Monday, 22 November 2010

Failure Demons

Many years ago I was in an interview to do a Master’s degree course and suddenly the interviewer asked me: “Are you driven by a fear of failure?”

I stammered “no” and explained how I was motivated by getting positive results rather than fear of failure. But all the while there was a voice screaming in my head “YES! DAMMIT I LIVE IN FEAR OF FAILURE ALL THE TIME!” Surprisingly the University did offer me a place on their degree course. I declined and went to study at another University which offered a course curriculum that I knew to be one of the hardest in the country.

After the hardest year of studying my life, I passed the Master’s and vowed never to study anything ever again whether for a certificate or for the fun of it. Some years later I sat a Project Management accreditation exam and I’ve spent a large period of time between my Master’s and now reading books on Kabbalah.

So why do I continue to challenge myself and choose to study a topic (i.e. Kabbalah) that is both obscure and arguably not very practical in everyday life? Well, fear of failure of course. It’s the engine that motivates me to get out of bed in the morning, achieve well at work and work towards gaining seemingly supernatural powers to make the world a better place. If something is worth doing and it’s worth doing well – then it’s my fear of failure that carries me kicking and screaming over the finish line.

One area that I randomly chose to start improving is writing comedy. Having no previous knowledge or experience I bought a book and read a couple of chapters. In the “The Comic Toolbox: How to Be Funny Even If You're Not “ by John Vorhaus - the author mentions that being funny is a hit and miss game with an expected success rate of 10%. That made me take pause and consider whether I did indeed want to carry on trying to learn how to be funny if my success rate is so low. Just as I was about to put down the book a little voice in my head shouted: “DANGER! DANGER! IMMINENT FAILURE DETECTED!”

Having taken a day to think about – I’m reminded about how I learned things as a child. It was all about trial and error. Failure back then just meant trying again with the worst outcome being a nose bleed. So at what stage did it stop being acceptable to fail? I think that the answer is at school where it was not acceptable to fail exams. This was reinforced at University and failure at work can lead to a very short career.

So would it surprise you to know that upwards of 70% of projects are considered failures? Well that is the world that a Project Manager operates in. Failure is abhorrent and yet seemingly all around. Hence today I’ve decided to take a stand and return to the playful mentality of years past to say that the best way to learn is through trial and error (within safe parameters).

That’s not to say that it’s all a game as projects are business critical and can make or break businesses. In the realm of magic – such things as summoning and exorcisms are not games either as the results of failure can be catastrophic. Rather continuous learning is about looking back frequently at small mistakes and using lessons learnt to improve next time.

My mind is teeming with new ideas and theories, but I almost never try them out. My recent endeavour to do a 40 day meditation to acquire Wisdom is my most daring in three years! Gaining wisdom, where’s the risk in that? Well, it’s not so much the risk but rather the fear of failure. What happens if it does not work? What happens if it works too well? What if… What if… Argh! “DANGER! DANGER! “

OK, I must remember the 10% rule of success.  If it works at least 10% of the time and the consequences of failure are not catastrophic then it is worth trying. The demon of Fear of Failure does not need to be exorcised or destroyed. It just needs some time out to learn with me that trial and error is OK.