5. Why take on a goal you might fail at?

In the last few vlogs I talked about a way of dealing with your doubts. But there is one big doubt that you might have and that’s dealing with the physical, financial and emotional consequences of failure. That won’t be too much of a problem if your goal is to tidy the garage, it will be a problem if you’re trying to do a triple back flip on a motorbike. In this blog I look at why you might want to consider taking on a challenge that you might ‘fail’ at. In the next blogs we look at making sure it either doesn’t happen or we have it in perspective.

One of the first things I did, after thinking I just might take part in the trans-Atlantic rowing race, was to go and see a sports coach, Jon Ackland.

I walked into his office and he had a huge white sheet of paper in front of him, with lots of little squares on it. It was my training plan, and he was busy filling all the boxes with how many hours of what I should be doing each day to get fit for the race.

He looked up from his desk and said, ‘Oh Kevin, I just need to know for your training plan, are you going to win the race or just take part?’

Given that I had only just decided that I might be in the race this question seemed a little premature.

So I said ‘Look. I’m going to try really hard and see what happens.’ Which seemed a perfectly reasonable answer.

But then he turned on me and said ‘No! No! No! That’s completely wrong! The only way you’ll have a CHANCE of winning this race is if you DECIDE to win. Then everything about the way you prepare for this race will change!’ He went on, ‘I don’t care what it is but I need to know now! Are you going to win? Or just take part?’

Hang on a second, why on Earth should I consider taking on a goal that I’ll probably fail at … that has a significant chance of failure?

I think there are at least two reasons.

The first is this. To be worthwhile and satisfying a challenge has to feel outside of your comfort zone. To be rewarding, at some point, the challenge has to be beyond your reach. Here’s an example.

Recently I was thinking about taking part in the Tarawera Ultramarathon. A 103k running race through the forests between Rotorua and Kawerau.

It would be an immense challenge for me. I had run a marathon a few years earlier, but this would be nearly two and half times as long. And then I found out that it was only two months before the race start so very little time to train. The most likely outcome would be that I would nose into the mud at about the 45km mark.

On the other had – wouldn’t it be an amazing achievement to get to the end? To have run a 100km! So do I enter or not?

I didn’t know what I should do, but while I was going back and forwards on this I found myself looking at the FAQ page on the race website. It turns out that I wasn’t the only person who had this problem. In fact, the very first question was:

‘I don’t know if I can do this.’

In other words – why should I take on a challenge that I might fail at?

Can you guess what their answer was?

It wasn’t, ‘You can do it!’ – that wouldn’t have been true for everyone.

It wasn’t, ‘You won’t know unless you try’. That’s true but doesn’t really address the question.

Their answer to the question was, ‘That’s the point.’

I liked that very much.

The reason that we take on these difficult challenges is to see what we are capable of. To have that exhilaration that comes from breaking our limits. If you knew you could run a 100km then what’s the point? It would be like … making a cup of tea, nice, but not exactly thrilling.

Let’s flip it around. What if you were physically prevented from taking on challenges that were beyond you? What if you were only allowed to do things that you already knew how to do, or had already done before? Only take on challenges that were 100% guaranteed of getting the outcome. Does that sound like a life? Or like prison?

There is another reason for why you want to take on tough challenges and it’s to do with the psychology of performance. Tough challenges are a tool to get the most out of yourself.

This coach I mentioned, Jon Ackland, he was very dogmatic about winning. He would spend a lot of time impressing upon me the importance of winning. He would say things like, “You’ve got to win, it’s all about winning. Participation is for pussies. There’s no second place there’s only first loser!’, ‘Winning is everything! Losing is nothing!’

Hang on! That didn’t seem quite right to me. Sure winning is important but does winning get you everything and losing get you nothing? It can’t be as black and white as that.

So I pushed back, ‘Hang on! It can’t be ALL be about winning. What if you were in a marathon race and you only won because your main opposition wasn’t there?

Or you lost because they cheated?

Or you were winning until you swerved to save a small child?

Winning can’t always be everything. Losing can’t always mean failing.’

So we went back and forth about this until finally he said something that stopped me in my tracks.

He said, ‘Of course winning isn’t everything. The best that you can do is the best that you can do. But you can’t get the best out of yourself unless you commit to a difficult goal.’

That’s it! To get the best out of yourself you need to commit to a tough challenge, to tell yourself that achieving it is … well if not everything then very important. But to stay sane part of you has to remember that, at the end of the day, the best you can do is the best you can do.

Make sense?

So, two reasons that you might want to take on a challenge you might ‘fail’ at:

  • because there’s no such thing as an easy, worthwhile challenge; and

  • because it’s a tool to get the most out of yourself, and it’s exciting to push your limits and to find out what you’re capable of

Hopefully this blog has left you slightly more enthusiastic about taking on your challenge – but I am conscious that I haven’t talked at all about handling the consequences of failure. And dealing with THAT is what I’ll be looking at in the next blog!


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Kevin Biggar

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