It might sound odd, but I will go ahead and admit that I sometimes enjoy watching others struggle, and the highest highs I continue to enjoy in life are experienced on the back end of a personal struggle. I will also admit that as much as I don’t believe in creating failure, I embrace the goodness that comes with creating opportunities to fail. As I reflect on the teams with whom I have served and the people with whom I spend my personal life, the individuals I appreciate most are those who care so much about their profession, their loved ones, and their life adventure that they seek out opportunities that could end in a less than optimal outcome. The natural instinct of the masses is to contemplate the safest course of action, assess the probability of success, and execute only when the likelihood of falling short is all but gone. These natural instincts, at best, lead us to an ordinary life.  And ordinary is fine for many, but those who seek out opportunities that might fail do so because we want extraordinary.

I am not much of a golf fan but was intrigued to learn that Phil Mickelson came in second at the U.S. Open earlier this month for a record sixth time (extending his own record).  He has never won the event and, on a few occasions, has practically given the title away during the last round. That said, he has learned many things about himself with each second place finish and will surely give it another shot next year. As a student, there were many courses that interested me, but I chose to avoid because I didn’t like my chances of getting an A. Each time I gave up an opportunity to learn something that interested me in favor of collecting credits and increasing my grade point average with minimal effort. Fortunately, I have outgrown that short-sighted approach to “living”. Too many of us see the potential for failure as a reason to choose a different path. A path that is far less risky, far less interesting, and likely even less meaningful. When we flip the switch and focus on measuring the meaning rather than calculating the risk of failure before choosing a path, the decisions we make will likely be different. Risking failure in an effort to live a more meaningful life, expand our comfort zone, and reach new heights is admirable. Creating opportunities where falling short is a possibility or even the likely outcome is part of being a leader, a parent, and active participant in life.

I will freely admit that I create opportunities for my son to fail and I encourage him to try things at which I don’t believe he will enjoy great success, at least not initially.  I will also admit that I ask people at work to do things that I don’t believe they are prepared to do.  I do that with the objective of helping them to grow.  While some rise to the occasion and surpass all expectations, a few never demonstrate competence and thereby provide an opportunity to document a lack of ability, interest, and/or potential.  I don’t want to see people fail, and I don’t personally enjoy falling short, but I am willing to take that risk in hopes of learning more about myself and helping others to do the same.

In an odd way, the more fearful we are of doing something, the more willing we should be to do it (unless, of course, it calls our character into question). Submitting to fear is a way of conditioning ourselves to take the path of least resistance, thereby living within our bubble of security. Taking fear head-on, without regard to the odds of success, leads us to the most meaningful experiences; the experiences that give us reason to celebrate and/or teach us significant lessons about ourselves.

Whether it is athletics, education, the workplace, or our personal relationships, why not put ourselves out there? Why not embrace the idea that the best way to grow is by risking failure? Why not acknowledge that those who are truly living are the ones who live outside their comfort zone and operate at the periphery of failure? I am reminded of a quote from the movie The Shawshank Redemption – “Get busy living or get busy dying.”  Those who are content merely doing things where their success is assured are doing the latter. Those who acknowledge the likelihood of failure, yet care so much they take the opportunity head-on, are truly living.

If the outcome is assured, the experience is meaningless; if the outcome is in doubt, the meaning is in the experience. If we are afraid to embrace opportunities to fail, we will miss out on opportunities to truly succeed.

  • What is your relationship with failure?
  • How are you growing?
  • Are you really living?