…although pessimists are often correct in their analyses, only optimists have ever changed the world for the better. Optimism however is not enough to improve humanity. Change happens when passionate people take risks and embrace failure.

 – Maria J. Stephan is a Ph.D. candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy[1]

 Advances in almost every field of knowledge, learning and development have been gleaned from the courage and willingness to risk failure.  Not just risk failure but embrace it over and over again, to find a better way or break through the barrier to success.

We all have stories about being punished for making mistakes, at school, in relationships with friends and family, or in the workplace.  Gradually, we learn that risk increases the margin for error and assume that to err means failure.  So, we learn how to “work the system” to our advantage and gain benefits and rewards for staying in the shallows and not “making waves”.   We become obedient girls and boys and model employees.  But somewhere, something valuable is lost.  No organisation can thrive with a staff of automatons.  They may survive but will never be at the cutting edge.

As babies and small children learning to walk and talk, we took risks and defied failure without hesitation.  As adults, perhaps not without reason, many of us are much more guarded in our risk-taking and more self-punishing when confronted with failure.  Through the socialisation process mediated through families, education, politics, religions, the media and other institutions, our instincts, desires and pursuits are channeled in socially acceptable and often sate ways.  While much of this may benefit the individual and society, so much is lost in terms of human potential, creativity and innovation.

I recently heard someone say that taking the safe option will definitely lead to failure.  It was a bold statement uttered with confidence and caused me to reflect on the times in my own life when I’d chosen that safe and secure path.  Sure enough, my experience has supported the theory.  The risk of failure is diminished but eventually the loss of potential at an individual or organisational level presents a far greater problem.  Creativity and innovation are stifled and almost imperceptibly, the life blood is drained, growth slows, discontentment increases and the focus zooms in on issues that replace or cloud the underlying cause of the malaise.  Then we move into fire-fighting, reactionary mode, churning up the water or spinning our wheels.  We burn up profits and accept complacency as the norm.

My work as an artist has provided me with countless opportunities for risk-taking and exploring the boundaries.  Learning to take risks did not come easily and has been a gradual process for me.  It takes courage to allow ideas to take physical form; there is a sense of putting oneself on canvas for all the world to see.  The different styles of work present different challenges, but from the first to the final stroke, many of my paintings are an emotional and creative roller coaster.  All the while there is a struggle for perfection, for a sense of completion and wholeness.  But I am learning to release fear, to trust, to allow experimentation and exploration, to persist and have faith that it will eventually all come together.  There is a need to lose sight of the final product, to release it and allow it to emerge for itself.  Through this process, I discovered that there is no waste in art (and in life) and there are no mistakes.  There is always a way forward, even if it means scraping off, painting over or making other changes.  Nothing is fixed and final.  When the journey is viewed as a whole, everything is a step in the right direction.

As individuals and organisations that genuinely want to make a difference in our fields of expertise and influence, we cannot afford to stay in the shallows.  To explore possibilities and determine which waves to ride, we need to let go of the shore and experiment.  Organisations need to actively encourage and support risk-taking, while acknowledging that there will be ebbs and flows.  Yes, there will always be the possibility of failure and loss, but without risk there can be no gain.   Just as we need to accept that as human beings, we will always make mistakes, as cutting edge organisations, we need to accept failure as part of success.   This needs to be acknowledged at all organisational levels.  Mistakes, false starts and experiments that fail all present us with opportunities for learning.  They show us what works and what doesn’t.  They present as signposts to other alternatives.  They help us to accept our humanity and develop compassion for others and may highlight the need for coaching, further training or support.  But they should never be cause for self-flagellation or recrimination of others.

Risk-taking and the courage to fail should be embraced and celebrated.  They may provide the undercurrents that lift us onto the next big wave and deliver us into the uncharted waters of huge success.


[1] Student Letters © 2006 Academy of Achievement