You can learn a lot from watching a toddler try to walk. From the first attempt to stand, to those first successful few steps, it’s one failure after another. Stand up, fall down. Take a step, tip over.
The remarkable part of the process is that all that falling down doesn’t seem to deter kids much. Falling–or failing–over and over again doesn’t seem to bother them at all.
Part of the reason is that they don’t know they’re failing. For a one-year-old, the process is pretty straightforward: try, learn, try, learn, try, learn….and then walk. It’s a remarkably effective formula.
The Failure Myth
As we grow older, though, that process shifts. After those first few steps, it’s not long before we begin to replace “learn” with “fail”. From red pen strokes in school to expensive blunders in business, we quickly come to believe that perfection is the goal, and screwing up is a costly and embarrassing sign that we lack talent or intelligence.
Somewhere between those first attempts to walk, and our first C- in the classroom, we begin to internalize a dangerous idea: that failure is bad. Instead of seeing mistakes as signposts on the route to success, like we did as kids, we begin to see them as sure signs that we’re headed in the wrong way. It’s a false belief that I call the Failure Myth.
Much of the rest of our life experience only reinforces the Failure Myth. Don’t mess up. It means you’re dumb. Don’t get it wrong–people will laugh. And so we begin to pull back. That reckless toddler we once were–the one who tried to stand over and over again only to fall down–is replaced by someone less daring. Someone more conservative.
Someone who’s afraid to fail.
The Danger of Not Failing
The danger in the Failure Myth isn’t that it makes us feel bad for making mistakes. It’s that it stops us from taking action. And when we stop taking action, we stop making progress, and perhaps more important, we stop learning. The myth fools us into thinking that failure is the opposite of success, when in fact it’s the path to reach it.
After all, what if you never got back up after that first attempt as a toddler?