries and sixty countries. Coming top in the poll and outranking other desirable skills such as integrity, discipline and management was, you guessed it, creativity.
The truth is that we are all creative, but it is suppressed by fear.
In order to be creative, we need to try new things and we need to allow ourselves to fail. We need to be able to swing the bat freely and understand that we may miss the ball completely. And if we do miss the ball, we need to have the courage to swing again – but this time at a different angle.
If you live with a constant fear of failure your ability to be creative and to innovate will be severely reduced.
How to Combat the Fear of Failure
Fear is a sign that you are alive. It’s a natural emotion and response that has ensured our survival as a human race.
Although we are talking about fear in a very negative light, there are also numerous positives – self-preservation being one of them.
Unfortunately, this means that we will never get rid of fear completely, nor is that advisable. Instead, we must learn to recognise it and decipher if the fear of failure is waving a genuine red flag or a pretend one. For example, there are some rare situations where if you failed, you could die – this would be a genuine red flag.
The simplest and most effective way to combat the fear of failure is to consider every possible outcome.
In most situations, there are only three possible outcomes.
- You try and you fail
- You try and you succeed
- You don’t try
Let’s look at each one individually.
1. You try and you fail
This is the outcome that we are most afraid of and the one that is causing all the problems.
Initially, when we first think of failing, our mind will create a very melodramatic scenario. It will go completely overboard with irrational thinking of all the terrible things that will happen should you fail.
Instead, try to think rationally and realistically.
If you failed, what would really happen?
Would you injure yourself? Would you feel slightly awkward? Would you be embarrassed? Would you lose a financial investment? Would you lose time?
Next, ask yourself, if those things happened, how would you recover?
Would it all be forgotten about the next day? Would you need to seek alternative employment?
Thirdly, ask yourself, what would you have learnt? – the value that can be obtained from this question alone can be worth the failure because if you learnt something of value, then it’s not really a failure after all.
By taking a few minutes to complete even just this first step, we often realise that it wouldn’t be as bad as what we thought it would be if we do indeed fail.
This part of the exercise alone can disempower the fear of failure.
Steve Jobs – “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
2. You try and succeed
This is the outcome that we all want to happen. We want to swing the bat and knock it out of the park.
Imagine what would happen if you did it and succeeded?
How would you feel? What would you gain? How would you celebrate? What would you do with your success?
The upsides and possibilities that come with succeeding can be worth the risk of failing.
3. You don’t try
This is often called decision paralysis. In other words, you don’t know what to do therefore you avoid making any decision at all and, instead, do nothing.
Decision paralysis is caused by the fear of failure. You’re afraid of making the wrong the choice. If you pick up the bat and take a swing, there’s a chance that you might miss the ball. Therefore, by choosing not to swing the bat you avoid the risk of failing and therefore protect your self-worth.
Ask yourself what will happen if you do nothing and you don’t try? This is usually the worst scenario out of the three.
By doing nothing you run the risk of facing regret and a life full of ‘what ifs’.
Remember that “you miss 100% of the shots that you do not take.”
You get one life. There are no do-overs.
Aim for the Moon
Within the giant organisation that is Google, they use a term called ‘moonshots’. Instead of looking for a conservative 10% improvement they aim for a 10x, 20x and sometimes 100x improvement. They don’t just want to hit it out of the park – they want to hit it all the way to the moon.
This gives their employees the permission to try new things – radical things – and more importantly, it gives them the permission to fail. Their view is that achieving 60% of the impossible is better than achieving 100% of the ordinary.
Allow yourself to make mistakes – but don’t make the same mistake twice, make a different mistake and learn from it.
Learn to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Turn that fear into fuel and know that failure is a necessity if you want to grow, learn and develop. As Tim Ferris says in the 4 Hour Workweek, “measure the number of your successes by the number of uncomfortable situations and conversations that you put yourself in.”
Remember that the number one thing that gets in the way of success if the fear of failure. Don’t let it in the way of yours.
Swing the bat.