Failure as an Education

'A man who chases two rabbits catches neither.' - Ancient Chinese Proverb

I’m a big fan of learning from other peoples’ mistakes, so today I’ve got a story for you.

Some fifty years ago, a Vice-President at IBM made a mistake.  Not just any mistake, but a rather colossal one.

He wasn’t lazy or ineffective. He took a risk on a development job that eventually failed, and he was called in to the CEO’s office.  Legend has it that before he walked down the long hall to face his pending demise, he wrote his resignation letter.

“I’m not being fired???”

“I thought you were bringing me in here to fire me because I cost the company $10 million. I’m quite relieved.”

“Are you kidding me?” Watson replied.  “I just spent ten million dollars on your education; it would be foolish of me to fire you now.”

It’s hard to imagine that such a costly mistake would be forgiven, even fifty years later where the dollar doesn’t stretch as far.  This kind of innovative thinking is exactly what has led IBM to the level of success it has found from its humble beginnings as a punch-card tabulation in 1911.

This kind of thinking is exactly what’s needed for companies and employees to thrive.

You see, when failure is feared, risk-taking grinds to a halt.

We’re not talking about betting-the-farm type risks.  No, these are thoughtful, carefully considered plans to move the company forward. Risks that can catapult the company into the stratosphere.

That kind of risk should be encouraged.

Chastising your employees for failure will, in most cases, shut them down.  There are many reasons for this; here are the most common:

  • Avoidance of conflict
  • Fear of losing their job
  • A desire to stay “under the radar”
  • Fear of embarrassment among peers

Fear is quite a powerful motivator. In fact some say it’s the strongest. But I prefer to operate from a sense of achievement, rather than avoidance.

You see, when you operate out of a fear-based motivation, you’re constantly scanning the horizon for problems that could bring you down.

You’re looking for trouble.

Every little ticking of the clock could bring the other shoe down at any minute.  There’s been much discussion about having a healthy level of paranoia, but the most successful people are not motivated by fear.  At least not in the long term.

The best alternative is to operate on the achievement continuum, where you’re always looking for things that will help you.

Whether you’re starting a new venture or are 25 years into a corporate ladder climbing career, fear of failure can hold you back, but aiming for success will get you there every time.

Here’s a simple suggestion:

Take time right now to identify your three biggest fears, then ‘reverse’ them, stating them in positive, helpful words.

For instance, instead of saying “I’m afraid of losing my home,” you might say “I look forward to staying in my home for as long as I desire.”  Then identify the steps necessary to ensure you can stay in your home and take action.

Try that with your three biggest fears and see what happens.  I bet you’ll sense a change in perspective that moves you forward either as a company or an individual.

In the words of the late Zig Ziglar: “Aim for nothing and you’ll hit it every time.”

Be careful what you are aiming for.