The F-Word

Today is dedicated to the f-word.


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When do we start fearing failure? Is it in school, when messing up brings low grades or looks of derision from our peers? Is it in early adulthood when we’re made to feel that one wrong decision could screw us up for life? Is it at work, when “just doing our job” is elevated above contributing something new and exciting that might not work?

I don’t know when this fear of failure enters our lives, but I don’t think we’re born with it. Why? Because when I watch young children, I just don’t see it.

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If we don’t strap our 1-year-old Sam into his high chair, he will try to crawl out. He’s fallen from similar heights before, but previous failures won’t keep him from trying again. He has an indefatigable (my favorite word in the English language) perseverance; he refuses to let fear of falling keep him confined in that darn chair.

Abra, 2 1/2,  will happily jump across any span, whether it’s from a chair to the table or from the sofa to the floor. She’s not worried about getting hurt, even though she has in the past.

My older two children, Cade and Lucy, are starting to hear the whisper of Failure, warning them that they might not get it right. I see this most in their learning process, where they are sometimes afraid to try something a little out of their comfort zone. But, for example, when they write to their heart’s content, not worrying about spelling or grammar or punctuation, they exhibit a joy and excitement they wouldn’t have felt if they hadn’t tried.

I’d rather read their  stories about Pentsilvigo (instead of Pennsylvania) than come over to the table and see that they hadn’t yet started for fear of spelling something wrong.

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When Maile and I lived in England, I had a incredible mentor named John Walker.  He and his wife Vicki took Maile in and treated us like we were their children, loaning us their car when we first arrived, inviting us to dinner when we would have spent otherwise lonely nights in our small cottage.

John was an incredibly successful business man, retired in his mid-50s but still buying businesses and turning others around. There’s one piece of advice from John that I’ll never forget – it was his mantra for life.

“Fail fast,” he’d tell me. “Make your decision and go with it. Use what you learn from the failures to make it better. If you sit there doing nothing, you’ll still encounter the same failures, except they’ll take you years to get past, instead of weeks.”

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Feeling paralyzed by a decision?

Fail fast.

3 Replies to “The F-Word”

  1. What an awesome quote.

    This is definitely something I wish I had embraced earlier in life (well, aside from that VERY early time when we all embrace it), but I feel like I’m starting to “get it” now. Now, the important thing is not to sit around regretting those years where I did the sitting around!

  2. Awesome post, Shawn. I know I was (and am) paralyzed by fear of failure. For anyone interested in further reading as to how this subject relates to parenting, I would recommend “Unconditional Parenting” by Alfie Kohn. He argues that we as parents should not constantly be evaluating our children. Even when we think we are being supportive by saying “Good job!” about everything and anything they do, we are really showing them that everything they do is being evaluated. They become addicted to getting our approval and we thereby stifle their sense of wonder and creativity. And this ultimately produces the ugly fear of failure.

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