(5 of 5) So you’ve just failed. Now what?

This is the fifth and last blog of a series of blogs showing how we can achieve more by rethinking our attitude towards failure. In this blog I suggest four ways to remove judgement around failure.

So far we’ve talked about RAMPS and STEPS as if they are quite distinct, as if it is objectively clear to anyone which category your challenge falls into.

But what about if your goal is a RAMP but you are emotionally fully committed to achieving your bright line target? You will get over 80% in the exam! You will run the marathon in under 4 hours! You will lose 6kgs in 6 weeks! You see yourself as a succeeder, you’re a completer. You don’t pick every fight, but the ones you do you win. You bend the universe to your will.

You might be getting paid on commission so that a sale more or less isn’t going to be a disaster or a triumph, but by God, you will do better than you did last year, you will be in the top 10 of the office/region. That’s what gets you out of bed!

My point is to some extent whether or not you have a STEP challenge can be a choice. We tell ourselves, we convince ourselves, that the goal matters. We tell ourselves how much winning is important and how much failure sucks – even when there may not be all that much on the line. Except, and this is a big except, your own identity and feelings of self-worth.

Which, again, is still fine, as long as part of you knows what you’re doing. It becomes a problem though when you aren’t aware that you’re drinking your own Kool-aid. This is because we are very good at increasing pressure on ourselves (by telling ourselves how important it is that we make the target), but not so good with ways to get a little separation from our challenge.

So next time you’re about to give yourself the boot for not achieving your goal, here’s four things to consider:

  • Success often depends on things outside your control going your way

  • Even the best method and decisions don’t always produce the right outcome every time. Some strategies require repeated attempts

  • Failure is part of the process. Sometimes you can’t logic your way to the right solution. You have to iterate. You have to ‘fail’ your way to success

  • Don’t forget you’re playing a game. Your hair isn’t really on fire.

1.    Success depends on things outside your control

When we take on the challenge of achieving a goal we tend to think that there is at least some chance that we can do it.

But hang on. You don’t control all the factors. The amount that you do control varies greatly from losing weight (when you control most of the factors) to any time you try to beat the competition (you can’t control much of what they do or how they prepare).

Instead we tend to overestimate how much of the success that we control and then believe that it comes down to our own level of motivation. Which is nuts. You can be highly motivated and fail. Very successful people don’t achieve their goals all the time.

That’s because, as well as motivation and diligent application (things you can control), achievement also relies on having the right method and skills (things you can somewhat control) and often on things completely outside your control going your way.

Richard Branson’s Virgin empire is a great example of a successful, clever, highly motivated entrepreneur frequently being thwarted. Here are some investments Richard Branson made that were unsuccessful.

•     Virgin Cola
•     Virgin Vodka
•     Virgin Cosmetics
•     Virgin Clothing
•     Virginware
•     Virgin Express
•     Virgin Cars
•     Virgin Brides
•     Virgin Pulse
•     Virgin Digital

A really fundamental distinction, which is rarely made, is between ‘process’ goals and (for lack of a better word) ‘strategy’ goals. Process goals you can control completely. Strategy goals have factors outside your control.

Meeting your sales target is a ‘strategy’ goal (because you can’t control the competition and the economy). The number of sales calls you make a day is a ‘process’ goal.

Champion golfers can only train well. They can’t control how other golfers train or how other golfers are playing. They can’t actually set themselves a challenge of winning a tournament, they can just try and play the best golf that they know they are capable of.

We should still set ‘strategy’ goals – because this keeps us innovating, and looking for ways to adapt and control for risks. But at the end of the day Strategy goals contain more than a whiff of fortune telling. How can you predict with any certainty where you’re going to end up in a year’s time? So ultimately what you should reward is having the right plan and implementing it well. You should focus on your process goals.

One of my coaching clients wasn’t going to make his revenue goal for last year, then, with just a few weeks to go, he made a big sale out of the blue. What should he conclude about his sales skills?

I would argue that whether or not he made his target is largely irrelevant. Did he have a plan for making sales, did he implement his plan, was he updating and improving his plan? In other words, did he make his process goal? If that’s the case, then he should definitely celebrate. Otherwise … well yes he was lucky.

