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At what point in our child development did we learn a genuine fear of failing at something? Was it when our parents’ voiced disappointment (“awww, he fell”) for falling after trying those wobbly first steps? Was it that teacher who publicly embarrassed us for not giving the precise answer she was looking for? (“No, no,no, Johnny, that is the wrong answer .”)

Children are born risktakers. How else would they be able to change and mature and develop? Who knows when we as individuals began to fear making mistakes, but the fact of the matter is that generally people have a strong aversion to being wrong. We not only have an aversion, we can remain mute and stagnant rather than risk being wrong. Maybe it’s because the “smart” kid in class, who always knew the “right” answer, was rewarded with the best grades and therefore all the accolades. Meanwhile, the other kids, whose creative thoughts weren’t exactly what the teacher was looking for, stayed silent, afraid to fail, to sound…, well, stupid.

Fail is not a four letter word for many successful people. Doug Rauch, former president of Trader Joe’s, which Fortune magazine has called “one of the hottest retailers in the U.S.” once said, “Trader Joe’s is a company that failed its way to success”. He and other successful risktakers believe that failure to take risks is more dangerous than actually taking risks. In essence, if you’re not making any mistakes, you’re probably not taking enough risks which means you could be missing vital opportunities. Theodore Roosevelt, our 26th US President, known for his risktaking as a soldier, explorer and statesman—once remarked, "It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.”

What would happen if we gave ourselves the right to fail in order to achieve? What if a classroom or work setting encouraged members to be fearless, say what was on their minds, not caring if it were perceived as right or wrong? The important criterion would be placed on innovative, inspiring or engaging discourse, not accuracy, narrowness or precision. Perhaps that kind of setting just might be an incubator for breeding creativity.

In a recent article in GOOD magazine entitled Learning to ‘Think Wrong’ Could Be the Key to Right Answers, author Liz Dwyer examines our culture and its fear of failure. She observes how we tend to repeat over and over again our accepted way of doing things because it’s safe and without risk of failure. But… how inspiring is that? Could that habit dull any creative edginess we may naturally possess? Isn’t innovation the lifeblood of our economy? Could that become a problem?

Many people think it could be a problem, and in response, some inventive social designers have developed interactive workshops that encourage allowing, even embracing failure, as a means toward innovation. Ms. Dwyer describes these cultural workshops designed by facilitators and social designers like Marc O’Brien, that actually teach people to “think wrong” in order to get the creative juices flowing. O’Brien believes that the way to encourage truly innovative ideas is to “challenge the status quo”. In his brainstorming workshop series called “How to Think Wrong” O’Brien endeavors to help people “keep their imagination alive and not feel like they need to be right all the time." After the sessions, participants are encouraged to bring their learnings back to the workforce.

How does this relate to our careers? Well, we may not work for a company that sends us to these “think wrong” workshops, but we can give ourselves our own personal freedom to “think wrong”. We know that fear of failure is based on anticipating negative outcomes. When we expect to fail, we naturally protect ourselves by playing it safe and being conservative. Career and networking opportunities might present themselves, but we bypass them for fear of making a mistake. What if, rather than expecting negative outcomes, we vow to keep a positive mindset and expect positive and successful outcomes? At the same time, we acknowledge that learning and change can be difficult and failure is possible. If we do fail or make a mistake, vow to analyze our failures and learn from them as a form of training for our next opportunity. 

Learning from one's mistakes is just as beneficial as learning from one's successes. This training is similar to how athletes analyze their errors in past performances as part of their training for that next game or race. By remaining positive and open to possibilities, even in these tough times, you can objectify and learn from any failures, try not to repeat them, and refuse to let the fear of failure paralyze you from grasping new opportunities.

Michael Jordan who many say is the greatest basketball player of all time was not afraid to admit his professional failures. In one of his famous Nike commercials, he emerges from a limousine, at the height of his career, amidst a crowd of adoring fans and paparazzi. The audio plays his thoughts while walking through the crowd, “I’ve missed 9,000 shots, lost 300 games, and missed the game winning shot 27 times. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.”