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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‘Are You Fit and Ready for Goal-Setting’ Quiz?

Fit and Ready for Action

At the most basic level, an attitude is a feeling or evaluation towards something, that is, our likes and dislikes. So, we can have an attitude towards just about everything, from foods, to people, to situations and courses of action. If we look at the Latin origin of the word ‘attitude’ it means ‘fit and ready for action’. So, attitudes create ‘a mental state of readiness’. Just like athletes on the starting line they provide the’ get ready and steady’ before the ‘go’. However, although they prime us ready for action, it doesn’t mean that we will always ‘go’. Attitudes don’t necessarily lead to behaviour; they just set up the mindset to make it more likely. So, for instance, you may have the attitude that going to the gym and eating healthily are good for you but that doesn’t automatically mean that you’ll follow up on this and do either of them.

Coaching as Attitude Change

As a social psychologist I have incorporated my specialism of attitudes into my coaching practice. Essentially the coaching process is a process of attitude change. Part of the process involves exploring attitudes to the self, the way the world works and our place in it and the benefits of setting goals. For many of us our first experience of goal-setting is the ill-fated new year’s resolution that tend to fizzle out after a few weeks. So perhaps it is not surprising that goal-setting, for some people, has a bad name. However, this attitude may prove a barrier to personal and professional development. We know that one of the conditions to maximize learning is to start with a positive mental attitude. It’s more difficult to retain knowledge if you resent having to learn it!

Attitudes have three components (ABC): affect (feelings), behaviour (actions) and cognitions (thoughts) and . Coaching deals with thoughts and feelings about ourselves, the world and how we act and interact in the world. It’s often expressed as ‘the viewing influences the doing, and vice versa’. Coaching can help to change feelings and thoughts and create a mental state of readiness for action. Goal-setting provides that extra nudge to take action. It’s often said that ‘if there ain’t goals then it ain’t coaching’.

In order to explore your attitudes to goal-setting, here is a brief quiz.

Are You Ready for Goal-Directed Action Quiz?

For each of these statements just answer (circle) true or false. For the purposes of this test there is no maybe.

  1. True or False? I’ve done alright so far, so why bother with goal-setting now?
  2. True or False? If I achieve my goals, people will expect even more of me.
  3. True or False? I get weighed down by the idea of a constant, lifelong pursuit of goals, and yet more goals.
  4. True or False? If I don’t try then I won’t fail.
  5. True or False? I don’t need to set goals.
  6. True or False? Things tend to work out as fate intended whether or not I set goals.
  7. True or False? I don’t want to feel constrained by goal chasing.
  8. True or False? Goals are just another way of getting us to ‘tow society’s line’.
  9. True or False? All the energy I spend setting goals may as well be used to get the job done.
  10. True or False? I’m just not a goal-setting kind of person.

What do your goal-setting quiz results mean?

If you answered ‘false’ to most of the questions it suggests that you are ready to take the plunge and set goals. Otherwise, you may already been routinely setting and achieving goals. If you answered mostly ‘true’ it indicates that you are not mentally ready to set goals. Perhaps you are more inclined to let the hand of fate sort it out. That isn’t resolution; that’s resignation.

Goals as Future-Desired Outcomes

There is debate as to whether we have all become somewhat ‘goal-obsessed’. This is more of a problem if you are just setting goals for goals’ sake. If the ‘future desired outcomes’ for your goals are personally meaningful to you, then goal-setting can help to streamline the personal development process. It take a lot of the ‘hit and miss’ out of the process.  So, review the questions in the quiz and consider the ‘true’ questions. What evidence can you find to challenge these statements? Have you attitudes to goal-setting changed (enough for you to give it a go)?

Goal-Setting Approaches

In my early coaching training, I learned to use goal-setting models (in the form of acronyms) and have developed some myself – GO-FLOW). However some people prefer not use such a prescriptive system. In my coaching practice I use Solution-Focused Brief Coaching which involves a series of focused conversations. Instead of acronyms, I ask questions to tap into your imagination, take stock of your strength, skills and achievements and ask you to consider small meaningful steps forward. Although I structure the process, each time its very different depending on the client who decides what the steps should be.

