When I was 12 years old, Mr Pretorius, my sadistic, South African high jump teacher, favoured a triangular, metal high jump bar over the usual fibreglass pole or bamboo stick. He would have wrapped it in barbed wire if he could: his theory was that failure should be painful but rare. The more that failure hurt, the less likely it became. My fear of knocking the bar off and landing back-first on its skin-scraping metal corners would spur me on to jump ever-increasing heights. Of course, since it was physical ability rather than mental toughness that held me back, the only thing it spurred me to do was to give up high jump classes as soon as possible.
Although Mr Pretorius was wrong, there is a kernel of an interesting idea here. In many cases it’s not our lack of ability that stops us succeeding. We fail because we don’t bother getting started; or once we start we don’t stick at it; or we don’t really want to succeed; or playing just one more game of Mario Kart is more appealing than knuckling down and solving that knotty problem.
People often say they fear failure, but it’s not failure they fear but failing in public. Failing in private, when nobody finds out, is easy: making a total tit of yourself in front of strangers or – even worse – people you respect is scary. It’s something most of us will do almost anything to avoid.
We can take this fear of failure and flip it round so it becomes a powerful motivator. Here’s my suggestion: to succeed, put yourself in a position where failure is publicly embarrassing.
On the Joel on Software forums, people often post asking if they should start their Micro ISV, or they’re earning some money and should they go full time. I say just go for it. But don’t tip-toe half-heartedly into it, telling nobody and keeping the safety net of the day job. That’s not going to help you succeed. Jump into it head-first, shouting and screaming; tell the world what you’re going to do.If you fail, people will point at you and mock you, snigger at your misguided audacity and say they always knew it was never going to work. You don’t want that, so you’re more likely to succeed.
Here’s an example I’ve used before. At last year’s Business of Software conference there was a point when it wasn’t looking good. I only had 30 attendees signed up. I – and people I trusted – were questioning its viability. The least risky option would have been to quietly back down and cancel. But I decided to go ahead, knowing that there was a reasonable chance that the conference would flop and that I’d embarrass myself. That was the psychological turning point: it was the moment that I made an absolute commitment to running the conference, no matter what the consequences, or how foolish I’d end up looking. It was also the moment that things started to pick up, and I don’t think that was a coincidence.
If you’re feeling really brave you can artificially raise the stakes. Make a stupid, public bet, for example. Want to leave your day job but aren’t sure that you’ll succeed? Tell people that you’re going to run through the streets of New York in a gorilla suit if you haven’t given up work and made your first sale by this time next month. That should be a powerful motivator. Let me know how it goes.
So go on: be bold, and risk making a tit of yourself.