If you’re not failing you’re not trying

I have a theory about succeeding: If you’re not failing you’re not trying. You learn how the world works when you fail. When you can go back and deconstruct every detail of what went wrong in a business venture, on a project or in a relationship it will teach you just as much as any success story.

The question then becomes, how do we fail more? To me, personal boundaries are a key limiting factor in most of our lives. And one of the biggest of those boundaries is our fear of failure.

Now we have our target: fear of failure. How do we break through? I don’t have a secret recipe, but I do have a place for you to start.

Go get yourself a pack of M&Ms and come back. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Got ‘em? Good. In order to enhance the suspense of what I’m about to tell you to do, I want to first talk a little bit more about why boundary widening is important. The following is excerpted from a speech I gave last year:

One day an African settler took a baby elephant and tied him with a rope to a tree. Every day the settler would come to feed the elephant and bring it water. For weeks and weeks the elephant struggled day and night to free himself. But then one afternoon his behavior changed. No longer did he attempt to escape from his bondage. He stayed within the latitude that the rope provided him without a fight. As the years went by, the elephant became strong and large. He could have easily ripped the tree he was tied to out of the ground and freely roamed the wilderness. But he didn’t. And so the elephant lived out his days a slave to the perception that the universe started and finished with the rope and the tree, and that he had explored and learned everything he possibly could about the world.

We live our everyday lives like the elephant. We each set boundaries for ourselves that limit what we think is possible, and what we will try. And no, this is not a “You can do anything as long as you try hard enough!” post. Why? Because that’s all bullshit. But what you can do is recognize the limits you impose on yourself, and work as hard as you possibly can to overcome them.

“So what am I doing with these M&Ms,” you ask. As I said before, an important boundary that I think many of us set for ourselves is to not attempt something at which we have a high chance of failure. This effect is greatly compounded if the thing that we are attempting will be done in a public fashion. In fact most people avoid failure in public at all costs, which is why we hate giving speeches or going to a party with a bunch of people we don’t know.

With this in mind, I want you to go outside and walk down the street. When you see a person walking toward you, look him or her in the eye. Make sure he or she sees you.

Then take an M&M out of your pack, throw it up in the air and attempt to catch it in your mouth.

This is probably going to take every ounce of self-control you have to accomplish (at least it did for me). It’s a mortifying feeling waiting for that M&M to fall, knowing you’re being watched, and knowing that in all likelihood it’s going to bounce stupidly off of your mouth and hit the ground at the feet of the person in front of you.

But the point of this exercise isn’t getting the M&M in your mouth every time. The point is to fail in public. And to do it in a cheap, semi-spectacular fashion. Because once you know you can fail in public you’ll begin to break out of your box. Other meaningless boundaries seem more conquerable.

You have to make a choice in life. You can avoid the things that make you uncomfortable, follow the pack and lead a very comfortable, normal existence. Or you can refuse to be limited by the things that challenge you and keep facing them until you crush them. I think giving option B a try is worthwhile. All you need is a pack of M&M’s.

If you like this post you should follow me on Twitter at @danshipper or check out more posts here.


7 Mar 2011, 8:27am | 25 comments

  • Supreet Sharma
  • Mayank Jain

    Very nicely said. Pushing oneself by even those small limits can lead to a huge change one day.Cheers :)

  • gstlt

    I don’t have choice, I just need to agree ;) We wouldn’t even evolve if we did not break chains. Great post!

  • sq2

    that’s a great ad for m&ms! :)

  • Corey Harris

    This is why most people will never be able to be a sales rep or manager because sales is about having no fear and pushing forward being rejected multiple times. Great Post!http://www.CoreyBlinks.com

  • Liudas
  • BenNesvig

    This sounds a lot like a point Seth Godin makes in “Poke The Box.” Very similar….

  • jmalikow

    Dead on. The more you fail, the more you can learn from failure and succeed next time. “Recognize the limits you impose on yourself… and overcome them” is a killer motto.http://jmalikow.net

  • Piotr Biegaj

    Great post Dan, everyday it seems there is an opportunity as programmer to tackle the mundane things and leave big refactorings alone because “we don’t have time” or “what if it goes wrong”. This fear is normal and left over from college till…well until you stop caring I suppose. But the point is that without ever stepping out on a limb you can never really learn the hard mistakes that for some people (me included) have to, and can only be learned the hard way…by failing. Great article.

  • Mustafa ÇAKAN
  • Doug

    I failed a Google interview. Felt like the end of the world.

  • normanhh3

    You might want to check out Jason Fried’s comments on failure in his book Rework but also on the 37signals blog at the post Failure is overrated, a redux bit.ly/dNmvf3

  • bob

    Somehow this doesn’t make me feel any better at the fact for about the past month I have tried and ultimately failed repeatedly to install Unbuntu 10.10 either directly on the hard drive, on a virtual machine (through virtual box) or on my USB stick and it actually work at 100% functionality. Hell, I would settle for 80% functionality, just so I could start a ruby project I have been wanting to start for months. All that being said, I have given up on Ubuntu, I am going to try Gentoo. I used ubuntu extensively a few years ago and everything worked at 100% functionality just the way you would expect it to work, now its like try to fit a square light bulb in a round hole and wondering why there are glass shards in my hands….Sorry, I think I ranted a little there. The bottom line, I couldn’t care less at succeeding, its a means to an end, in this case programming a project I have wanted to program for about 3 months. granted the alternative is being tied to the Windows tree in which i know I have absolutely no chance of productively programming ruby.

  • melissa tran

    I have to speak in public a lot and worried about a thousand little things… until the day I literally walked off the edge of a 3 1/2 foot stage while addressing 300+ 16-24 year olds and 100+ staff. Lying in a tangled heap, I wondered if I could “play dead” until they all went away. Then I realized the room was almost silent because after the initial “gasp” they were all holding their breath so I said, “I’m fine. You can laugh”. And they did – for days, maybe weeks. There were Oscar worthy reenactments and retellings… and the kids still listened to me and respected me and so did the staff… and if any didn’t, it wasn’t because I fell off the stage. Learning that was incredibly freeing and I call on that experience whenever I hesitate just because something’s a little scary. Love the M&M challenge. Great way to make it real!(without falling off the stage!)

  • Corey Harris

    Melissa tran–Thats saids alot about your character being that you were able to go on with your presentation and laugh at your mistake. Kudos!!http://www.CoreyBlinks.com

  • Tom Barnett
  • menagerievet
  • Theyagarajan S
  • Daniel

    Good post. Have you seen the talk from Google IO 2009 called ‘The Myth of the Genius Programmer’? They also talk about the importance of failing publicly as an important part of self improvement as a programmer.You can find a video of that talk on YouTube at the following location: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0SARbwvhupQ

  • Narayan Nageswaran

    good one

  • Barry Maurice
  • Jeph Maystruck

    This post makes so much sense, I’m writing a post on people’s innate fear of failure, we’re horribly great at telling ourselves that we are much worse than we really are. Thanks for the insight, I’ll start following you and this blog. Cheers my friend.@Jephmaystruck

  • kayeabalos

    I AGREE!!! Because you will never know how to succeed in life if you haven’t tried to fail first! Here are something that will never fail you in giving tips in buying a house and what carpet types to put on your living room. And to avoid having loans that are not relevant here is car loan calculator.

  • David Karlsson

    We never fail, we merely postpone our success ^^

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