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You Don’t Succeed By Trying To Not Fail

Focus on where you want to go not on what you want to avoid


Photo by dan garri on Unsplash

You steer where you look

When you learn to ride a motorcycle, they tell you to look where you want to go. Clearly you need to identify obstacles or dangers but once you have, you immediately shift to the path you need to take to avoid them.


I remember when I was first riding I was on an exit ramp and kind of froze in fear heading straight for the barrier. Luckily I remembered my training and forced my eyes to turn away from the danger and back to the road. I was able to smoothly steer back onto my path but to this day I can still visualize that barrier looming large in my vision.*


This lesson carries over into how we should be living our lives. Our attention, our focus, needs to be on our goals not on our obstacles. We need to take our eyes off trying to avoid bad things and focus on where we want to go.


At first glance it seems reasonable to identify obstacles. How else do we avoid getting stuck, right?


Goals define obstacles

But something is an obstacle only in the context of how it prevents us from reaching a specific goal.


A child-proof cap is an obstacle to an elderly person with a goal of getting the medicine out but it is a benefit to a parent with the goal of preventing a child from accidentally poisoning themselves.


The point is that without a clear goal, you can’t define what is preventing you from getting there. And by worrying about failing when you haven’t even defined success, your obstacles become arbitrary. Do that too much and soon all you see are obstacles.


But you must keep in mind that we don’t do this because we are messed up, it’s not that there is something wrong with you. There is a very good reason we focus on obstacles: dead people can’t make decisions.


Our instincts are designed for the caveman world where underestimating danger could result in death. Messing up in that environment meant you could be killed. The stakes couldn’t be any higher.


That is why fear is such a prime driver and something we find very difficult to ignore. It’s hard for you to pull your attention away from what could go wrong. But by only focusing on avoiding what could go wrong you end up losing sight of any goal at all and see everything as an obstacle.


You no longer have the context of the goal in mind to determine whether something is an obstacle. You can no longer judge whether that child-proof cap is a benefit or an obstacle.


Growth requires struggle

But the real kicker is that once you get locked into this path of always trying not to screw up, you are never going to make the mistakes you need to make in order to learn.


You don’t learn anything by doing something right, by definition you already knew that was the right approach. You add to your knowledge only by doing things wrong.


If you are only focused on not screwing up then all you can rely on is what you already know.

If you’re already a success, then bully for you. No need to change.


But if you are not a success then clearly what you currently know isn’t enough. You have to push yourself to take a risk to learn more.


Change is better if the status quo sucks

Even if you don’t have a specific goal in mind, just focus on something that is different than what you are doing now.


If you are not currently successful then don’t worry about whether any new path you aim for is going to allow you to succeed since you’ve already proved that your current path is going to fail. Starting anything new is automatically better because it could possibly succeed.


It’s more risky to stay on the path of guaranteed failure than it is to try something which could fail or could succeed.


By doing something new, even something random, you don’t know if it will succeed or fail so no matter what you will learn something. You will either learn to stop that new thing and do something else or to continue to do it if it turns out well.


Balls over talent

The path to success takes the courage to persevere through failure not the talent to never fail.


If feel like you’re stuck and you don’t know how to not fail, stop trying. Instead, be brave and keep trying until you figure out how to succeed.


*Speaking of riding, if you ever decide to get a bike take the motorcyle safety foundation’s basic rider course first, it WILL save your life: msf-usa.org