Better the Devil You Know?
‘If I don’t try then I can’t fail’ is a common theme in counselling, therapy and coaching. People may be stuck in a rut but it’s a familiar and comfortable. It’s the same as the old adage ‘Better the devil you know’. It’s basically a fear of the unknown and has its origin in the messages we picked up in childhood from teachers, parents and other authority figures. ‘If I don’t try then I won’t fail’ is part of our self-defeating inner dialogue.
Re-running Negative Scripts
One of the things parents worry about is protecting their children from failure, disappointment and hurt. They often try to discourage their offspring from taking on new challenges. However consider the basic process of learning to walk. That’s all about failure, disappointment and falling over a lot. Playing a computer game is all about failure and disappointment. Think of early computer games systems that took ages to load and crashed frequently. It didn’t seem to dent their popularity. It’s amazing what people will put up with when they focus on the outcome (the pay off). Failure and disappointment are key parts of the learning process. It’s clear that we tackle many challenges without engaging the ‘If I don’t try then I can’t fail’ script. It’s clear that in some instances we think of disappointment and failure in different ways. Disappointment is a recognition that a goal means something to you. It taps into your values in some way. Failure is more often just feedback in the learning process. However if you keep running that protective-parent script then you trade-off your goals and ambitions for the ‘comfort of misery’.
Putting ”If I don’t try then I can’t fail’ to the Test
This is where I get blunt. I want you to apply the ’If I don’t try then I can’t fail’ test to a few mundane tasks:
- Getting out of bed: If you don’t try to get out of bed in the morning you can’t fail to get out of bed. True or false? If you’re still in bed, then you failed. If you just get out of bed and get straight back in, then you have succeeded.
- Getting a glass of water: If you don’t try to get a glass of water then you can’t fail to be thirsty! Keep up with this strategy and you won’t have to stop trying. Nature will take care of that for you.
- Going to the toilet: If you don’t try to go to the toilet then you will probably crap yourself! That’s not many people’s definition of success or even protecting oneself from disappointment.
It’s clear that the ’If I don’t try then I can’t fail’ is only valid in circumstances where there is more at stake than getting out of bed, dying of thirst or rolling around in your own faeces, namely your goals and ambitions.
What’s Really Important to You?
The ‘If I don’t try then I can’t fail’ approach offers you an opportunity to test how important something is to you. It’s an opportunity check out your values. If moving away from disappointment and a fear failure are strong motivators, then what do you want instead? Understanding how your values inform your decision-making has a major impact on goal achievement. Many people risk the loss of a small amount of money every week against the chance of winning a jackpot lottery. On a rollover week people often double their stake against potential increased rewards. What if the same approach was applied to goals? Somewhere along the way, our goals and ambitions have become bigger than a jackpot lottery. So consider what are your core values in life and what goal would you link to these values. What would you need to do to not look back on a life of regret?
At the heart of the ‘If I don’t try then I can’t fail’ approach is emotion-focused coping. Instead of tackling the cause of problems people often address the ‘symptoms’, namely the unpleasant emotions. Emotion-focused coping is a short-term approach. A slice of cake, chocolate or alcohol may dull the discomfort of painful emotions right now. However, this approach won’t be any help in getting to the root of the problem. The ’If I don’t try then I can’t fail’ approach is about anticipating negative emotions so that you won’t have to resort to cake. That’s as far as it goes. What is more beneficial is working out a series of small, calculated risks and taking action.
Small Steps to Confidence
In one of my confidence building workshops we offered funded places which means that people just had to sign up. They could attend a one-day workshop and lunch. On the face of it, there was such as thing as a free lunch. However, the people who signed up really had to put themselves out there. For some of them it may have seemed like a daunting prospect – a big risk. Many of my achievements came with a lot of pacing up and down and agonizing over decisions. However, on the day of the workshop, the sun was shining brightly and a some people didn’t turn up to the workshop. Instead, some of them went off to a theme park for the day and posted pictures on Facebook! Now these people knew that there was a waiting list to get on the workshop and so deprived others of the opportunity. The people who did make the effort to turn up were really annoyed by this and couldn’t let it go. It was a theme that would recur throughout the day. Eventually, I turned it around by asking ‘What’s the last thing you set out to do and achieved?’ People offered examples from the past when they ‘had more confidence’. I asked ‘What about this week?’ No one offered anything. I asked ‘What about today?’ Again blank looks. So I asked ‘What about getting to this work shop because clearly, as you have pointed out, quite a few people didn’t make it’. The whole room erupted with laughter. We then worked through the process by how they all go here including the decision-making and the practical planning.
Stripping the ’If I don’t try then I can’t fail’ approach right back to basics helps us to take stock of our skills and strengths. Tackling any goal however daunting is often about taking small, significant steps in the right direction using the very skills that get you out of bed in the morning. It’s not earth-shattering profound, but it does work. Confidence is built in small, meaningful steps!
Formula for Change
Begin by challenging negative self-talk, particularly the ’If I don’t try then I can’t fail’ script. Challenge it by seeing ‘failure’ as feedback and set low risk goals and assess the results. Assess what skills and strengths you have in everyday life (however seemingly mundane) and how they can be used in achieving your goals. Instead of focusing on the emotions spend more time picturing the end result, your future desired outcome. Focus on what values you meet by your everyday actions.
In reality there is never an ideal time to take action on a personal challenge. All we can do is start here and now with what we have, move forward and build on each step. If you stick to the ’If I don’t try then I can’t fail’ approach then the thing you most succeed at is regret. If that is one of your core values then that’s fine. If not then change the script.
Thanks to Sharon Hinsull for suggesting the theme for this blog post.
More posts by Gary Wood on the themes on failure, self-talk, regret, values and goals: