Don’t Know What’s Keeping You From Success? Try Failing More
“The way to succeed is to double your failure rate.” Thomas J. Watson —founder of IBM.
You are going to fail.
Try as you might, and plan as you may, you are going to fail. But that’s a good thing. Because failures aren’t really failures if you’re failing towards something–they’re actually signs that you’re one step closer to success.
To fail without trying, though…that’s what you want to avoid at all costs.
Each active failure yields valuable experience and data that brings you closer to success. You can only rack up so many failures before success is inevitable—like Thomas Edison with his thousand light bulb failures, or JK Rowling with her dozens and dozens of rejections before Harry Potter was published. All you have to do is keep your efforts up through thick and thin, and past the point when most people would have expected you to give up.
But the whole ‘trying’ part…that’s a challenge for us millennials. Many of us have either given up or have never really tried in the first place, so we fail passively, having neither the success we really want nor the experience to eventually create success with.
That was my story.
All throughout childhood I was praised for being so smart. I was reading at a college level by the first grade, so my parents and teachers applauded my intelligence. If I won the spelling bee, I was a genius. If I aced my reading exams—which I always did—I heard, “Way to go! Goll-ee, what a smart kid.”
It felt good, too. But all that praise came back to bite me in the brain later when I actually needed to put forth effort.
My parents divorced while I was in 7th grade. Like many kids, I checked out after that, mentally and emotionally. And when my straight As started to slip, I took it personally.
I’d always had my success attributed to my intelligence. But now my intelligence wasn’t working, which made me think I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was. And every time a paper came in, or a report card, I died a little on the inside. My teachers and parents still commented on my smarts. But I didn’t believe them.
Rather than subject myself to humiliation, I just stopped trying. I wanted to salvage whatever was left of my dignity, and to hold on to the last shreds of my smart identity.
To not try is to automatically fail
From 7th grade to 11th grade I tried less and less, and I racked up more and more passive failures—Cs, Ds, Fs—which led to zero experience gained and a perpetually diminishing sense of confidence. I was protecting myself from the idea that I wasn’t good enough, and that’s when I adopted a failure identity.
When other kids were preparing for college and finding success, I stopped going to school. I didn’t see the point in humiliating myself for nothing. By 11th grade I was expelled for the third and final time—for truancy.
But that was okay with me, because I didn’t even try. I was so smart that I already knew I was going to fail. And from 18-24, I repeated the same pattern: Try less→ fail→lose confidence→Try even less→ fail→lose all confidence.
By 24, after I had quit the army and college, I stopped trying altogether because my confidence was so bankrupt. I moved back in with my parents and had no other plans than to wallow on their couch.
I had no purpose; I had no power. And I would have been totally content to stay in that passively defeated state for the rest of my life but for the existential panic attacks that set in: up to 20 full fledged freakouts per day.
Yeah, that’s what happens when you don’t know what you’re on this earth for, and when you’re not making progress towards anything. (The things they don’t tell you in school!)
These panic attacks got so freaking terrifying that they made my fear of failure look like a fluffy kitten in comparison. And that fear of failure was exactly what I had to confront if I was going to pick out a purpose and create a life worth living.
I started reading everything I could on success and self-improvement to make my transition from a bump-on-a-log to a full-fledged success story as smooth as possible. And one theme I kept hearing over and over was this:
Praise the effort, not the outcome.
I learned that praising outcome makes you feel good about yourself when you succeed, but when you fail—which will be the majority of the time—it devastates you.
The simplest solution is to always praise your efforts. That way you can still maintain confidence and momentum even when you fail—which, if you plan on being successful, will be very, very frequently. If you gave your best effort, and your goals are only a set number of efforts away, then you always have a reason to celebrate and put in more effort.
So I started praising my efforts for the first time in my life.
If I wrote an article, I congratulated myself on the effort I put into it, and not the outcome. It felt weird at first, but it boosted my confidence and helped me weather the inevitable failure. Then I started trying more things—like getting my writing published. I got rejected dozens and dozens of times, but it didn’t matter: I was praising my efforts. I got comfortable with trying and failing because I reminded myself that success was only so many failures away.
A couple months into my new habit I landed my first writing job. That was a confidence booster. And it inspired me to send more pitches to bigger publications. I still got rejected 95% of the time, but I landed my first few, gained my first fans, and built my portfolio.
By this time I had enough confidence built to really give writing my all. So I set daily goals for writing, studying, editing, and pitching. I still lived with my parents, but the nibbles of success—combined with encouraging myself—kept me motivated. And by 25 I was out on my own for the first time in my life. That’s when I really conquered my fear of failure.
There were times I’d get so lonely and hungry I thought I’d never make it. But I stuck with my habits of trying, praising my efforts, learning, and persisting. Within the first 6 months I landed a coveted writing position at Entrepreneur Magazine. And at 26, I began writing for some of the best companies in the world, including Fitbit.
Now I identify as a success. But it’s not because of the companies I write for, or the money I make…it’s the effort I give. It’s going to bed knowing that I did my absolute best to reach my potential and make a difference to other people. Today I’m successful because I try, try, and try. Which means that I still fail a ton—even more than the beginning of my journey, actually. And these failures are exactly what predict my future success.
Since your success it totally dependent on the failures you tally up this month and throughout the rest of this year, I’m encouraging you to give as much effort as possible. Stop giving a shit about whether you succeed or fail at any given thing, and start encouraging yourself for the effort you give. That’s the only thing that matters.
So keep trying. Keep encouraging yourself for your daily efforts. Keep getting better at what you do. And if you do this–which will be a lot easier if you adopt a daily planning habit–you will know that your next failure is actually just a stepping stone to your eventual success. And that’s the mindset you need to have to be successful.