Is It Truly OK To Fail?

Sunday, 10 January 2016 17:21
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Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky once famously said, "You miss 100% of the shots that you don't take." That is most certainly true. However, Mr. Gretzky doesn't advise us as to how many shots one should be able to take...and how many of these attempts it is okay to miss.

Curious to learn more? Read on, dear friends.

Is it Truly OK to Fail?

The business literature these days is filled with pithy quotes from legendary figures who extoll the virtues of failure. If not failure, then certainly not being afraid to fail in pursuit of a desired goal. Here are a couple of the more popular ones:

According to inventor Thomas Edison, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." This statement is inspiring only because Edison's successes are well known. It is implied that the learning from individual failed experiments eventually lead to success. This may or may not be true. It truly depends on the individual cases. How many failed experiments should an inventor be willing to run before deciding to call it quits? How many can he/she afford to run?

Michael Jordan has been quoted as saying: "I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."

So, is our takeaway supposed to be that it is okay to fail if our successes are sufficiently spectacular to justify it? Actually, I think there is a more nuanced point to be made:

Successful persons frequently have high expertise, self-awareness and a proven experience base that enables them to recognize situations where they judge their success chances exceed the risks of failure. In these particular situations, they have sufficient confidence in their abilities to attempt to make the right choice and succeed, but they will also accept possible failures as an inherent risk of acting.

It should not be interpreted as a license for any individual, regardless of talent, experience or judgement to let fly simply because they are not afraid to fail.

Returning to Wayne Gretzky's quote, "You miss 100% of the shots you do not take"...accept that you might also miss 90% of the ones that you do. The question should be whether you are sufficiently prepared and skilled to take a particular shot at a particular time. If you are, then perhaps there should be such a thing as an acceptable failure rate, because your success prospects will justify the attempt. True in innovation as in sports.

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