What Would You Do If You Couldn't Fail?

I was recently in a store buying a card for a colleague who had accepted a new job. I found myself looking at the cards with the inspirational quotes (always a good place to go when you need a spark of motivation for yourself) and landed on the card that asked “What would you do if you couldn’t fail?” 

What I like so much about this quote is it doesn’t say “if you knew you couldn’t fail." We can never know if we are going to fail and yet we have to be willing to try. 

It made me think of the time in an interview when I was asked what motivated me; the question initially took me by surprise. The interviewer went on to say that he was motivated by fear of failure. After thinking about this more, this concept resonated with me. Early in my career, I wanted to exceed every expectation and I was resistant to feedback about how to be better. I thought that if I didn’t meet every goal or if I failed at a task that my supervisor and colleagues would think I wasn’t good enough—or worse, they might not like me.

I have since spent a lot of time thinking about who I want to be as a leader, how I can best motivate myself and how I want to motivate others. I have learned that:

  1. The best learning comes when you are willing to accept what you did well and plan for what you can do better next time.
  2. Feedback is indication of what others need from you and what is important to them.
  3. Being liked is safe. Being willing to put yourself out there (to attempt a new approach, to ask the question, etc.) is bold—and will ultimately lead to being respected, which is far more valuable. 
  4. Success is not always being the best, but being your best self.

We can change the dialogue about success and failure depending on how we define these concepts. If we go into a new situation working toward improvement or growth, learning for the sake of learning, we will always succeed. This concept is known as mastery, or learning, orientation and leads to higher engagement and resilience. As managers, it is especially critical for us to consider the value of this approach in how we assign tasks and recognize and motivate performance. We can encourage staff members to take calculated risks, especially when they could improve our teams or organizations. We can offer feedback that acknowledges progress. We can reward the process, rather than focusing only on the outcomes. If we concentrate on these kinds of strengths, we can stop being afraid of failure, and start recognizing this is how we learn how to be better at what we do. We will develop ourselves and others as strategic thinkers and lifelong learners, which will in turn create more resilient organizations. 

I purchased the card and headed back to the office, reflecting on the opportunity ahead for my colleague, myself and all of us. 

So, what would you do if you couldn’t fail?