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The F word…


It's something that everybody does but nobody likes to talk about it; many people try to pretend it doesn't even exist.  Let's uncover what seems to be the last taboo in business...

Many years ago, when I was young and impulsive, I would probably have told you that my motto was “what’s the worst that can happen?”  It was normally the thing I told myself before taking on some ridiculous project or agreeing to do some crazy activity.  I was happy with this little mantra until I became more involved in the training world.  I was working with an NLP evangelist and I uttered my little phrase – just off the cuff.  She was shocked.  You mustn’t say that, she scolded me; thinking like that creates the worst thing because it focuses your mind on it.  Focus instead, she instructed, on success.  I was young and easily led, she was older and influential (and I had a bit of a crush on her) and so I dropped the phrase.

I’m a firm believer in the power of the mind; the way we see the world drives what we do which determines the results we get.  But as I grew older and a touch wiser, I quickly learned what a load of cobblers she was spouting and it’s gratifying to see that even august bodies like the Harvard Business Review and the Economist now agree with me. (Seriously, you should follow that link and read the article – it’s very good.  Not now, though: finish this one first.)

On some workshops, I use a clip from the film “Apollo 13” where the great Ed Harris utters (well, barks would be more accurate) the line “failure is not an option.”  I’ve never had the testosterone to utter such a line with any conviction and, secretly, my response when anyone says it is to think “it is – it’s just not a very good one.”  Because failure isan option – failure is all around us.  Failure is actually more prevalent than success, and that’s a good thing.

Think of it this way: most of the films produced every year fail; they don’t make their money back.  Most romantic relationships fail – often people experience many break-ups until they find the person they marry, and even that doesn’t guarantee the success of a relationship.  Most businesses fail – according to the Small Business Association, over 50% fail in the first five years.  Not everything that you will ever attempt will be a success, no matter how many business or self-help books you read, no matter what you think.

Not thinking about failure doesn’t mean it won’t happen.  Not thinking about failure isn’t a guarantee of success: it’s just denial.  If you stop to think about it, you’ll realise that you’ve learned many useful lessons from the failures of your life.  Sometimes we haveto fail – it actually does us good because it teaches us something.  Instead of being afraid even to think of failure, we should celebrate the attempt, make sure we learn the lessons and never stop trying.  As Samuel Beckett wrote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

3 Responses

  1. The F Word

    It’s so true in the world today that we fail to teach people how to cope with failure.

    The first taste of the bitterness of failure sends people into the spiral and whilst NLP is not an answer I have used it on
    these ocassions to help people learn from the F experience.

    I saw the difference at a recent street party where we played musical chairs. An older generation took part whole heartedly and the competitive spirtit was there as they collapsed laughing on the floor. The winner was richly applauded and the losers left with shouts of’well done’.
    Then it came to the childrens turn, they cheated, sulked and complained when they were losers. The eventual winners were greated with applause, although the mutterings were behind the scene.

    A great article and lets open the debate on how we prepare people to move on after the f word……..


  2. a lesson from theatrical improvization

    The example of the musical chairs game is good.  If the situation allows only one "winner" then most of the participants are going to have to find a way to live with not winning.  Years ago, I was in a performance workshop where we played another game like musical chairs.   At the end of it, it came down to me and another guy and I was secretly congratulating myself on being such a superior dodger/darter, mostly playing defense.  It became a stalemate and the audience (who had, um, failed earlier) were obviously getting bored.  The facilitators called ‘time’s up!’ and said (gently) that sometimes it’s not so important to WIN but rather to fail gloriously, by embracing the action rather than staying safe, and taking risks that keep everyone on their toes and engaged.  In a theatrical ensemble it’s certainly true; I daresay it’s also true of the workplace where the typical work is done more by teams than by individual stars.

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