Every time I see Steve Jobs’s quote - "Everything around you that you call life was made by people that were no smarter than you" - I get a head rush! Other than the fact that it is legendary, it instills a sense of creative confidence and more importantly allays the demon in one's head, i.e, the fear of failure!
While I was growing up, I competed at the national level in athletics and the one thing that plagued the minds of most of my colleagues and competitors was a failure and the fear of it. And as a result, they either ended up over preparing or freezing on ‘race-day’. Most of us go through this all our lives, whether it is an exam, a client presentation, a problem, a debate or any other competition and all of us deal with this in very different ways. However, the fear of failure is not necessarily a bad thing. It helps you prepare, assess the situation and most importantly, gives you something to take away that will make you better and better!
Edward De Bono, a leading authority in the field of creative thinking talks about how fear of failure is one of the greatest impediments to creativity. In fact, most educational systems indoctrinate their students with the mental equation that "hard work + time = success" and a mentality that "failure is not an option". While there are many positives to this approach, it can create unintentional mental roadblocks towards failure. There is no room for failure in higher education, yet there is plenty of room for failure in creativity. Also, various social theories elucidate how confidence has a major impact on the way we approach a situation and how ‘fear’ could cause us to repress our own creativity and confidence. Edward de Bono sums this up perfectly stating “people don’t like ‘mistakes”. Mistakes stand in the way of their future, so they tend to remain with the safe ideas to avoid being ‘judged’, rather than choose the more creative way of looking at a problem. But, don’t you think that it is through mistakes that we learn?
Now, going back to the world that is at the core – the world of sports. Most battles are won in the mind and more so, in sports. Andre Agassi, in his latest interview, spoke of failure as the greatest teacher, the one that you cannot live without. Here is an interesting story about an awesome athlete called Mary Jose Perec. Perec is noted as one of the best female runners, ever! Her collection includes three Olympic gold medals, two gold medals at the World Championships and two gold medals at the European Championships. She had won a double gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 and was going to defend her 400 mts Title at the Sydney Olympics. The race was dubbed as one of the greatest clashes of the century with the home favorite Cathy Freeman leading the world time. However, Perec pulled out of the Games in Sydney, several days before they were due to begin. Pérec claimed security reasons for not competing, but legend has it that she admitted to cracking under the pressure of expectations before the much-hyped clash. So, it can get to the best in the world! Closer to our hearts, in the game of cricket, the fearlessness with which Australia plays in the big games while other teams crumble reiterates the importance of mind over matter!
This applies to the world outside sports too. If you look around, organizations and nations have sat up to recognize the importance of failure as part of their existence and are being culturally redefined. For example, in the Agile methodology, failing fast and often is encouraged practices in Agile teams. So also the importance of having a strategy that helps you regarding the decision to abort a project by assuming its failure at an early stage. Then there’s Design Thinking - the innovators look at failure as a necessary step to creating something remarkable. Call it a prototype and all of a sudden, this safe word allows failure to be an option. Design Thinking allows students to fail fast and learn by doing rather than avoid failure by striving for initial perfection. It instills confidence in one’s ability to creatively solve problems. Interestingly, some of the most unassuming products were a result of failure. It took Thomas Edison thousands of failed attempts to find the correct filament for the light bulb. Kleenex tissues were originally created to help women remove makeup and Post-It notes were invented in place of bookmarks. Their initial idea was a failure. So now, across the globe, there is a shift in the way failure is treated, and in fact, it’s celebrated. In Finland, they even celebrate a National Failure Day to encourage entrepreneurs to take risks and try again. Thereby, learn the power of failure!
If fear of failure is a concern of yours and has kept you from pursuing your dreams, it is a valid fear and, for the most part, shared by many. But if you embrace it, understand it, and allow it to motivate you, you will find that fear of failure is something that will make you better! While accepting fear is not easy, with the right expectations and an understanding of a few truths, however, the fear of failure can be a powerful weapon in your arsenal! In every walk of life, be it an entrepreneur or a sportsperson or you or me, this is true. In fact, the true differentiator for a leader is his or her fearlessness to tread the path less trodden, from the Elon Musks to the Sheryl Sandbergs, from the Mandelas to the Malalas - it is their fearlessness that has set them apart.
We have a responsibility to be the BEST and what lies ahead is aspirational. So, shed your inhibitions, give it your all and bring out the fearless you to make the world your own! Be More!
As my hero Michael Jordan, says, “I have missed more than 9000 shots in my career, I’ve lost almost 300 games, 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
(This article was first published on LinkedIn)