Failing is a Part of Greatness

“I failed over and over, that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan, NBA 6 time World Champion He missed 9000 shots, missed 26 game winning shots, lost 300 games.

This well known quote by Michael Jordan and the tagline often punctuates an effort to get people overcome their fear of failure. Yet our culture continues to reinforce winning and success while minimizing the fact that losing – failures – are part of the process of being successful. Not just successful – but great.

Recently in working with a talented young runner I turned the discussion to break through performances, opportunity-meeting preparation, and risk taking.Enter: fear of failure. A year ago when we started work together one of his goals was to be an All-American. Fast forward to this week. His college regional cross-country meet is this weekend. When my young runner was posed with the idea of taking a bold move and instead of consistently finishing in the top four in his races and feeling he could do better – that he instead commit to winning the race. His reaction, “I’m terrified (pause) and excited!”

An athlete in top physical condition and mastery of the skills of his or her sport alone will not make for breakthrough performances. The opportunity to exhibit them must present itself (i.e. the right competition or conditions). The first mental aspect then is tactics. You must have a plan and commit to executing your plan. You must be confident in your training that you have done all you can and are physically capable to execute your plan. And then you must possess the mental toughness to deal with the potential of failure.

One aspect of attempting big things is that failure is possible. This is not about taking unrealistic risks. It is about taking a calculated risk and then balancing the pros and cons of failure. You should not take a risk if the cost of failure is too large. In his case:

  • The worst that happens is he fatigues and other runners pass him before the end of the race. (minimizes failure consequence)
  • Even if he executes his early move and dies (figurative not literal) he should still finish top 10. (minimizes failure consequence)
  • His team will do well even if he fails and drops some spots. (minimizes failure consequence)
  • His physical capabilities are equal to the lead pack; only a dozen seconds or so separate them. (minimizes failure potential)
  • Having raced his opponents many times he knows their strengths and how they run. (minimizes failure potential)
  • Even if he fails – he will end up at the national championship race. (minimizes failure consequence)
  • If he is conservative and runs a good hard race and has a good day he will finish about 4th. (neutralizes the status quo)
  • If he succeeds, he has the biggest win of his young running career and strengthens his team’s placement. (optimizes success consequences)
  • If he commits and executes his plan he will learn from it and it will benefit him long term. (optimizes positive consequences to long term goals regardless of outcome)

It didn’t take but a moment for him to realize that his fear of failing is far outweighed by the reward of success. He’s committed to a plan. He’s confident in his abilities. He has a mental game plan when he attacks and when he takes the lead. He is excited to dare something great.

The lesson here is too many people act out of fear of failing at something. Until we demystify this thing called failure and remove the stigma our society applies to it, we all fall short of what we could possibly do. This article in USA Today underscores that failing is a part of being great. This Who’s Who of athletes with the most failures (missed shots, strike outs, fouls, goals let in, etc.) are also the ones with the most successes (made shots, championships, home runs, etc.).

As for my young runner, I have no doubt he will execute his plan and fight to the end – regardless of the outcome. He will face his fear and be the better for it. And for that I congratulate him.

How about you?

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