Failure Is Not An Option

A romantic notion about entrepreneurs and high achievers is that failureis good. Anyone who reads business books, self-help books or listens to any type of human performance podcast (like I like to do) will recognize the story of Thomas Edison who was purported to have tried to create a light bulb using various material for the filament. Having tried over 1,000 different variations of filaments he finally succeeded. Hence the idea that one must fail often to ultimately succeed. 

Another phrase often heard is “Fail fast-fail often”. There is even a book that was written with that title (which I have not read). The concept again, is if you fail quickly, if you work through the many variations of design of a product or service, one will reach success earlier. Good product design, measured by sales, which can be measured by either the monetary metric or volume has traditionally been a result of this fail fast-fail often option. 

In Edison’s day, he had to relay on physical iterations of testing. There were no computer simulations, or an artificial intelligence machine-learning algorithm that could assist him in his lab in Menlo Park.  In fact, he “failed” or tried at least 6,000 times to find the right filament. 

Be careful in adopting this paradigm. Failing in the world of economic development and government is not easily tolerated. Nearly every elected official run their campaigns on the platform of “jobs.” If it’s not the primary element of their election campaign it will almost always be some part of it. As an economic developer most of us are under pressure to perform so that our elected officials (who are also often our funders) can claim victory. Not performing, not getting jobs created by the private sector by existing companies or by attracting new ones has cost many an economic developer his or her job. 

In fact, the fifth characteristic of FLOW points to the opposite of failure. It says, “Failure in not an option”.In fact, there is no thought of failure. Failure in not an option because you are thinking simply about the present actions required to complete the task. Time, skills, and the task on hand morph together and failure is not even a thought that crosses your mind.

Think of the high-performance skier or BASE Wingsuit jumper, or a Hollywood stuntman. For them there is no question that failure is not an option. There are no opportunities for multiple iterations or experimentation. It is time to perform. Think of the times you have been in the zone, when you have been in flow. Think of the times that some of the other characteristics of flow kicked in. Your probably thought, “I can’t fail at this…I’m killing it!”

FLOW means that you are clear of your goal, your feedback is immediate, you are fully aware of the situation, time is non-existent and you must succeed. There is no option. 

NASA’s Apollo space program of the late sixties and early seventies was the epitome of FLOW. Every aspect of the mission to land on the Moon was thought through and every contingency was considered. Once they committed, once the astronauts were launched, the rockets launched, the boosters fired, and the landing was in sight everyone was at the top of their game. There was no thought of failure, only success. There was no opportunity for Edison-style 1,000 failures. They were going in. 

What if you could trigger flow on a daily basis and failure was not option? That really is what we all strive for, isn’t it?  Being in FLOW means putting all of your concentration and ferocity in the present situation and not worrying about yesterday or tomorrow. That is how the Apollo 11 mission to the moon achieved success. There was no room or thought of failure despite the documented challenges they faced in getting there. 

Strive for success, leave failure for those folks inventing lightbulbs.

Why Aren’t You Applying Yourself?

Growing up teachers and parents tell their children “there is nothing you can’t do if you put your mind to it.” In other words, you figure it out. Do you believe this? Telling your children anything else might be considered child abuse in some circles. The message is if you “apply yourself” you can do it. It, being anything. I think we all want to believe this, because in our culture the American dream is all about working hard, lifting yourself up by your bootstraps and achieving success. Our modern media is filled with these types of stories, and we love them.

Recently I have been listening to some podcasts of various types as I like to do, and just like movie stars who make the round of late night and early morning talk shows promoting a movie, social media celebrities make the rounds of podcasts when they have something to promote.  Marie Forleo, who I have seen on video and has a popular, Oprah-like web show, interviews all the big social media stars. Yes, there are stars in the social media world.

Marie Forleo recently talked about growing up In New Jersey with a do-anything Mom whose attitude was that she (the mother) could do anything and fix anything, thereby providing the inspiration for Forleo’s latest book “FigureOu Able.” In her mother’s mind, Forleo’s attitude is that everything can be figured out, solved and fixed with time and effort, “Figureoutable.” In several podcasts in which I have heard Forleo she recounts the story of her mother fixing her beloved radio and using this phrase.

Richard Dean Anderson portrayed MacGyver with the perfect combination of cool and nerdy

The question I have, is everything truly figure-out-able? Perhaps it is. Perhaps with unlimited resources it is, but the end result may not be world-class, or even close. If you have a problem or conundrum in which you find yourself, there is likely a solution. You don’t always have to be MacGyver to figure it out, but it doesn’t hurt. I like stories of people who failed hundreds of times before hitting it big. I think in my field of work, economic development, there is less patience from our private, and in particular public sector leaders for failure and trying things many times before success.

This brings us to our fourth characteristic of Flow (see previous blog posts if you are just joining us or check out the starting point of this series here). The fourth characteristic of FLOW is that “there is balance between what the challenge is, and the skills one has.” The job or task isn’t too easy but not too difficult to present a major obstacle to completion. You know you can complete the task, because you have trained for it, you have been here before (almost). 

Repeated attempts at something, training for an event or skill, practicing a speech gets one to the point where they can almost get there and succeed and get into a state of flow. How many times have we seen or experienced this state? If you have ever played a musical instrument for any period of time you get better if you consistently challenge yourself to play more difficult pieces. New music that you have never played before may be difficult, and there is certainly balance between “what the challenge is, and the skills one has.”

You can get into FLOW more often than you think. Think about the skills you possess. Think about the things you have done well repeatedly. Ask yourself if you see a pattern. Ask yourself if you see how these skills, patterns and repeated efforts could be replicated at the next level. Perhaps you can take these patterns and move towards challenge that will nicely balanced with your burgeoning skills. 

Perhaps there was some truth to the idea that Mom or Dad had when they told you can do anything, “you just have to decide to do it”.