Failure isn’t fatal – it just feels bad

One of the first things I used to say to new staff when they joined the team was don’t be afraid to make mistakes, to try new things – to dare to fail. They inevitably would look at me incredulously suspecting that this was some kind of trap. I would utter the same invitation when running workshops, especially with senior executives. I would encourage them to say what they really thought, to test boundaries and risk putting forward ideas – even dopey ones.

Once they “got it”, it was amazing what insights they had to the problems confronting the organisation. So why didn’t they just “spit it out” during the normal work day? Fear. The workshop was a safe place where expectations were altered – even in the most hierarchical, autocratic and conservative groups. They put their fear of looking foolish aside.

Fear is one of the most powerful primitive emotions. It’s what kept our ancestors alive – ready to flee the sabre tooth tiger. Fear is triggered in the limbic system. It is chemical in origin. It is not always rational. The tigers have gone, but the mechanism is still there. Onto this chemical web we embroider all sorts of things to be fearful of. Disapproval is one of the debilitating fears  – especially peer and parent disapproval. How many of us have been mortified to put their hand up in class after the making the last great blooper? How many times do we stop and say – “What would xxx think about this?” and then just give up, before even starting.

This is the wrong question. If you want to hurdle barriers. To be different. If you care about your idea and your thoughts, you should ask yourself, “When I do this, how will I manage those who don’t get it?” We all care what people think of us, especially those we admire or who are in authority. Which is why I empowered staff to be fearless in putting up ideas that may be brilliant.


Daring to do – daring to fail – requires passion. Passion will carry you over boundaries. It also takes courage. It is not courageous to act when you know the answer is correct. Courage is doing it when you are not sure, but do it anyway because you believe it is right. Stupidity is when you have not even considered the answer or the consequences. Courage is like bravery. The soldier who knowingly risks his life is brave. The one who didn’t know of the danger is just lucky (or stupid).


Defeating failure also takes persistance after you start to see it through. Passion for what you are doing gives you the power to persist.If you look at the list of young school scientists who won the Google Science Fair, you will find one common trait – they all persevered when most of us would have given up. They all were passionate about what they were doing. A breast cancer screening test from a high school student! Amazing. For two years Brittany Wenger persisted.

“I’m convinced that what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful is pure persistence.” `Steve Jobs

Some Famous Failures

  1.  Sent home from school because he was too stupid to learn, his mother home schooled him. After failing 10,000 times he discovered how to make the incandescent light bulb work. “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
  2.  Cut from my high school basketball team. “I’ve missed more than 9,000 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 and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed”
  3.  Failed in business at the age of 21; defeated in a legislative race at age 22; failed again in business at age 24; overcame the death of his sweetheart at age 26;  had a nervous breakdown at age 27; lost a congressional race at age 34; lost a senatorial race at age 45; failed in an effort to become vice-president at age 47; lost a senatorial race at age 49; and was elected president of the United States at age 52.
  4.  At age 65, with a beat-up car and a $100 check from Social Security, he realized he had to do something. He remembered his mother’s recipe and went out selling. How many doors did he have to knock on before he got his first order? –  More than a thousand doors before he got his first order.
  5. As a young cartoonist he faced many rejections from newspaper editors, who said he had no talent. One day a minister at a church hired him to draw some cartoons. He was working in a  small mouse infested shed near the church. He was inspired. “To some people, I am kind of a Merlin who takes lots of crazy chances, but rarely makes mistakes. I’ve made some bad ones, but, fortunately, the successes have come along fast enough to cover up the mistakes. When you go to bat as many times as I do, you’re bound to get a good average.”
  6. Before she published her book, she was in poverty, severely depressed and a single parent. She went from depending on welfare to being one of the richest women in the world in a span of only five years through hard work and perseverance. The original story was rejected by a dozen publishers; including big houses like Penguin and Harper Collins. Bloomsbury, a small London publisher, only took it because the CEO’s eight-year old daughter begged her father to print the book. Sheer luck?
  7.  She endured an abusive childhood and numerous challenges to get to where she is now. At one stage, she was fired from her job as a television reporter because she was “unfit for TV”. “I don’t think of myself as a poor deprived ghetto girl who made good. I think of myself as somebody who from an early age knew I was responsible for myself, and I had to make good.”
  8. “In the early 1990s, I owed billions of dollars and many people thought I was finished,” he said. “I refused to give in to the negative circumstances and I never lost faith in myself. I didn’t believe I was finished even when the newspapers were saying so. I refused to give up. Defeat is not in my vocabulary.” He is listed by the Guinness Book of Records as having engineered the biggest financial turnaround in history.

The answers: Next Week

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