Courage to Fail pt. 1

Ok, now that I’ve already written this I can tell you that it’s going to be one of my more opinionated pieces. I know what you’re thinking – But Jonathan, you’re never opinionated. Right… Right? Nobody was thinking that? Oh. Well, anyway, I promise that part 2 will be a little more uplifting. Until then, enjoy.

It’s interesting how life works. Sometimes I sit down at my computer and I’m absolutely jazzed to write whatever my topic is going to be that week. Other times, I sit down and have no idea what I’ll be writing about. It’s much harder to create the time in your schedule to put words on paper when you’re not sure what they are going to be. As a result, I’ve started keeping a little list on my desktop. I jot things down on the list when I think they are interesting even though I have something else that I’m working on. I took a peek at the list today and found the statement – ‘Having the courage to fail and not crumble”. It should be interesting to see where this takes us. Let’s find out together.

I remember when I wrote this down. It was actually a statement that a friend made about me. They didn’t use the same words of course, but that was the way that I heard it. I couldn’t help but consider it a huge compliment. I want to explore the concept a little deeper. I’m going to dig into the reasons why this trait seems so rare. I’ll also explore how it works in a situation that everyone can relate to. Lastly, I plan to take it up to the conceptual level and frame it in a way that I hope makes it a little less threatening to think about.

Let’s start with rarity. It feels like we don’t see this trait very often anymore. When I think about the reasons that might explain this I come to an unpleasant one first. We’ve gone soft. It’s obviously not an intentional thing, but it does seem to fit. Let’s look at life from the view of a teenager in American history. In the revolutionary period a young teenager had responsibilities that were critical for the success of the household. If they didn’t do their chores then there wasn’t food on the table or firewood to keep warm. When the young man came of age he could finally leave the chores of the household behind…to pick up a gun and go to war in one of the many skirmishes that are glossed over when we remember that period in history today.

Things didn’t change much as time marched forward. Children played a major role in the success of a household. During the Civil War period many young boys had the distinction of being the man of the house as their fathers and older brothers went to war. Things began to change as the industrial revolution took hold. There were still teens at home, but another alternative was the opportunity to work in a hot, dark factory, earning pennies and bringing them back to contribute to the family just like dad.

The generations that have come after World War II have had a different experience which has led to a different set of expectations. The baby boomers had it significantly easier than their parents and made it even easier on their children. The boomers grandchildren have had it even easier. The chores are easier and less important. Work is a choice rather than a responsibility. In today’s society, a family who expected the same things of their children that our ancestors expected would be seen as abusive and might have the children removed from the household.

In an environment like that we are passing along the message that there is no reason to take a risk. A young person who has enjoyed 18 years of ease hasn’t had an opportunity to learn the value of taking a risk. Instead, they have been unleashed on society with a sense of entitlement and expectation. They are used to safety and security. The easiest way to achieve that? Don’t stand out. Aim for the middle; don’t be too good or too bad. Never expose yourself to risk and hope you get lucky when it comes to promotions. (Interestingly, the latest generation seems to be rebelling from this, but in a non-productive, work avoiding direction)

Is there anything inherently wrong with this? No, it’s what people have been raised to do. The only problem is that it does not lead to powerful people who lead meaningful lives. Instead it leads to a life of midlife crises and regrets. We were born to stand out, to be bold, strong individuals. But we’ve built a nice comfortable trap for ourselves and now we’re caught in it. When life is hard it is much easier to risk everything you have on the chance to be great. This is perfectly logical. What’s the worst that can happen, things are going to be hard? They already are! But when life is easy then things are different. For example, let’s look at middle managers in corporate America. Middle managers usually work hard. They tend to make decent money and can usually secure a solid middle class life for their families. Now imagine that a normal middle manager has come up with a good invention. Something that he thinks is a real money-maker. How likely is he to invest his savings and put his house up as collateral for a loan to try and market this invention and strike it rich?

Doesn’t seem very likely does it. Every once in a while you’ll find someone, but if they fail they end up as a cautionary tale for all of the other middle class people. They become an example that teaches us that it’s safer to stay where you are and stick with what you know instead of taking a risk. Sure, this is an extreme example, but the message is the truth. So much so that it becomes hard to take simple risks like challenging your boss when you know they are wrong or presenting an idea that will change the way business is done. Why? Because it’s safer not to stand out. After all, what if you’re wrong, then you might lose your reputation or even your job, and that’s the worst thing that can happen. Right?

Ok, I’m going to stop here. Next week I’ll continue the discussion about having the courage to take risks. Today’s article feels like it tackled the negative side of things, so next week I think we’ll finish up with the positive.

Until then, be blessed


Posted on May 22, 2011, in Personal Development and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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