Most people are good at not failing.
They're good at trying new things (when there is very little downside). They're good at pushing themselves (when no one will see them fail). They're good at taking a stand (when a thousand other people have already done so).
And to be fair, I'm just as guilty of these things as anyone else.
But a problem arises when it becomes more important to “not fail” in your daily life than it is to succeed. Every time you choose to avoid failure, you train yourself to not take risks. You train yourself to pass on potential opportunity in favor of playing it safe. You train yourself to use the fear of failure as a driver for decision–making.
If your tendency in any situation is to “not fail,” then you'll find it hard to ever truly win because you're teaching yourself that it's better to make an easy choice that's “not wrong” than a hard choice that's right.
Learning to Walk Again
To get a better idea of what I mean, read this beautiful quote from Richard Saul Wurman…
When I was a child, I once saw someone in a wheelchair. My mother told me that the person in the wheelchair had been in an accident and would recover, but would need to learn to walk again. That was a revelation to me because it seemed that once we’d learned to walk, that we’d always know how to walk.
The notion of learning to walk has lingered in my mind, and I’ve contemplated the process of teaching someone to walk again. I realized that this process has a lot to do with thrusting a leg out into the terror of losing your balance, then regaining your equilibrium, moving you forward, then repeating with your other leg. Failure as loss of balance, the success of equilibrium, and you move forward. Terror of falling, confidence, regaining your balance — it’s a fascinating metaphor for life. Risk is half of the process of moving forward. The risk of failing is inherent in achieving a goal.
There is nothing “wrong” with staying in the wheelchair. In fact, staying in the wheelchair is a great way to “not fail.”
But maintaining the status quo and holding onto normal isn't the same thing as succeeding.
Now, I'm not advocating failure as if it's something you should be searching for and accepting. I'm simply saying that it's not something to fear. If you want to get up and walk, you have to be willing to fall down.
We all have dreams and goals, but they can't become a reality without vulnerability and uncertainty and discomfort. Learning to walk again is hard. So is getting in shape, eating healthy, building a business, writing a book, starting a tough conversation, getting a better job, and holding yourself to a higher standard.
The Privilege of Being Wrong
When you are truly living on the edge, walking on the moon, perhaps, or caught in the grip of extreme poverty — there's no room at all for error. It's a luxury you can't afford.
For the rest of us, though, there's a cushion. Being wrong isn't fatal, it's merely something we'd prefer to avoid. We have the privilege of being wrong. Not being wrong on purpose, of course, but wrong as a cost on the way to being right.
— Seth Godin
You can spend your whole life developing the skill of not failing and making decisions that are not wrong. It's easier and it's safer. But, how long will you put off what you’re capable of doing just to maintain what you’re currently doing?
The alternative is that you can challenge yourself by doing the things that most people make excuses to avoid. You can thrust your leg forward and battle to regain your balance. Sure, you'll fall down along the way, but it's the risk of falling down that makes the achievement worthwhile.
The only real failure is not taking any action in the first place.