Striving to avoid slipups isn’t noble.
Striving to take bold action, knowing that you’ll inevitably fail and look foolish, is a strong strategy.
Recently, an inspiring colleague of mine shared this with me.
Life is a maze and we are mice. We have decisions to make at every fork in the road. We will unquestionably take wrong turns, bump up against walls and need to change course. Humans, just like mice, need freedom to move about. If we’re told, “Don’t choose the wrong path,” either explicitly or subliminally, we freeze and stop navigating the maze. The fear of failing leaves us paralyzed and unable to move forward. We stagnate. From the New York Times:
The most concrete thing that neuroscience tells us is that when the fear system of the brain is active, exploratory activity and risk-taking are turned off.
I’m not suggesting that we should become adrenaline junkies, perpetually looking for riskier activities. We should continually evaluate upside and minimize downside. However, it is only by taking calculated chances that we can make any progress. If you never fail, then you have never attempted to achieve what you’re capable of.
Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new. -Albert Einstein
By new, he means difficult and challenging.
Learning to accept the possibility of making a mistake or even fail is a challenge to our comfort zones. We are hardwired to evaluate the negatives more strongly than the positives. As you know, we riff around here on the topic of trial and error. That presumes that there will be errors – but our resulting lessons will be stronger for having made them. Robust triumphs are even more satisfying.
Take a baseball player who experiments with a new approach at the plate. Maybe it’s attacking a fastball in 0-0 count when his personal default setting is to take the first pitch. The first ten times he swings, he comes up completely empty, making weak contact, beating the ball into the ground and awkwardly swinging and missing. He stays with his plan. He’s done his research and taken a long view. He trusts that, over the course of time, his tree will bear fruit. From the BBC:
There has to be some reason to believe the science or technology underpinning that solution, that makes us think the idea is only mostly crazy.
Finally it starts to click. Line drives begin to sprinkle and he reaches base more frequently. He’s on drugs. It’s a high.
Without the risk, without the experiment, we have zero chance to become substantially stronger. Now, I’m not suggesting we only learn from making a wrong turn. Making the correct one teaches us just as much, if not more. From Forbes:
Just as the failures of others teach us more than their successes, our own successes teach us more than our failures. Neurological research bears this out. Scientists at MIT monitored primates’ brains while teaching them a specific task. When a primate succeeded, the researchers observed the monkey’s neurons respond – their brain physically changed in response to learning. When a primate failed at the task, however, there was virtually no change. Furthermore, once primates experienced success, they were more likely to continue improving their performance.
Additionally, it just feels better to succeed (read: win). But only being willing to entertain success means that we will fail as a group. From lifehack.org:
Too many organizations today have cultures of perfection: a set of organizational beliefs that any failure is unacceptable. Only pure, untainted success will do. To retain your reputation as an achiever, you must reach every goal and never, ever make a mistake that you can’t hide or blame on someone else.
Imagine the stress and terror in an organization like that. The constant covering up of the smallest blemishes. The wild finger-pointing as everyone tries to shift the blame for the inevitable cock-ups and messes onto someone else. The rapid turnover as people rise high, then fall abruptly from grace. The lying, cheating, falsification of data, and hiding of problems—until they become crises that defy being hidden any longer.
If we care to grow as people and as teams, we must continually push our personal and collective limitations. We won’t always be successful, but our ultimate achievements will be grander for it.