Friday, August 6, 2004

Fear of Failure

I was tired. It was night, and I was driving back from the airport after my third successive week of travel to teach and lecture. The classes had been particularly draining. The students had been demanding in the positive sense; they were hungry for knowledge that could provide them. I was drained and anxious to get home.

As I drove, I remember that the street I was on - and that very stretch of road - was where (less than a year ago) I had gotten my only speeding ticket in more than 30 years.

I looked down at my speedometer. The speed limit is 35 MPH on this section of road. In a few blocks, it became a more reasonable 45 MPH. I couldn't see the speedometer. Inadvertently, I must have dimmed the dash lights. I reached down to turn up the lights so I could see, but I couldn't find the light switch. Angered by my ineptness, I looked down through my wonderfully new bifocals and still couldn't find it.

I glanced back at the road only to find I was heading directly for a sign in the road median as I neared an intersection. I jerked the wheel and swerved to the left. The car hit the curb with the two right wheels. As the car rebounded to the left, I pulled to the right, taking note of a car in the left-hand lane coming up behind me. I careened back to the right into my lane. Sometime during this process, I had put on the brakes, because I realized that I had slowed down.

The tires on the right side of the car were flat. I drove slowly, bumping along, trying to get to a place to pull off the road. Consciously I starting thinking about the event that had just transpired, all the rest of the actions had been beneath the conscious level, at a speed far faster than that of logical thought.

That little excursion, that lack of conscious attention to direction, that attempt to avoid failing as I had when I got the speeding ticket cost me two hours of time waiting for a wrecker and a taxi ride home, and it cost me money, too.

Focusing on previous failures increases the possibility of future failures. It has been said that a cat, once burned by sitting on a hot skillet, will never sit on a hot skillet again. This is true, but the cat also will never sit on a cold skillet!

Our organizational cultures dictate that once we have failed, we will never fail that way again. We put in place tests, procedures, and practices to prevent that particular failure from recurring. This tendency to set up preventive measures often leads to a burgeoning complex of bureaucracy that is easy to add to, but hard to subtract from.

Karl Wallenda, one of the greatest tightrope walkers of all time, fell to his death two weeks after discussing with his wife, for the first time, his fear of falling. After the discussion, he became preoccupied with safety precautions, something he had never worried about before. Fear of failure leads to failure. We should focus our energies on success assurance rather than failure avoidance.

Eleanor McCulley pointed out to me that it is impossible for a person to visualize a negative. That's why, for example, when you tell a child, "Don't jump on the sofa!" that the child jumps on the sofa. Mentioning what not to do draws subconscious attention to the very behavior you don't want.

John Cleese, of Monty Python fame, had a wonderfully funny and insightful talk on the power of making mistakes. He pointed out that a self guided missile makes thousands of small mistakes along its path to delivering its payload. Small mistakes are made and corrected in order to not make the big mistake of missing its target.

Isn't that what you try to do in raising children? Don't you let them have a little rope and learn from small mistakes rather than controlling them so tightly that when they do get free, which they always will, they make a big mistake that is life altering? And, isn't that they way that you mentor leaders? Give them assignments with ever increasing risks and complexity?

We're all working hard. I sense that we're tired and that some are at the point of despair. We are reminded constantly of things we shouldn't or can't do, and we are taught that failure is unacceptable. Our attention to failure avoidance commands much of our energies.

Where is the positive vision of success that enables us and that admits that learning through failure is an acceptable outcome? What are you doing to help establish that vision? What is your vision for yourself and your organization?

Paul Schumann

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