We all have goals. We all value and pursue different things. Goal-setting methods and systems can help us to signpost the way forward and encourage and motivation us to take action. After all, if there ain’t action then they ain’t goals.

Links:

Studying, Highlighter Pens, Defacing Books and Learning

Scribbling on Books

Picture: Highlighting Books is NOT an active learning strategy

Highlighting books is NOT an active learning strategy

One of my pet hates is seeing books covered in fluorescent highlighter pen. On one occasion I lent a student a pristine, personal copy of a book that was in high demand in the library. My reward? It came back defaced in highlighter pen!  I was not pleased and the student didn’t seem to see it as a problem. I recently found out that one of my favourite writers, Oscar Wilde, would routinely scribble in the margins of his personal books. For some people it’s part of an active learning process. Hopefully, most would agree that it’s unacceptable to daub library books and other people’s books with your own personal thoughts (and ‘pretty’ colours). However, is the practice of daubing a book with highlighter pen a good learning technique?

Annotating Books: A Good Learning Technique?

As much as I disapprove of both, there is a fundamental difference in terms of learning between writing notes on books and daubing fluorescent highlighter pen on books. The Wildean approach is all about engaging with the material at a deeper level. Highlighting bits of a book is surface response ‘Ooh that looks as if it might be interesting’. Recognizing that something might be useful is at much shallower level than adding your own thoughts about the material.

Deep versus Shallow Learning

Students often engage in shallow learning techniques such as repeatedly (but passively) reading through notes (and using highlighter pens). Another favourite is recording lectures. There’s also photocopying. All of them require some form of action and some a great deal of effort. The problem is that they create the illusion of learning rather than actually learning. It’s important to engage with the material on a deeper level. Reader through notes only aids recognition not recall. You recognize the material when you see it which is not much use in an exam. You need to be able to recall it, spontaneously. Highlight falls into the same category, for the reasons described above. Recording lectures allows you to put in less effort at processing the information during the lecture. Often people don’t actually listen to their recordings or if they do, it’s only passively. Unless you have a sensory impairment you would be much better off paying attention in lectures and focus on trying to get the gist of the material. It’s more helpful to write down questions that occur during the lectures. These questions will help to guide and shape your reading after the lecture. The lecture is the starting point of your learning, not the be-all-and-end-all!

Students seem to have an almost passionate affair with the photocopier and copy much more material than copyright laws allow and much more than they can usually read. There’s no point in copying material if you are not going to read it. The knowledge will not be transmitted by a form of osmosis! It’s probably a much better strategy to spend time in the library, read the passage and make your own notes, not on the book, in your note pad! Of course some universities wantonly profiteer from photocopying and arguably turn a blind eye to breaches of copyright law (despite the notices). Surely you have noticed how much more expensive it is to photocopy on campus than at a local shop? You are just topping up your fees and you’re not necessarily learning. Owning a pile of paper is not the same as knowledge.

A Better Strategy for Learning

If you spend time writing stuff in your notepad you already engage more cognitive processes. If you read a passage in a book don’t just copy it out. Pause, think about it and write it down in your own words. The idea is that you condense the material rather than faithfully reproduce it.

If you photocopy material then go though it and make your own notes in the margins. Add some of your own thoughts. Make connections to other areas of knowledge. Write down some questions and then research them.

If you record your lectures (and assuming you have permission from lecturers to make recordings) then review the material afterwards. Make a written summary of the recording. You don’t need a word by word account. Personally, I wouldn’t bother recording on a routine basis. It encourages laziness. Better to engage fully at the time.

Being an Active Learning and Building Confidence

Active learning is much more likely to lead to understanding than is the passive, daub-on-it-record-it-photocopy-it approach. Passive learning is also very boring.  Just putting in time is not studying. Just being there is not enough! You have to participate more fully in the learning experience. The extra effort in actively engaging with learning will save you time in the end and help you to achieve better grades. Active learning is also more likely to build confidence in your abilities as you understand what you are learning and are able to recall it more readily and make connections.

