Elite Lessons – Making failure possible


In order to make failure possible, you first have to try, to commit, to go where it may scare or even terrify you, to be vulnerable, to say “this might not work” and do it anyway.

Very recently I was disappointed to witness this first hand in someone. They were presented with a real opportunity, yet my sense is that it felt too scary to them to try, so instead, they creating a rationale for them to choose to back away and shut down. Rather than risk failure, they chose not to commit, to make the effort, to try.

By making the choice not to try, as Cate Campbell notes (see letter below) that person “let the fear of failure destroy the possibility of success”. We all have our own journey to go on, our own choices to make, and reflecting on that experience, today I’ll riff on this with lessons from two leaders.

First, Cate Campbell, one of swimming’s all-time greats, the World record holder in the 100m freestyle and one of the greatest relay swimmers of all time. However, in 2016 she “choked” (her words) at the Rio Olympics. The instagram post above is from when she completed the Rio competion, putting a brave face on her failure.

She then took almost all of 2017 off from the sport, and I had the great privilege of seeing her swim at her first major meet after that, the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, where she torched the field once again.

This week she published a letter to the “keyboard warriors” who attacked her after Rio, addressing her failure there. I encourage you to read it, it is humble, honest, self-responsible and full of lessons, not just for athletes but for all of us.

From my recent personal experience above, I give you this excerpt around “making failure possible”, highlights in bold are mine:

“It was a surreal experience coming back from Rio. I went into the Games as one kind of role model and came out another a very different one. I went in as a herald for achieving your goals, for making your dreams come true, for being a winner and I came out as Australia’s poster-girl for failure.

I felt that in failing, I was a failure. The two were synonymous. I have since learned that they are mutually exclusive.

I say I became Australia’s poster-girl for failing. I became the real personified version of Buzz Lightyear’s quote from Toy Story when he says “that wasn’t flying, that was falling with style”.

And if I have learned anything throughout this whole experience, it’s that the flying might not be as important as the falling.

Fear is a powerful thing. It’s what makes your heart beat faster when you are standing on the edge of the cliff.

Even though your feet are firmly planted on the ground, you fear falling.

In life, instead of falling, we fear failing.

I let the fear of failure destroy the possibility of success.

Yet I missed the crucial point that only in a place where failure is possible, is success possible. Most of our fear of failure comes from fearing what others will say about us. How we will be judged. Especially because of you, my faceless Keyboard Warriors, we are now exposed to more judgement than ever before.

Things that were once said behind our backs, now leave a permanent cyber brand on the World Wide Web, but more importantly, are etched in that same black text in our hearts.

Don’t worry, I’m not blaming you, I take full responsibility for my actions and performance (or lack thereof).

So here’s the point that I want to make. Let’s change the way we view failure.

It’s seen as a dirty word, something that we should be ashamed of. But let me tell you, it takes a hell of a lot of time, effort, diligence, perseverance and above all courage to get to a place where failure is possible.

I don’t judge anyone who chooses not to bravely risk failure, but I do encourage you to feel the fear, and, driven by the opportunity for great success, to do it anyway !

Now, the second leader is Seth Godin. His most personal and powerful book is The Icarus Deception, that I wrote about in “This might work – flying close to the sun“, saying:

“We all know the story of Icarus and his father Daedalus, and the warning of the father to not fly too close to the sun else the wax holding the feathers together on his wings would melt and he would crash into the sea. What we forget in our modern telling in our warning against hubris is that Icarus was also warned not to fly too low, else the humid ocean air similarly loosen the wax and send him crashing down to the ocean.

Seth Godin challenges us to ask ourselves how high will you fly? what kind of ruckus do you want to make ? Instead of saying to yourself “this might not work”, to commit to making your art, shipping it, and saying “this might work”!”

In whatever area of your life, work, business you wish to fly high, remember that it is only in making failure possible that you give yourself the opportunity to soar 🙏🏻