“What great thing would you attempt if you knew you could not fail?”
~ Robert H. Schuller
I have come across the above quote often and pondered it reflectively. It inspires me to think big – contemplating all the many things I have dreamed of creating or being a part of. I often feel compelled to make a list – and have done so many times. I encourage my clients to do this as well. But the most interesting and show stopping part of that quote for me is the idea of “failure”.
It’s easy to think of shooting for the moon when the idea of crashing down to the ground doesn’t enter the picture. We can dream and scheme all we want, but in order to make our dreams real, we must take action. And when we do, this idea of failure seems to have a way of creeping in despite our best attempts to move forward in spite of it.
Failure means different things to different people. But I think the most debilitating thing about the idea of failure is having to experience or endure some kind of pain – pain of rejection, embarrassment, loss, financial ruin – not to mention its actual physical variations.
The interesting thing to me about pain is that – thankfully – it is usually finite. It comes and it goes. And while we don’t always have any control over whether we experience it, we do seem to play a part in how long it lasts and how uncomfortable it gets.
As a kid, getting immunizations was terrifying. I remember how worked up I would get before the needle even came close to my skin. And I’ve watched my kids do the same thing – even screaming or wailing before contact is ever actually made. But a few seconds later, the injections are completed before the kids even realize it. They get off the exam table and immediately go onto other things – except perhaps when one of them needs a little more sympathy and deliberately focuses on the site of the shot and the blood on the bandage – prolonging the unpleasant experience and making it into something far more painful than it really needs to be.
I think we do the same thing when we contemplate the pain that accompanies what we believe would be “failure”. Our minds have a way of making it far more ominous than it ever is in reality. And if we happen to find ourselves experiencing it, we can also fall into the trap of unwittingly making it more uncomfortable than it really needs to be. But we can also exercise resilience and determination in our ability to bounce back and focus on something that will allow us to move forward in spite of an otherwise unpleasant experience.
Because what it really comes down to is what your experience – regardless of the way it turns out – has given you, rather than cost you. People who have accomplished extraordinary things in the world are the first to tell you that what many refer to as “failure” has plagued them time after time – and many will tell you those experiences were prerequisites for their success. What differentiates them from those who allowed “failure” to defeat them is that they picked themselves up, figured out what they could learn, and moved forward armed with a new awareness, a new understanding, and a renewed commitment to their greatest dreams and visions.
I think we all need a shot from time to time. A shot of humility, compassion – and humor. A shot that will only serve to make us stronger, more determined, and far more resilient than we were before. What great thing can YOU achieve today, knowing that you simply cannot fail?
For more on the fallacy of failure, check out Seth Godin’s post on How to Fail.
Implications for Real Leaders
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This week’s post features a video of an even more unbelievable story than the last one I shared with you — about a series of seemingly random and recurring events that had a profound impact on me. These experiences provided the courage and the nudge I needed to take action on something that simultaneously excited and terrified me — leaving my stable, well paid job to launch my dream of having my own business. Below is a written version of the story (as it appears in my new book The Pinocchio Principle: Becoming the Leader You Were Born to Be), minus a few details I added in the above video version.
For years I worked as an internal consultant and executive coach for a large corporation in a job I loved. Gradually, I began to recognize my longing to break out to start my own business and have more flexibility and time to spend with my family. Initially, I dismissed these yearnings as something everyone encounters. Then I began looking into what it would take to actually start a corporation. Though I daydreamed of the possibilities, the thought of leaving my job altogether seemed impractical since I was enjoying my work and had wonderful working conditions. I reasoned that I would stay there unless things changed to the point that I didn’t enjoy it anymore.
I kept waiting for things to take a turn for the worse — for someone to tell me I couldn’t do the work I was passionate about anymore, or for the organization to be restructured in such a way that was no longer optimal for me. None of that happened. In fact, things just seemed to get better and better there. Still, these visions and dreams continued to beckon. They became more and more pronounced, until finally I began to seriously entertain the notion of taking action on them.
I began to find screws everywhere I went. I walked across the kitchen floor and stepped on one. An elevator opened up and I saw another one on the floor in front of me. They were turning up when I cleaned my kids’ rooms, and in other odd places. In a meeting, a co-worker and I were pouring over some documents when a tiny screw popped out of her reading glasses and landed on the papers in front of us. Initially, I didn’t think anything of finding these screws. But after several occurrences, I became curious as to whether there could be significance.
One day while on the phone with a very good friend, I related my experiences. “Maybe you’re screwed,” she joked. “Or I have a few screws loose?” I retorted. She suggested we look up the definition of a screw in the dictionary. As she went to get her dictionary, I wandered around the house, phone in hand, straightening things up. When she came back to the phone, among the many definitions she read was one that said “something that must be turned or acted upon in some manner.” As she said the words, I reached into the small drawer of a sewing table in our living room and felt my hand wrap around a zip-lock bag. I lifted the bag out of the drawer to find — you guessed it — a bag of screws in assorted sizes.
This act held profound meaning for me, as it seemed to be the crowning event of a series of seemingly coincidental incidents that became more and more pronounced until they finally got my attention. Whether it was my subconscious mind, the screws, or both, I felt sure there was a message for me. The following week, I gave my notice at work (and didn’t encounter any more screws after that).
For more information on Signs, Synchronicity and Meaningful Coincidences:
A Story About Signs, Synchronicity and Meaningful Coincidences (the first one)