Several years ago, I bought my wife a silver bar bearing the question, “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” It was meant to be an inspirational gift. Its message, of course, is quite clear: We tend to avoid challenging projects out of a fear of failure. Failing breeds shame, humiliation and other bad things. If we could only get rid of our fear of failure, who knows what we could accomplish?
For several years, my wife kept the silver saying in her office. Recently, she changed jobs and brought the slogan-bearing slab home. Seeing it over and over, I began to think more about its meaning. Some odd ideas came to mind that were probably not intended by the author of this little aphorism.
First, let’s play with the question: What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail? Well, wait a moment. If I knew I could not fail, I wouldn’t attempt to do anything. To attempt is to try; to try something implies the possibility of failure. You can’t try to do something at which you cannot fail. If you knew you could not fail, you can only choose to do it or choose not to do it. Enter Yoda: “Do or do not do; there is no try.”
But think of the implications of this idea: What would you do if you knew you could not fail? What would it feel like if you knew you could not fail? Not just you – everybody. Wouldn’t that be a good thing? Not so fast. Imagine knowing that you could not fail at anything that you did.
We ordinarily think, “that would be great! I would do all the things that I have always wanted to do, but didn’t because of my fear of failing”. Hmmm… What would these things be? Would you start a new job? Quit your job? Open a new business? Have a child? Go bungee jumping? Learn another language? Tell your boss off? Run for President? What would it feel like to do these things? Again, not to attempt to do these things, but simply to do them; after all, you know you cannot fail! You might think that you would feel joyous. However, in all likelihood, something very different is true. You would probably feel, well, nothing. It may be almost impossible to imagine a world in which failure was not a possible outcome of our doings. Such a world would likely be mundane, boring and joyless. The simple fact is that there is no such thing as success without the possibility of failure! There is no such thing as challenge without the possibility of failure. If we eliminate the possibility of failure, we eliminate the fear of failure. But we also eliminate the excitement of striving and the joy of success. If we eliminate the possibility of failure, we eliminate the shame of failure. But we also eliminate the pride and esteem that comes from success.
You would not want to live in a world in which there was no possibility of failure. So, you want to start a new job? Why? Are you bored with your old one? But to start a new job would bring no excitement! The outcome is a foregone conclusion. You want to run for President? You can’t. There is no such thing as “running” for President. If you can’t fail, then you can’t run. And neither can anyone else – because there is no possibility of failure. You would simply decide to become President and then do it. And everything else in your life would be the same thing.
We know, of course, that we can’t get rid of failure. But yet, our little thought experiment still seems to make sense. Yes, I know, we can’t really eliminate the threat of failure, but let’s pretend that we can! The problem here is that you can’t pretend you can eliminate failure all by itself! If you eliminate the threat of failure, then you eliminate all of the conditions that bring about the possibility of failure. We soon see that such a world not only is impossible, it is unintelligible! It cannot even be imagined!
Think of some of the most mundane things you do everyday day: Walking downstairs; opening a can of peaches; reading a newspaper; listening to music. Of course, you wouldn’t walk downstairs anymore. You’d run downstairs (without looking, and with scissors in your hands). Why? Because you would not have to be careful walking down the stairs. Running downstairs with scissors would not only be possible, it would be a boring everyday activity. How would you open a can of peaches? You’d flip that top without a care. You wouldn’t worry about the possibility of being cut by the lid; it couldn’t happen. How about reading the newspaper? You find war, famine and economic crisis. Not so! You simply solve those problems the next day. Yes, that might be a good thing. But without failure, you not only take away those problems, you take away all problems.
We are problem-solving animals. Our lives are about our projects, our attempts to solve problems in the world. Even our amusement is all about trouble. Stories, novels and movies are about drama; drama is about how we deal with conflict. If we take away the conflict, we take away the possibility of failure. And our lives cease to become meaningful. Or at least, they cease to be recognizable as any type of life that we ordinarily will see as worth living.
So, what is the message of “What would you attempt to do if you knew that you could not fail?” The answer to the question is, “nothing”. I would do nothing because nothing would be worth doing. Instead of eliminating the possibility of failure from our life, the trick is to develop a proper attitude toward failure. What is a proper attitude toward failure? Failure is a part of the process of living. To live well, we must confront the fear of failure and even failure itself. We must learn to deal with our fear of failure and not let it get the best of us. We must see that what is noble and worthy in our lives is the struggle for and the achievement of what is good, and that this struggle is often difficult. There is no shame in failing; there is only shame in not accepting the struggle.