A 12-month-old baby knows a lot about failure. Every time she lets go of the coffee table to attempt a step or two – thump! Failed again. Of course the easiest way for our cute little one to avoid failure is to give up on the idea of walking. It would be so much easier to just sit and let Mom bring the bottle.
There are a couple of reasons why that toddler keeps trying. First, the world looks pretty big and exciting and you can cover a lot more ground on two feet than on all fours, so it’s worth the effort. But more importantly, she hasn’t yet got the memo that failure is a bad thing. There’s no shame in falling on your butt when you’re 12 months old. In fact we grown-ups think it’s pretty darn cute.
But by the time we’ve grown up, been formally educated, got a job and taken responsibility for ourselves, our family, our children… they’ve managed to thoroughly convince us that failure is the worst possible option, to be avoided at all costs. And that’s when most growth and learning stops.
Most people I meet spend an inordinate effort to avoid failure of any kind. Which, don’t get me wrong, is a pretty good idea when you’re flying a plane or doing heart surgery. But it’s a major obstacle when you’re trying to grow as a person. By assiduously avoiding failure, we also avoid innovation, creativity, growth and breakthrough thinking. We stay carefully in the rut we occupy and discourage looking from side to side.
Those people, on the other hand, that we all respect and wish we could be like, well they encourage, embrace and endure failure on their way to the successes the rest of us admire. And the faster they fail, the quicker they grow.
Wanna fail faster?
That toddler knows far more about failure than you or I do and she’s not afraid of it. That’s why she learns faster, grows quicker and laughs more often. When was the last time you were glad you fell on your ass?
There’s a cute little movie from 2006 starring Queen Latifah called ‘Last Holiday’ in which she plays a shy, unassuming store clerk. She longs to be a professional chef and records her dreams of a better life in a journal labeled, "Possibilities." But rather than stepping up to her possibilities, she carefully saves her money for that rainy day, never colors outside the lines and lives a drab, unfulfilling life. When she’s diagnosed with a fatal illness and given just a few weeks to live, she liquidates her savings and embarks on her dream vacation.
The problems of the world are too large, too complex for me to even comprehend, let alone contribute to a solution.
What am I supposed to do about global warming? Drive a Prius and the ice sheets will stop melting? Recycle my plastic soda bottles and the fires in California will go away? Hardly.
Henry Ford, one of the great innovators of the last century, once famously said, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” In other words, the only obstacle to your success is your firm belief that the odds that are stacked against you are insurmountable.
The world we inhabit today is vastly different than the one we lived in yesterday. The rules have changed dramatically and it makes a lot of us uncomfortable.
When we’re born we come pre-programmed with two, and only two fears: The fear of falling and the fear of loud noises. After that, anything that makes you fearful, anxious or in doubt about yourself is learned or conditioned. And with every new bogeyman, we dream less, we hesitate more and the sphere of our infinite potential shrinks.
Some fears are downright useful – hot stoves, hungry tigers, high-voltage wires. These are the “Oh crap! That bus is about to hit me!” kind of scared and they’re just smart survival instincts.