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Fear of failure should not deter us from daring to aim high

The prospect of failing should not deter us from taking on challenges and pushing ourselves and our businesses to achieve more, says Sam Rees-Adams, professional standards director, IFP 

We live in an increasingly risk-averse society. Whilst some of us might be quite adventurous as investors, I wonder whether the situation is quite the same when it comes to other areas of our lives, particularly our professional lives. Nobody likes to fail; that’s a given and nobody sets out to fail; also a given. However, when we do fail at something it gives us the opportunity for a powerful learning experience.

Once we’ve got over the initial shock/disappointment/anger/disbelief, the learning process can truly begin. It’s not going to be comfortable, but it will be instructive. Anyone who has failed at something, learned from it and moved on to success will tell you that it made them more resilient. Employers often cite resilience as a must-have attribute and it’s a hard one to develop if you haven’t had to bounce back from something.

Daring to aim high

People who aren’t afraid to fail are often the most successful in business. It doesn’t always follow of course, but there is something to be said for daring to aim high, and accepting that the risk of failure will be higher than if you had been cautious. The rewards will be greater too, if you succeed, as that’s how the risk-reward ratio always works. It’s when it comes to capacity for loss that I think things are a little different and we often lose our nerve. In investment terms, capacity for loss is one dimensional – ie how much financial loss can you bear – but in professional life, failure has more than one dimension. We might lose out financially, but I think we worry far more about reputational damage. People have long memories and unlike a pure financial loss, which can be recouped, future professional successes will not necessarily wipe previous failure from the collective memory. That’s a scary thing to acknowledge and can often be a big thing to overcome.

How phenomenal could our achievements be?

But is that a reason not to try? I think there is a risk of selling ourselves short by being overly cautious. We recognise the benefits of under promising and over delivering but being too wedded to this as an approach to everything can hamper our opportunity to think big. When you’re setting business objectives, do you limit yourself to things you know you can deliver or do you go all out and include really challenging and aspirational things? Things you probably haven’t got a hope of achieving fully but are so great that you’ve simply got to try? Aiming high and falling short gets you further than aiming only where you’re sure you can reach. Sports people become successful by pushing themselves further than they ever thought possible, accepting that it may take large number of attempts to reach their goal, but never losing the belief that they will do it one day. If we applied that to everything in our working lives, how phenomenal could our achievements be?

So why not start 2015 by embracing failure – if not actual failure, then at least the concept of it, and accepting that failing at something is a price worth paying for the chance of greater success. Revisit your objectives for the year: are they safe and achievable or are they challenging and a bit of a gamble? If it’s the former, how can you increase the challenge? If we got to the end of 2015 being a little more tolerant of failure and acknowledging its potential for good, then that would be a year very well spent.

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