So please stop daubing over your books and other people’s books. If you want to colour something in, then buy a colouring book.

Check out these posts on study skills:

More Personal Development Quotations

More of my favourite motivational quotations:

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.

– Marcel Proust

In the field of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind

– Louis Pasteur


In times of change the learners will inherit the earth, while the learned will find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists

– Eric Hoffer

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

Changez Votre Vie!

Music to Study By

There has been some research into the effects of background music on learning, in particular the Mozart Effect with young children. Essentially babies focus on novelty when learning and the complexity of classical music provides plenty of novelty for their young ears. It boosts mental arousal which means, in theory, they are more attentive generally.

From the research on human performance we learn that faster tempo music helps to boost mental arousal levels when tackling boring tasks, so you could try this with the dull stuff. It doesn’t have to be classical musical, although it should be instrumental as words tend to get in the way. You want to focus on the learning material not the chorus to your favourite rock anthem (such as Alice Cooper’s School’s Out). You could also try putting on your favourite music with the dull stuff. It should help a little with motivation and a little of the music’s magic may even rub off on the dull material. After all, we do tend to learn more effectively when we are in a positive state.

For the more complex material requiring a greater degree of concentration, music with a slower tempo would be more useful, for two main reasons. Firstly, it will help to focus attention and blank out background distractions. Secondly, when trying to get to grips with tougher material to study, which can be stressful, slower music can help to relax us and focus our attention.

There are CD collections of slower classical pieces, such as largos and adagio. Music stores also often have a ‘Meditation’ rack in their classical section which are ideal. My recommendations are confined to European classical music but any type of instrumental music is fine. There’s also a wealth of  new-age type meditation and relaxation music that you could use, if that’s your thing.

Overall, it’s important to remember that music tastes are very personal. So, when choosing music for studying, go for something you like or at least feel neutral about. It’s really all about helping you to focus and improving the leady environment and experience. Forcing yourself to listen to music that irritates you is going prove more of a hindrance than a help. Ideally make yourself short collections that last around 30 minutes and study intensely for this time, then take a short break. See also my study skills tips for further details on this technique of short study periods followed by short breaks.

Recommendations:
Try pieces like: Vivaldi’s Largo from ‘Winter’ from The Four Seasons; Bach’s Air on a G String (no jokes please); Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor for Strings, or  Pachelbel’s Canon in D. You could also try ambient music such as Brian Eno’s Music for Airports.

PS: After reviewing the evidence on subliminal learning tapes for Evidence of Things Not Seen, we concluded that there was no evidence to support the bold assertions made. Any effect, if any, is most likely down to the placebo effect and you’d be better off just making your own compilation tape of favourite stuff, as outlined above. Being in a positive mental attitude is far more beneficial for learning.

Links:

 

The Dangers of Social Networking: Are We Frying Our Brains? Is it 21st Century Onanism?

Social networking: Are we in danger of infantilization?

Social networking: Are we in danger of infantilization?

Internet social networking has now become the target for age old debate on harmful media influences. Leading neuroscientist Professor Susan Greenfield has speculated that as we spend too much time on sites such as Facebook and Twitter, we run the risk of infantalizing the mid-21st mind. However haven’t we heard similar arguments before most notably with TV and video games, right back to the chivalry books of Don Quixote?  Indeed eerily similar warnings of the dangers of on-line social networking were also made for masturbation (onanism) in the 19th century. According to Lord Baden-Powell, such ‘beastliness’ was said to destroy both health and spirits so that the practitioner becomes ‘feeble in body and mind and often ends in a lunatic asylum’. Is social networking becoming the onanism of the 21st century?

Too much on-line onanism?

Too much on-line onanism?

