I posted this on my Facebook wall earlier this evening, and it generated a good discussion with my close friends about the fear of failure that we all sometimes have in our professional lives.
This isn't politically related in any way, but I figured I would re-post here if anyone else finds the discussion may have merit. For a reference point, I am a technical leader in a Professional Services group for a well respected software company.
I'm also sort of drowsy from cough medicine right now, so excuse any grammatical errors.
This is going to be a long post for a Facebook update. And while it may sound like grandstanding, really it's about failure.
Someone at work the other day asked me how I always seem to be able to quickly find answers or solutions to any problem that I’m presented with. This particular conversation followed a meeting with the CIO and CFO of a major client. The client wanted to discuss feasibility of a customization to our standard software package.
After the meeting my co-worker and I were sitting in the conference room alone and they asked how I got so smart. I replied that I didn’t consider myself any smarter than other people on the team. What follows is the essence of what I told my co-worker:
A major reason I’m successful at what I do is that I’m not afraid of failure. And I fail. A lot. When most people find themselves struggling at work due to being given tasks they don’t know how to do, they’re fear of failure and seeming incompetent in the eyes of peers and managers force them to work conservatively. They stick with what they know, and while that’s a good thing, it can also hinder your personal growth.
I approach problems with an eye towards breaking down the input (the problem) into manageable components. Each component can then be addressed through research and development at a component level. That approach frees me up to experiment with different things. And sometimes that means trying 10 different things that all fail.
But failing a task 10 times, especially in a creative, engineering, or architecting environment isn’t a bad thing. I didn’t try 10 things that didn’t work. Each iteration of those failures teach me something about the problem that can then be applied to the next iteration. And just because that attempt didn’t work for this particular problem, I now have the little bit of more knowledge in my personal toolbox that I can apply to other problems down the road.
Spend five to ten years doing this, and you end up with a vast amount of failures that have taught you when and how certain problems can be addressed, and give you a backlog of failures you can compare new problems against.
In short, if you are in a position of creativity, whether it be making music, writing prose, or developing software systems, if you aren’t failing 10+ times a day you aren’t trying hard enough. Pushing yourself is how you sharpen your critical thinking skills. Pushing yourself is how you discover new theories and logic that you can reuse later.
So everyone out there who is stuck professionally and isn’t sure what to do with your next project, or career change, or whatever: don’t be afraid of failure. You’d be surprised how important failure can really be.