How to get smarter about ‘failure’ – (Part 1 of 5)

This is first in a series of blog posts about rethinking failure.

So you’re thinking about taking on a tough challenge.

By tough I mean one that you know you should do, or it would be great to have done, but you haven’t been able to get yourself over the line and actually commit to whatever it is. It could be something big like writing a book, starting a business, learning to do a back flip on a motorbike, or launching a land war in Asia. Or something small, like cleaning the garage. Whatever it is, if you could wave a magic wand you’d want it done, but when you think of the work required and the risks involved, then your motivation wilts. Your enthusiasm is not dead, but it’s on life support. There is a pulse, but it’s feeble.

Yet, you know you’d be better off doing it. Why is it so hard to get started?

One of the main reasons we balk at taking on tough challenges is because of the chance and consequences of failure. There’s no point taking on a goal that you can’t finish, or one that might even leave you worse off.

When I first heard about the trans-Atlantic rowing race I was initially captivated by the romance of gliding peacefully across the water, under a star studded night sky … until I found out how many rowers had drowned over the years. Six boats, twelve people, had been lost. That was way too high a percentage. So I quit before I even started. It was too much of a mad gamble.

It wasn’t until much later that I realised that what we’ve been taught about taking on goals and assessing success and failure is … not exactly wrong, but far from being complete and satisfying and helpful.

The SMART goal acronym has a lot to answer for. Because it starts with ‘Specific’ we believe that goals have to have a sharp finish line. Then we think that a challenge will be a waste of time unless we cross that line. (As we will see the very term ‘goal’ does us no favours because it implies there has to be a finish line). This results in some unusual behaviour.

Check out these questions and see if you’ve been infected. Do you think…

  • that if you can produce a list of reasons not to do something then you shouldn’t (as if failure can’t be avoided)

  • that if you can’t complete a goal you shouldn’t start it (as if all benefits arrive at the end)

  • that if you are underway but can’t finish a challenge then you should stop (because if you don’t get to the benefits at the end then it’s a waste of time)

  • that you should only set goals that you are able to achieve (because you only get the benefits if you complete a goal)

  • that if you don’t complete a goal then you’ve failed (because you always walk away with nothing.)

Look, I don’t want to throw out the ‘SMART’ acronym. But we need to know when it applies and when it doesn’t. And we really need to separate motivation from our goal’s target and the target from the underlying benefit. Because we call many things that aren’t failure, failure. Then when it comes to the real risk of failure we can be either reckless or overly conservative. We don’t take on challenges that we are clearly better off doing. We quit too soon on projects that we think we might not achieve when there are sometimes very good reasons for persisting.

We’ve been living with Failure 1.0 and its time for an upgrade and a reboot.

In this series of blog posts I’m going to be looking at:

  • Why you want to take on a tough challenge; then

  • A really useful distinction between ‘RAMP’ and ‘STEP’ goals

  • What to do when fear of not achieving your goal is stopping you from taking on your goal;

  • Practical techniques for dealing with risk and consequences of serious failure; and

  • A short cut way of working out whether or not you should take on a tough challenge.

Some of this thinking, particularly the stuff about ‘RAMP’ and ‘STEP’ challenges you won’t find anywhere else. I’ve been trying out these ideas in my workshops and getting a great response so I’m very keen to hear what you think.

But first, I don’t want to make the mistake of assuming that everyone thinks that taking on a tough challenge is a good thing. That’s what we’re going to be looking at in the next post.


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Kevin Biggar

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