At best, Prof. Susan Greenfield’s comments are conjecture. She admits that there is no evidence to support her assertions (see Newsnight link below). So why bother then? Well, she’d just like the government to provide some funding to satisfy her hunch.  But by contrast, oh the bells, the alarm bells from Dr Aric Sigman who claims that there is ample evidence although, according to Dr Ben Goldacre (Bad Science) Sigman only bothers to look at half of it (see link below). In short, the half that would provide us with a balanced scientific perspective is missing.  It is worth pointing out that Dr Sigman’s piece does not cite any research that he carried out (although it’s difficult to tell as he did not cite the full list of authors in his reference list, so he may be in there somewhere). The paper looks to be a  literature review with his own conclusions and he concedes (in the Newsnight interview) that it is meant to be a one-sided piece intended to provoke discussion, something he appears to specialize in (see: In Bed With Mary Whitehouse). The paper is based on the assumption that Internet social networking increases isolation and loneliness which in turn leads to health problems.

As with many of these media-scare stories, the more dramatic conclusions require a leap of faith that correlational studies indicate causation. They do not.  So for instance, does Internet social networking increase isolation and loneliness or do lonely and isolated people seek out a means to make themselves less so? This could mean that on-line social networking is a positive thing. And perhaps we should for a moment consider e-learning’, providing wider educational opportunities? No, the ‘e’ doesn’t stand for evil!

Dr Sigman speaks of displacement arguing that children are sitting in front of a computer when they could be out socializing with friends. However, couldn’t the same argument be made for watching television (er, yes it has), reading and even doing homework. I know I would have rather been out playing ‘kick the can’ as a child, when I was stuck in doors reading about the printing press and how it gave ‘the great unwashed’ ideas above their station (pretty much in the same way as the Internet does today). Worries that children can be too ‘bookish’ are now largely overlooked in favour of newer ‘dangers’. And presumably, on-line social networking has displaced ‘staring aimlessly out of the window on a rainy day’ too.

Sigman has also made the claim that we can only be friends with someone if we can shake hands with them. That’s assuming that everyone has hands and  that they can shake them! He also makes questions whether we should be chatting on-line to people across the globe instead of playing with ‘real friends’. Has he forgotten ‘penpals’ at school, the practice of writing to complete strangers in different countries? It was heartily encouraged! As a social psychologist, I would have thought connecting with people from other lands was a good thing (in contrast with good old-fashioned, small-minded, back-porch xenophobia). However, some evidence suggests young people are using online social networking primarily to enhance existing friendships and interaction with ‘e-friends’ is secondary. Unfortunately Facebook only uses th category ‘friends’ for all online contacts. It doesn’t mean that each and every is viewed the same; users may make their own distinctions. Thinking about my own experience. I have over 600 contacts in my email contact list although only 20 that I use frequently. It is not a coincidence that these are the people with whom I have the greatest face-to-face contact.  In short, much of the headline-seeking, scare mongering stems from a failure to understand how the average user uses online social networking, instead indulging in worst case scenarios. I could go on but instead invite you to read Sigman’s article and with the aid of Goldacre’s response ask you to think of alternative explanations that make up the whole of the picture. And while you’re at it consider how Greenfield throws together a heap of ideas and assumptions that do not necessarily have to be connected in the same way as she does.

So are we all twittering ourselves into oblivion?

Much has been made of the ‘rewiring our brains’ hypothesis and Prof Greenfield has speculated that in middle of the 21st Century – that is in about 40 years time –  our brains will be different. This seems a little premature to say the least. Sigman would warn us about exposing young brains to novel experienes but this also includes just about everything at school. Children have an enormous capacity for integrating new experiences. Chances are the world will be a different place and yes humans will adapt. Isn’t that learning? In the long-term isn’t it evolution?

We simply do not have the evidence to assess the extent of brain changes  and it certainly won’t just be all down to how much time we spend chatting to our real or ‘virtual friends’. Life is so much more quixotic! It’s also important to recognise that new technologies impact on different people in different ways. The diffusion of any innovation is such that we have innovators, early adopters, the late majority with laggards, er . . lagging behind.   So will we have a sliding scale of brain-mush? Will the ‘slow on the uptake’ be spared?  Again, more conjecture. It’s simply not possible, nor scientific, to conclude that any changes will be for the worst  and to pretend that ‘brain infantilization’ or ‘hairy-palmed isolation’ are  foregone conclusions (or even likely) is at best bad science. It’s just another example of not letting the evidence get in the way of  a good story.

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