If I Don’t Try Then I Can’t Fail – Putting Your Goals on Hold?

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?

Emotion-Focused Coping

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:

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Reset Your Goals – First Day of Spring

The euphoria of the New Year has long evaporated by now. Stumbling with our goals is often interpreted as failure and a reason to give up. However, going off track is more likely feedback that the goal’s action plan needs to be adjusted. As we seem to put a significance of key dates as starting points for our goals, there’s a good argument to revise, refine and reset out goals on the first day of Spring. It’s the perfect day for new beginnings.

Working as a coach I work with clients to set goals all year round. That’s not to say we can’t borrow a little momentum from a significant date. The most common reasons for stumbling on goals are that the goals are unrealistic. Usually people take on too much given their circumstances. Goals may have been vaguely described which means it’s difficult to keep a track of when you are on track or not. The other main reason is one of motivation. The significance of a particular day is simply not enough to carry us through when times get tough. So spend some of this first day of Spring reading the following posts, renewing your goals and getting back on track.

More on goals:

Saying ‘No’ to New Year’s Resolutions & ‘Yes’ to Positive Lasting Change

New Year, new you? No chance, no change?

Every New Year our attention is drawn to personal change, which we translate, into intention in the form of resolutions. So why do they fizzle out? What’s the problem? Yes, we  start with good intention and take action, but the problem is that, more often than not, we simply don’t have a well-thought out action plan. We need a well-defined target, not a fuzzy vague ‘over there somewhere’. New Year’s resolutions simply don’t work for a number of very good reasons. So, let’s begin by looking at six common problems with them, and how to put them right:

Negativity
‘Losing’, ‘giving up’, ‘cutting out’ and ‘cutting down’ all have negative connotations. However, we tend to respond better to positively stated goals, such as ‘aiming for a target weight’ or ‘increasing healthy foods‘ or ‘increasing variety in foods‘ and ‘boosting energy levels‘.

Vagueness
Classic New Year’s Resolutions are always rather vague and wishy washy. So, it’s difficult to reach a target that’s not clearly defined.  So once, you’ve got your positively worded direction, it’s best to get specific. What exactly are you going to do to hit your target. What are the behaviours? Target specific actions, such as drinking seven glasses of water and going to the gym three times a week for 45 minutes each time.

Immeasurable
In order to measure your progress you need to make your goals measurable. Ask yourself lots of ‘how’ questions, such as ‘how much’, ‘how many’, and how often’. Just doing something ‘more often’ is vague and immeasurable. Also build up to your target so you don’t feel overwhelmed. Build steady progress into your routine, and where possible break larger goals down into smaller milestones.

Unachievable
Each year we psych ourselves up for the new year. It feels so now or never.   Of course we need goals that are going to stretch us or else we’d soon get bored. However, it’s pointless setting impossible goals. Our goals need to be achievable. Are your goals within your capabilities?

Unrealistic
It’s common to tackle too many things at once or over-plan every minute of your day. Be realistic and pick one thing at a time to work on. That way you build your confidence.

Open-ended (never-ending)
If you goal is your ‘preferred end state’ then you need a ‘preferred end date’. Putting a time scale on it helps with motivation. It provided a sense of ‘urgency’ about the goal.

The SMARTER approach to New Year’s Resolutions is to set SMARTER goals:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time-bound
  • Enthusiastically (positively) worded
  • Regularly-reviewed

Goal-setting is not a one shot deal. It’s a process. If you find your progress is slower than expected or you find yourself not hitting those milestones when expected, then GO BACK AND REVIEW! It’s only failure if you fail to use the feedback. Have a look to see if your goals really are realistic and achievable for your person circumstances. If you need to, make changes are try again. Don’t wait until next New Year’s day. . . get right back to it straight away.

Saying ‘No’ to New Year’s resolutions and using SMARTER as well as other goal-setting tools and techniques (such as PAR and GO-FLOW) means that instead of vague statements of wishful thinking, you will have concrete, action plans to channel your resources. So make your final resolution to ditch resolutions and start setting goals. . . not just once a year when you’re caught up in the New Year fever. . .but any time you want to take charge and make changes. . . positive lasting change!

[Adapted from Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It!‘]

Links:


2 Metaphors for Learning: The Baby and the Fly

Let’s consider two role models for your learning and  personal development: the baby and the fly. Now I’m going to start by assuming that you have more in common with a baby than a common house fly, or at least I hope you have.

The Baby
Babies learn to work by trial and error. It makes an attempt to walk but quickly topples over and lands on it’s butt! The shock may make the baby cry but what does it do? Give up, try exactly the same again or try something slightly different? Well by this time the baby has a working hypothesis of what’s working and what isn’t based on feedback of previous butt-floor encounters. Baby may decide to shift weight a little in one direction, do a slightly different thing with the arms and so on. The original plan stays pretty much the same after all it did resulting in standing an a first step. After that it’s a cause of  using a continual improvement approach. Sometimes progress is slow but nevertheless it keeps going forward: try-think-tweak-try-think-tweak-try!

Now let’s consider the fly.

The Fly
Imagine there’s a fly in you house. (If that offends you then imagine it’s in my house). Not being blessed with such a sophisticated processing system, the fly thinks that if it can see through a window, then it must be able to fly through a window. Of course, it collides with the window, over and over again. Unlike the baby, the fly doesn’t reflect but continues to head-butt the glass, even though there may be an open window close by. The fly doesn’t see the opportunities or look for solutions other than ‘persistence pays’. And yes, full marks to both the fly and the baby for persistence, but bonus marks to the baby for using the feedback and knowing to adjust the plan and trying something different. What we need is persistence in formed by feedback with an eye on opportunities viewed through ‘solution-focused’ lenses.

Now, human being are much smarter than flies. Just compare diets for a start. However, sometimes in moments of blinkered persistence we behave like the fly or else give up altogether. Babies are like little scientists performing experiments and that’s how they manage to learn so much in short a short space of time.

Babies learn; flies use your food as their lavatory. What do you want as your role model?


[Adapted from Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It]

Links:

Experiments in Personal Development: Feedback Not Failure!

All too often we don’t chase our goals through fear of failure. Sometimes we feel its easier to spare the disappointment by not trying at all. However this approach is based on a faulty assumption that when things don’t work out the first time it is failure. However more often than not it’s not failure at all. It’s feedback!

As infants learning to walk you didn’t give up the first time your butt hit the floor. Rather, you sat there thought about it a while and tried again. More importantly you tried something slightly different until you found something that worked. You learned from the mistakes and built on your successes.  Now just think of the amazing capacity for learning that we have as babies. As adults we kind of forget the ‘feedback not failure‘ approach and as a result we miss opportunities to learn.

As a coach, I use the concept of ‘personal experiments‘ which offers my clients a low-threat strategy for pursuing their goals. So, if you want to make a life change,  tackle it as a personal experiment. Try the first step as a personal experiment. Try it on for size and get some feedback. If it works out, that’s great. Move onto stage two. However if it doesn’t quite work out, then use the feedback to adjust your plan. What do you need to do slightly differently to get closer to the result you’re looking for? It’s not a ‘one-shot deal’, it’s a process. So, repeat this process, just as you used to do as a child.

As you can see, with this approach there is no intrinsic sense of failure. It’s all feedback and nothing to fear.

Links:

Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It

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