We put big stakes on winning in our culture. “Losers” aren’t respected; they failed, after all. In some circles, failure is such a sin that it dwarfs anything else about “the loser”—any good they might have done, or smart moves they might have made.
Even if we don’t think of failure as if it was the third rail, we all know we should avoid it—even little children know this. Because success is where all the good stuff is, right? There aren’t any upsides to failure. But that might not necessarily be so. It all depends on how we define success or failure in the first place.
Avoiding failure: the hidden cost
For some, simply avoiding mistakes can define a sort of success. It’s certainly a safe way to go about your life, though, it’s actually more likely to hem you in than anything else.
That’s the real problem with trying to avoid failure at all costs. Fear of failure can restrict a life—or a business—so badly that it might technically succeed at thousands of tiny things, but fail in the big picture. Kind of like a Blockbuster store that is run perfectly according to its manual, but is so focused on being a perfect Blockbuster store that it never sees Netflix or YouTube coming.
Some people call this playing “the small game.” It’s when you get all the little things right. You avoid risk. You look good in front of your peers and your “superiors.”
In business, this might mean you pick a nice, safe, proven business model. You design your business for steady, predictable growth. You do well in good years, maybe even getting the 5% or better revenue growth most small business owners expect for 2017.
Don’t get me wrong—I do not knock this business approach. I just want you to be aware that there are risks to trying to be perfectly safe. If you are totally focused on avoiding every possible failure, you can pen yourself into the small game…and find yourself in the business (or personal) equivalent of owning a perfectly-run Blockbuster store.
Move fast and break things
Then there’s the other side of the spectrum. The high-risk, high-reward mindset. It’s embodied in sayings like Facebook’s old mantra, “Move fast and break things.” This fearless embrace of potential failure sounds almost romantic to some. It’s a good angle for a pitch in Silicon Valley or a way to sell a movie script in Hollywood. And if you’ve got the backbone, and the resources, and the resilience, it can be a formula for success.
Just don’t get too romantic about it. I cannot lie to you: Failure hurts. It’s hard. Both entrepreneurs and regular people know big failures aren’t romantic. It’s frightening to have $7 in your checking account. Having your parents give you “that look” when you show up on their door after your business (or your life) has crashed is no fun.
So let’s face it: We fear failure. Even those of us who don’t let it make decisions for us—we still fear failure. We just don’t let it hem us in. As has been said before, “courage is fear walking.”