How To Succeed By Setting Yourself Up To Fail
What pressure performers know that we don’t
Do you ever get the unsettling feeling that you’re not messing up at work, but not exactly setting the world on fire either?
Your focus wavers. You struggle to get motivated. You even wonder why you’re doing what you’re doing. The hunger, passion, and joy that you started out with are nowhere to be found.
Left unchecked, you can lose sight of your goals and aspirations — and your boss can just as easily lose sight of you. Nobody wins.
The road to success is a long one. Sometimes we get stuck in second gear; if you drive a car, you know that’s not the best way to be moving.
This happens when we get too comfortable at work. Remember day one on the job? We were eager to prove ourselves, hungry for opportunities, and soaking up everything we could learn. Before long, we settled in nicely, usually with some small wins in the bag.
We start to think, “I got this. This isn’t so hard after all.” We relax and take our foot off the pedal. This is when complacency sets in.
“There are plenty of obstacles in your path. Don’t allow yourself to become one of them.” — Ralph Marston
To reach the next level of success, you may have to, ironically enough, set yourself up to fail.
Light a fire under you
Many people unwittingly self-sabotage their success. Procrastination, self-doubt, and people-pleasing are some of the main accomplices.
This is different. Intentionally putting yourself in a position where you’re likely to fail can have a positive effect on your focus and motivation.
It’s like lighting a fire under your butt. It’s not for the faint of heart, or mind. The higher likelihood of failure puts pressure on our performance.
We feel the heat, we smell burnt behinds, and our natural instinct to get our butt moving kicks in.
There’s good science behind this. In a landmark study dating back as far as 1908, psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson developed the inverted U-shaped model. It shows that when pressure increases in the early stages, individual performance doesn’t drop but actually improves.
Mixed martial arts extraordinaire Conor McGregor understands the value of pressure: “I don’t feel pressure in a negative way. I like pressure. No pressure, no diamonds.”
Gordon Ramsay even believes that pressure is necessary if you want to be successful: “As a soccer player, I wanted an FA Cup winner’s medal. As an actor you want an Oscar. As a chef it’s three-Michelin’s stars, there’s no greater than that. So pushing yourself to the extreme creates a lot of pressure and a lot of excitement, and more importantly, it shows on the plate.”
Kobe Bryant, one of the all-time clutch performers, shares his mental approach to pressure: “Everything negative — pressure, challenges — is all an opportunity for me to rise.”
Rise above it all
Pressure from likely failure can give rise to improved performance. For example, many professional creatives admit they do their best work when they are dangerously close to the deadline. When the possibility of missing the deadline becomes very real, they are able to crank up their motivation and focus. Their improved productivity led to better performance.
You may be wondering, what if I can’t cope with the pressure?
How we choose to perceive pressure can decide if we rise above it, or crumble under it.
Psychologists have shown that it is our mental approach to pressure that determines how well we cope with it.
When we take on a positive mental approach, we see pressure as a challenge. Our mind and body responds in a way to improve our performance; staying in control of our thoughts and emotions, sharpening our focus, and making better decisions.
But if we perceive pressure negatively, it becomes a threat that can paralyze our thoughts and abilities. Our confidence dips and our performance drops.
Over to you now
If you’re up for a challenge to push yourself closer toward your personal greatness, here’s how you can kick things up notch:
1. Acknowledge it if you’re neither bad nor great at what you do.
2. Create or take on a difficult challenge that will increase the pressure to perform/produce.
3. Adopt a positive mindset to the challenge.
4. Be aware of the pressure, but focus on meeting the challenge.
5. Take stock of what you’re learning from the experience.
Using potential failure as a motivational tool isn’t for everyone. For some, it can be a powerful shot in the arm to jolt themselves out of inertia and passivity. The confidence gained from succeeding (or failing) against the odds can bring more success in the future.
As the iconic adman Leo Burnett once said, “When you reach for the stars, you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.”
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Thanks for reading. I’m Victor Ng, an executive coach with a passion for writing. Get my free worksheet “Adversity to Advantage” to help reframe challenges and refocus on your goals.