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


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