2.    Sometimes the best decisions don’t produce the best outcome. That doesn’t mean that the decision was wrong.

Somehow we have become habituated to an almost mechanical approach to success. Effort in = success out. For small challenges, where we control all the important parts of the process (like making a cup of tea) then I suppose this makes sense.

But very often, even the best and most appropriate strategy might not produce success at every attempt. If you are trying to find a pair of matching socks in a drawer, you didn’t fail if the first attempt didn’t work out. Your strategy of fishing will eventually work. It’s more or less guaranteed to.  What you can’t tell is when. It would be crazy to call each unsuccessful attempt a ‘failure’.

If you’re trying to buy a house at a discount then you might have to go to fifty open homes, and attend dozens of auctions before you find one. Each ‘failed’ auction doesn’t mean your strategy isn’t working.

The most reliable way to make your money last at the race track is to bet on the favourite.  Sometimes the favourite won’t win. That doesn’t mean you have a bad strategy. You should bet again on the favourite in the next race.

If you have a choice of putting your long term savings in the latest cryptocurrency offering or a balanced portfolio of shares you should probably choose the latter. It won’t always be the best outcome but most of the time it will. (Your mate telling you how he bought $50k of Xero shares at 35c doesn’t make him clever, it makes him lucky.)

3.    Sometimes you can’t figure out the right method. You have to experiment.

Another way to get that fear of failure under control is to embrace limited ‘failure’. Instead of looking at failure as something that happens out of the blue and a reason to beat yourself your up, it can be something you plan for and expect. This is because often the way to success as a series of small, iterative experiments.

Marketing is a big part of my business, but what works best Facebook or Google ads? I have no idea, so I’m going to put some money in both and see what works.

The trick is to reduce the challenge until the stakes are survivable, be clear about what your testing, try it out and see what happens.

I see the Roomba as a bit of a role model for us. A Roomba is a robot vacuum cleaner. A Roomba has to cope with the furniture in a house, whose position keeps changing each day and so, that makes it difficult to get around. Here is a Roomba in action.

You see how it bumps – orientates and moves ahead? This model of Roomba is not crammed with lots of sensitive and complicated detectors. It’s just designed to bump safely, back up, swivel and move forward. It iterates towards ‘success’. It ‘fails’ a lot, but it’s designed to ‘fail’.

4.    Don’t forget, you’re playing a game

Most challenges we take on are RAMP goals – that is more effort gets more result. We could just set ourselves a goals of improvement for eg. ‘lose weight’ or ‘get fitter’, but they risk being a little bland. Rather than just ‘Get fitter’, it’s much more fun to train for a particular event, to have a goal of ‘Run under 4 hours for the Auckland marathon.’ To reach a certain mark in the exam, to beat your golfing buddy, to make a promotion at work. Having a clear target become closer and closer is very motivating.

But sometimes it’s easy to forget that taking on these challenges is just a way of motivating ourselves, it’s a game that we play on ourselves. At the end of a day, the best that you can do is the best that you can do. Unfortunately, often you can’t get the best out of yourself unless you commit to a difficult goal. So to do your best you tell yourself that winning is everything. To stay sane though, in the back of your mind you also need to remember that there is a bigger picture.

You’re just striving to win inside a certain artificial situation with its own specific set of rules and rewards. We have a word for that – it’s a ‘game’. That doesn’t mean that it’s not important. That you shouldn’t try hard, but at the end of the day, it’s a game.

90% of the athletes who turn up at the Olympics know they won’t win, but if they can produce their best effort, and achieve a personal best, then they’re satisfied. They have to be satisfied. The best that you can do is the best that you can do.

In summary

In summary, next time you’re putting in the boot to yourself because of a ‘failure’, you can usefully try asking:

·      “Did I control all of the elements of success?” Because if you didn’t then you can’t expect to always be successful.

·      “Am I assuming my strategy has a one-to-one relationship between attempt and success?” If that’s not true then perhaps you can try again.

·      “Did you get the most out yourself?” Then great, that’s the best you can do.


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