Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Degrees of success

File:Degree-Radian Conversion.svg
What is the difference between 0 and 1? 

The most obvious answer, and the one most people would say, is 1.  Simple math will tell you that. 

However, if you consider all the possible points along the way (0.1, 0.2, 0.3, etc.), your answer suddenly takes on a much different meaning.  In essence, the difference between 0 and 1 could be infinity.
I have seen a number of articles recently about how to rethink failure as a means of inspiring innovation and discovery.  My observation is that there are two general ways failure has been examined.  The first is based on the idea that by not fearing failure, we can free ourselves to accomplish great things.  The second is that by accepting failure as a growth event, we learn more about how to get better and can sue those lessons to improve our work.

Neither approach promotes failure as something we should want, but rather a natural part of development.  I tend to agree with that view.  However, such conversations can easily fall into the trap of examining outcomes in very black and white terms (failure or success) and I wonder if doing so creates a fixed mindset that ultimately discourages risk taking.  After all, in order to chance failure, you need to take risks and risk taking is a quality more often seen by people with growth mindsets, not fixed ones.

It is at this point, the fail or succeed only view, that I find myself wondering, "Are there really only two possible outcomes?  Can we not have degrees of success?  Is that not allowed?"

I suggest we view the attainment of goals as a series of gradually increasing degrees of success.  Since doing so may be difficult for some at first, I also propose a slightly different question to ask in order to maintain that focus.

Here is a common question when discussing goals.  "Did you achieve what you set out to achieve?"  The problem with the question is that it only allows for two answers, "Yes" or "No."  In other words, did you succeed or did you fail?  Unless you achieved all you set out to do, you are forced to focus on the negative, the failure; and no matter how much you may want to view failure as a growth opportunity (which it is), you still need to deal with the negative aspects of having failed.

Now, look at the exact same situation, but from a slightly different angle.  Ask yourself, "How close did you come to achieving what you set out to achieve?"  This question is open ended.  It requires reflection and careful attention to actual performance.  The scrutiny used to answer the question may even allow you to identify more clearly the places along the way that you need to adjust in order to move closer to achieving all you want to achieve.

I agree that if we are to accomplish great things, we need to take risks and try to do what we have not previously done, but is it necessary to risk failure?

Can't we take a chance on success instead?
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