What have I achieved this week?
What was my proudest accomplishment this year?
What is my new year’s resolution?
What can I do better?
Many of us ask ourselves these questions when we reflect on the past.
Notice the common theme.
The focus is on accomplishments, past and future.
Since my blog is about contrarian thinking, let’s try flipping the script.
Instead of asking what you accomplished this week, instead ask this question:
What have I failed at this week?
This is the question I’ve been asking myself since I listened to an interview with Sara Blakely. If you don’t know her, you should. Sara is a rock star. She went from selling fax machines door-to-door to becoming the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire.
When she was growing up, Sara’s father would ask her and her brother the same question over dinner every week.
What have you failed at this week?
If Sara didn’t have an answer, her father would be disappointed.
Compare this to the typical exchange that takes place over a family dinner.
Julie, what did you learn in school this week?
Joe got an A on his exam! We’re so proud of you.
Clarence made the football team. He’s an NFL star in the making.
These exchanges only reinforce what is painfully obvious.
Achievements are good. Failures are bad.
The fear of failure is in our genetic programming. Centuries ago, failure meant getting eaten alive by a lion.
Not any more. As best-selling author Seth Godin explained in my recent interview with him, “Today’s failure merely means shame, or a conflict or a restart. You’re unlikely to die from it.”
As uncomfortable as it is, failure is a prerequisite to success. Niels Bohr had it right: “An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.”
In asking his children what they failed at each week, Sara’s father gave them the breathing room to tackle interesting problems, and yes, to fail. To him, not trying was far more disappointing than failure itself.
Behind every canvas unpainted, every goal unattempted, every business unlaunched, every book unwritten, every song unsung is the looming fear of failure.
This is not an endorsement of failure for the sake of failure. Failure, by itself, isn’t enough. You must reflect on it, learn from it, and improve on your next attempt.
Hence the review question: What have you failed at this week?
If you don’t have a good answer to this, you’re not trying hard enough.