Failure is often a difficult topic for high performers. After all, those who achieve much do so by making it a habit to avoid failure. More than a few times, when I’ve talked with my own coach, the conversation has ended up with me saying, “Well, that’s fine, but failure just isn’t an option for me. I don’t do that.” How ridiculous – and also, perhaps, how familiar.
I’ve failed plenty of times. When it comes to business, my goal is to fail quickly if I’m going to fail. When a task is important, failure often leads to a better-informed next attempt, which usually leads (directly or not) to success. So, when failure is inevitable, fast failure is the way to go.
And yet, failure is still unpalatable to me. Is it to you, as well?
A few weeks ago, I was talking with a client and out popped what I believe to be a truism: You cannot succeed unless you’re willing to fail. This was reinforced in a story I read recently about a ne’er-do-well door-to-door salesman. He’d march up to someone’s doorstep, extend his finger to press the doorbell, and then pull back, muttering, “She won’t buy anything.” And he’d turn around, guaranteeing his failure on that potential sale. No wonder he was a ne’er-do-well.
Now, most of us don’t do door-to-door sales, but the principle is just the same. You must take a risk to have any chance of success. Whether it’s reaching out to a potential client, asking a current client how they think things are going, or stepping onto a stage (literal or figurative) to make a presentation to some of your ideal clients, if you don’t risk, you don’t get.
Where is your aversion to risk causing you to stop? After I talked with my client, I challenged myself to write down all of the things I’m holding back on doing because I realistically think I might fail, and then to come up with a way to mitigate that risk. I quickly produced a fresh to-do list. Even though I might fail, I also may succeed on my first shot with those items, thanks to this five-minute exercise.
Today, I invite you to do this quick exercise yourself, specifically in the realm of business development:
- What are you avoiding for fear of failure? List three to five items, both general (attending a networking luncheon) and specific (calling the promising contact you met last week who promised to call you but didn’t).
- What are the consequences if you do fail? Consider the financial, professional, reputational, and emotional risks. Don’t overstate them; despite your first response, chances are good that you won’t actually die. However, if a misstep could constitute professional suicide (with an ethics violation, for example), you need to get absolute clarity before you move forward.
- How might your mitigate the risks? Consider steps such as running a limited test, having a conversation to try out your idea on clients and/or former clients, or launching your idea in phases. If you’re not sure what to do, seek help from a mentor or consultant.
- Choose one or two actions to take, with the modifications you made in step three.
I don’t encourage failure. However, as hockey great Wayne Gretzky said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Take some calculated risks. If you fail (as sometimes you will), make it your practice to just back into action quickly, with a better appreciation of what you might do differently so that each attempt increases your chances of success.